Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Velvet Reformation

March 4, 2009

This is the tile of a profile of Rowan Williams by Paul Elie in the March edition of The Atlantic. It was particularly interesting after reading the newly published Rowan’s Rule by Rupert Shortt. Both authors try and get at how the Archbishop is handling the various crises that have confronted him in his time in office.
Elie is altogether friendly. His focus is on how the Archbishop is leading us through the conflict over the proper place of gay and lesbian people in the church. His conclusion is that Rowan Williams is not really backing off his well known, if slightly guarded, support for gay and lesbian Christians. He is more holding fast to his understanding of the office of Bishop as being one in which it is inappropriate for him to use his office to promulgate his own point of view. (I disagree with him on this and think he does not give up his right to weigh in on the conversation even if he may choose not to do so from time to time.) He does not exactly deny his written positions and consequent actions (such as meeting with his predecessor George Carey when he –Rowan--was Bishop of Monmouth in Wales to change Church policy and ordaining a gay man, we learn from Shortt). He does think that his role is to express an uphold ‘the mind of the Church’.
Elie concludes that Rowan supports the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in the life of the Church but just not yet.
That may be optimistic after reading Shortt, which is a rather full assessment of Williams’ ministry thus far, taking into account his scholarly and other writing, his poetry, his distaste for ‘leadership’ (on the basis that it is not in the Bible and that the key role of any Christian is ‘witness’).Shortt makes clear the Archbishop's impressive intellect, compassion and charisma, along with the challenges of his philosophy of witness that means he is usually being managed and sometimes mismanaged by his staff, that he remains prone to finding himself at the mercy of an ugly and unhelpful English media industry, that he is surrounded by conservatives among the senior bishops of his own Church, that because he likes to uphold the mind of the Church he finds it in consultative (but explicitly NOT) juridical resolutions and is consequently mistrusted by conservatives (who will never be satisfied with anything resembling ‘continuing conversation’ unless there is no danger of their point of view being compromised or failing to be the norm in the life of the whole Church), and betrayed by liberals as he seems to have suppressed his own beliefs for his role which he told a journalist was a form of ‘taking up his cross’.
He has pinned his hopes to a ‘covenant’ process of some sort and appears to be exercising what I would recognize as leadership on that matter, sing his influence (presumably in service of ‘the mind of the church’) at the expense of gay and lesbian Christians. In other words I cannot escape the conclusion that he is exercising leadership in support of conservative positions (whatever he thinks he is doing) Many of whom have already and in effect declined to be in communion by not attending worship at Primates meetings, engaging in cross border interventions, ordaining bishops in America and the like and who show no signs of stopping. At the same time and in such an environment, many liberal bishops are pressing ahead with the full inclusion and affirmation of gay and lesbian Christians, and I both suspect and hope that the Episcopal Church as a whole will move forward in some way at our General Convention this summer as a matter of being faithful to the Gospel. Such change and development is thoroughly orthodox in the history of the Church and we need not be intimidated by conservative Christians who want nothing resembling affirmation of gay and lesbian people to take place.
As for Rowan’s episcopate? I hope that his practice of buying time and refusing to be intimidated and trying (unsuccessfully in my view) to take neither side in this matter, will somehow allow for a renewal of communion down the road. Our experience at All Saints’ is that once we come to a decision about whether there is such a thing as a gay or lesbian person (as opposed to perverted heterosexuals) then we can move on and talk about the work of the church in proclaiming good news in word and deed. Until that time, all the statements on Zimbabwe are fine, but not really where the energy is even if it ought to be.

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