Schism or forced assimilation’ not an option, says Rowan Williams

Published July 20, 2008

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams at Canterbury Cathedral.

Canterbury, England
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams Sunday acknowledged that the Anglican Communion is “in the middle of one of the most severe challenges” in its history, but said “whatever the popular perception, the options before us are not irreparable schism or forced assimilation.”

Opening the first full plenary session of the Lambeth Conference, Archbishop Williams urged Anglicans not to be drawn by options being offered by both ends of the theological spectrum, saying “each of them represents something rather less than many – perhaps most – Anglicans over the last century at least have hoped for in their communion.”

Instead, Archbishop Williams said, “It is my conviction that the option to which we are being led is one whose key words are of council and covenant.”

Dismissing some suggestions that have been made by various groups to vest more power and authority to his office and to the meeting of primates of the communion, he said a more viable option would be that which offers a “vision of an Anglicanism whose diversity is limited not by centralized control but by consent – consent based on a serious common assessment of the implications of local change. How do we genuinely think together about diverse local challenges?”

Saying that Anglicanism is “at a deeply significant turning point,” in its history, Archbishop Williams asked bishops to think and work hard at making this option viable, saying “the rival bids to give Anglicanism a new shape are too strong, and we need to have a vision that is at least as compelling and as theologically deep as any other in the discussion.”

Simply trying to “act as normal” will not work, he said.

Archbishop Williams’ 3,917-word address was his most thorough and direct response yet to those who have challenged not just his leadership but the fate of the 80-million strong communion.

“Some in our communion would be content to see us become a loose federation, perhaps with diverse expression of Anglicanism existing side by side in more or less open competition but with little co-ordination of mission, little sense of obligation to sustain a common set of theological and practical commitments,” said Archbishop Williams, referring to prescriptions that have been made by some conservative Anglicans angered by the consecration of a gay bishop in the Episcopal Church in the U.S.

But such a federation that “could be in direct, local competition is not really a federation at all, and would encourage some of the least appealing kinds of religious division,” he said.

“Some would like to see the communion as simply a family of regional or national churches strictly demarcated from each other – sovereign states, as it were, with independent systems of government, coming together from time to time for matters of common concern.” But such an ” ensemble of purely national or local churches both ignores the complexities of a globalized society and economy and seems to make little of the historic and biblical sense of churches in diverse places learning from each other, challenging one another and showing responsibility to each other,” said Archbishop Williams.

Still there are others, Archbishop Williams said, who “want to see a firmer and more consistent control of diversity, a more effective set of bodies to govern the local communities making up the communion.”

But the creation of such “centralized and homogenized communion could be at the mercy of powerfully motivated groups from left or right who wanted to redefine the basic terms of belonging, so that Anglicanism becomes a confessional church in a way it never has been before,” he warned.

But even as he discussed the challenges facing the communion, Archbishop Williams said Anglicans “shouldn’t assume that this is the worst of times” and that history has repeatedly shown that “we haven’t just invented church divisions in the last ten years or so; and there never was a golden age for the Anglican Communion or for the wider Church of God.”

He reminded bishops that the first Lambeth Conference met “against the background of bitter controversy in Southern Africa and fierce disputes about who was a ‘proper’ bishop and who wasn’t.”

Recorded in the annals of early century Christian church councils were meetings held “in an atmosphere of some suspicion and fear, with people not being at all sure who was supposed to be in charge and who ought and ought not to be present,” he added.

Archbishop Williams also doused speculations that the process for the conference was changed to avoid having to deal with conflict situations.

(The conference has shifted from having more plenary sessions and resolutions to having smaller indaba groups. Indaba is an African way of dealing with village matters where the chief invites villagers to discuss matters, where everyone gets to have a voice and no decision is rushed, explained Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.)

“Quite a few people have said that the new ways we’re suggesting of doing our business are an attempt to avoid tough decisions and have the effect of replacing substance with process. To such people, I’d simply say, ‘How effective have the old methods really been?'” said Archbishop Williams. “If you look at the resolutions that have been passed since 1867, you’ll find many of them, on really important subjects, have never been acted on.”

He added that too often plenary sessions with motions and debates only guaranteed “the voices most often heard would be the voices of people who were comfortable with this way of doing things.”

Archbishop Williams said the new process in a way suggests that “in institutional terms, we need renewal, and this is the moment for it. If you will, you can all help shape fresh, more honest and more constructive ways of being a conference – and being a communion.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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