The death of Eric James (1 May) is one of those passings that acts as something of a marker. His kind of open, critical, investigative liberality in regard to Christianity is in some crisis today within Anglicanism and could even be a lost cause now. Eric James is the chap associated with Honest to God (1962) by John Robinson and The Honest to God Debate (1963). Of St Albans, he moved in important circles but he never made it further up the greasy ecclesiastical pole after his friend Robert Runcie made his mark.
This has come about as I was considering this well praised Tom Sutcliffe article on Rowan Williams. It is a long article and indeed too long, even repetitive in places. I think there is an error at the heart of the article, and it is that Rowan Williams is liberal in theological sympathy but was trapped into a managerial all-Church solution to problems, following on from the managerialism of George Carey. The assumption is that whilst George Carey was an outside, bumbling, ineffective clot acting well above his abilities, Rowan Williams was a trapped, wasted talent who was disastrous by default not intention.
I actually think that Rowan Williams very nearly achieved what he wanted, and knew what he was doing and did it with intent. The reason is because he is not, and was not, a liberal - certainly not of the kind of Eric James. People keep making this mistake.
Rowan Williams is, I suggest, on the Catholic side of postliberal. That is, there is an ecumenical standard of Christianity that is born out through performing its narrative. This is collective first, and is not individualist in the terms that being liberal involves being individualist and exploring from the bottom up. Rowan Williams certainly deals in narrative detail - very detailed - but always in the context of the overall story that you live by and through. The truth of something is born out through its practice.
The Covenant was his tool and he was clever at promoting it. He could annoy and get past both the doctrinal and the liberal at the same time. It was consistent with his theology to have something that was process based, that favoured the whole, big picture, even when it would be discussed in the details. That was the Covenant - to first apply the brakes, second to present the problem, and then discuss the problem at length and in detail at the centre and to make a kind of ruling about where any Church was relating to the wider Communion-into-a-Church.
Williams knew perfectly well that to achieve this involved now and for the forseeable future the 'sacrificing' of the gay community. He did it with Jeffrey John, and others could do it, and the people themselves could do it. This was because it was for the greater good of the collective. He bent his biblical pronouncements towards the fundamentalist not because he believed them but because they could support the collective.
Along with this conserving postmodern theology went his ecclesiology, that of Catholicism, Western mainly but Eastern as well. That meant the purple system of hierarchy, and that across Anglicanism meant links across the purple made large gaps in the walls between Anglican Churches and their otherwise autonomy. It might only be that the purple people together discussed and learnt from each other, but they were together and there was therefore a larger Church in the making.
In Radical Orthdoxy - and Williams's position is similar - the Church is its own ethical guarantee. So if the Church discusses, then it is the proper forum for the outcome.
What scuttled Williams's grand plan was the clergy and laity of the Church of England and its divergent synodical processes. People could see what this Covenant would do in terms of freezing things, which after all is what Radical Orthodoxy and Yale Postliberalism does. They are both non-objective systems and snapshots of a kind of cultural moment. One is an imaginary Middle Ages Platonism and the other a little later terms of ecumenical agreement.
Williams can talk about male and female bishops in terms of derived and delegated roles in that the Catholic view has this given and performative basis. It comes as close to the old objectivity as possible, except that it is based instead in language. There is always wriggle room in language. But the rules as to the language were set some time ago, when people didn't think it was principally about language, symbol and communication.
It is why Rowan Williams can discuss the Qur'an or the Bhagavad Gita and do so with the intentions of those books; it comes from someone who indeed speaks many languages.
None of this is incompatible with seeking a fair debate and being something of a ringmaster - but a ringmaster when the circus has an objective, and that was the Windsor Process into a Covenant.
If it sounds like he doesn't believe all that he pronounces, it is because he does become collective within the role. For example, he rather likes Richard Dawkins and Richard Dawkins simply goes 'by the evidence'. Straight talk is efficient and direct. In one of his later books, Don Cupitt realises the importance of direct and straight talk. Of course, when Dawkins starts to say that the universe is wonderful and awesome and majestic, I want to come in with religion-words to heighten the sense of smallness, largeness, wonder, thankfulness, wishing, and let's bring in art and music to these. But Rowan Williams cannot do direct talk. He does round about talk, because he is committed in advance to the collective talk outcome of Christian performance. So he will go into detail about birth narratives as Christmas and death narratives at Easter and be quite convinced that he is talking sense and that a kind of reality is involved, even if there is not a scrap of science involved and not much in the way of history either (though he said it was to Simon Mayo, in a reply to one of those 'trap' questions). So, since his job, Rowan Williams has thought that the virgin birth matters more, but is hardly in his round about talk going to just call it poetry as suggested by Richard Dawkins - it becomes a kind of self-legitimating round about talk because it is needed.
So such a person will give a collective view - an 'I am an Archbishop and this is what I teach' answer.
Yes, he tried to impose a managerial solution on the Church of England to solve a problem of a too broad Anglican Communion, and the good folks of the Church of England stopped him. He was stopped at the second to last hurdle - the last one being back at the General Synod itself, when it would have been driven through.
The next chap who comes along will find a bunch of GAFCON primates waiting to force a vote that the Chair of their meetings should be elected among themselves. The new person will have to be pretty quick in sitting on that one, and indeed to put something of himself over and into his various duties and let the divisions and separations go where they will. The managerialist solution as a method ought to be brought to an end.