Saturday, 30 June 2007

Is the Archbishop an Anglican?

There is a jokey question, isn't there, that follows any statement of the obvious: "Is the Pope a Catholic?" You cannot quite say it of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, even though he is indeed Anglican.

On the one hand he definintely is Anglican in the sense that he believes in listening and talking, which implies compromise between parties, and he does not see himself as in any sense equivalent of a pope but as a facilitator to all sides. His nuanced theology, that sees Christianity as a narrative with narratives, which moves this way and then that way with the details, and finding tentative conclusions, is clearly consistent with Anglican reasoning.

The trouble is, Rowan Williams keeps changing, and his views seem to be drawing on the Catholic side with this job as Archbishop. Back in 2000 (April 8, to be precise) he wrote:

In the last analysis, Anglicanism has always been wary of a central executive power. It has worked on the assumption that a common ecclesial language and theological method take you a long way, and its authority has been a mixture of authoritative texts and a process of rather untidy corporate interpretation of them. The primates’ meeting showed no signs of wanting to become a ruling synod. Its one plea was for more frequent meeting, and this is likely to happen: the present strains on the communion are severe enough for personal contact and consultation to be imperative, so that actions are not taken without awareness of the wider context. The next few years will undoubtedly be increasingly painful and difficult for many Anglicans; but this particular meeting suggested that the classical Anglican method was not dead yet – and that the sheer experienceCheck Spelling of sustained biblical reflection (wonderfully led by David Ford of Cambridge) and uninhibited theological conversation may yet save Anglicanism from its own variety of the Vatican I débâcle.
In 2000
Now he is proposing a Covenant to restrict what Churches in the Anglican Communion can do themselves without getting agreement of others, and a decision making of the Primates gathered together on disputes because the Anglican Consultative Council (which has lay representation) does not meet often enough. The Archbishop talks about process, so it is as if the Primates become the Congregation for the Process of the Faith, rather as the Roman Catholics have the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor of The Inquisition). It is centralisation and a departure for Anglicanism, which has always had Churches and their polities as the centres of authority, who have discussed among themselves, perhaps innovated and then other Churches have either found they cannot agree or end up agreeing and acting later. This flexibility is threatened by centralisation, as is the mix of lay and clerical in each Church.

The Archbishop's position as a non-pope is this, as stated to Time:

I'm now in a position where I'm bound to say the teaching of the Church is this, the consensus is this. We have not changed our minds corporately. It's not for me to exploit my position to push a change.

Source a
Source b
This is what is being applied to these institutional changes. Some say that the corporate is equivalent to 'The Body of Christ' and so should act as one. That argument should mean joining with the Roman Catholics and Orthodox, to why stop at Anglicanism. And if we do stope at Anglicanism for its argument, then Anglicanism is made up of autonomous Churches representing different cultural settings.

I am though here as much interested in Rowan Williams' own theology. Since his job started it sometimes seen that he has abandoned his previous published views and is sort of standing on his head. Again in Time, just before the comment above, he was asked and then stated:

You yourself once thought it possible that same-sex relationships might be legitimate in God's eyes.

Yes, I argued that in 1987. I still think that the points I made there and the questions I raised were worth making as part of the ongoing discussion. I'm not recanting.

He has not stopped the expression of all his views, however. Some that he had he is now expressing. He was brought up in an Anglo-Catholic setting, and has beliefs consistent with this background. In an interview in the Tablet in 2006, he said:

I went a few months ago to give at talk at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Southwark, just down the road. And, interestingly, I was asked what I believed about the eucharist. I think my questioner was a bit surprised when I said: “Of course I believe in the real presence. I believe that Christ is active in the sacrament, and that it’s not something we do, as an act of mental remembrance.

Catholic Herald

He furthermore said this:

It was a curate in the parish who, when I was about 14, lent me some of his books to read, including St Teresa’s autobiography. So I was beginning to find my way in this, to understand a bit about the monastic tradition, about traditions of prayer. The teaching we had in the parish was solidly sacramental, very much focused on the Eucharist. It was old-fashioned High Churchery, but with very serious emphasis on the centrality of the Sunday morning parish Eucharist and the daily Mass in the parish. That’s what I grew up with and it still forms who I am and what I am as a Christian.
He considered becoming a Roman Catholic too:

I thought about it a lot for several years, during most of my student years. That was a time when the biggest influences on me were coming from one or another kind of Catholic environment. I was reading St John of the Cross and a lot of that tradition. I was making retreats regularly at Benedictine monasteries. Also, writers like Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar were the people who got me excited. And I was thinking about whether my calling was in monastic life and, if so, was it in that sort of context? The thing I couldn’t quite manage was, as it were, signing up to the theology of the papacy as it evolved. I couldn’t cope with Vatican I.
He also disliked the Roman Catholic doctrine of grace.

The question that comes to my mind, however, is whether these are such a big deal. He must find more agreement with Benedict XVI in theology than disagreement. They somehow seem to be characters who can have worthy conversations. Rowan Williams is positive about Marion theology, for example, and about associated icons, but not quite as emotional as John Paul II (interview as above).

This is being written whilst Rowan Williams is on a sabbatical for study. He is in a Roman Catholic institution in the United States, out of reach regarding present controversies.

With this background, what of present experience and the controversies? In my view, he could, slowly, be coming to a view that a Church needs order, and needs to be effectively One. He could be facing a failure in Anglicanism to accept what has been his policy of centralisation by process. Should it happen, this would be a considerable blow, and may be instructive as regards Church order.

He would find Roman Catholicism different, without women priests. In the same interview he said:

I think perhaps what one doesn’t always realise is how very, very normal this has come to feel for the huge majority of Anglicans and it hasn’t undermined what people feel about the ministry of the sacraments. So that now that putting it back in the bottle is not an option. I don’t think it has transformed or renewed the Church of England in spectacular ways. Equally, I don’t think it has corrupted or ruined the Church of England in spectacular ways. It has somehow got into the bloodstream and I don’t give it a second thought these days, in terms of regular worship.
One should not mistake Rowan Williams' nuanced manner for a lack of acceptance of women priests. He was not showing any reluctance. However, Church order does allow him to sacrifice social groups, and just as he has with gay people, he could just with women. One can imagine him being progressive regarding women's ministry, but from a colective position say it has not been decided yet. He applies, of course, theological conviction in the Anglican Church (or, rather, much of it) to their ordination, and this in the Church of England in particular, but won't use that argument in a consistent fashion in one Church and then another to gay people. Logically he could say whilst he has personal views favouring women's ordination, there is no consensus for this in the Church as a whole, and it should move as one.

It is not impossible, in my view, that this Archbishop could end up doing a John Henry Newman. He could equally go Orthodox (and there are fewer objections to Orthodoxy, surely?). I would never have thought this before he became Archbishop, because he was such an Anglician theologian and enjoying its freedom of expression, but elements of his thought have become dominant and, along with ecclesiastical events, might make a more orderly Communion more attractive to his theology and spirituality.

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