19 augustus 2006
by Wim Houtman, Religion Editor
Since February 2003, Rowan Williams has been Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest leader of the Anglican Church. He is unlikely to have expected to preside over a split in the Church. He doesn’t want that, but the controversies seem to spiral out of his control. How does he see the future and what makes him tick, what does he believe in?
,,The Anglican Church gets a spiritual leader who actually looks like one”, the British newspaper The Observer observed in 2002. His loose grey hair and beard betray his growing up in the sixties (and the fact that he is a poet too). When Rowan Williams was called to the highest office in his Church, he was highly renowned as intellectual en theologian; he was praised for his clarity en persuasive power and he seemed soft-spoken, but not afraid to speak. Even then some evangelicals already opposed him, because he seemed to accept homosexual relations in the Church, also among priests. It is precisely this issue that now takes up most of his time. He is busy studying, talking, pondering, praying. It is the most serious crisis in the Anglican Church, which has never suffered a split since the Reformation. Rowan Williams is in danger of going into the history books as the Archbishop of Canterbury who presided over a split in the Church, and who for all his trying to prevent it lost everybody’s confidence – of the ’orthodox’ side because he didn’t draw a clear enough biblical line, and of the ’radical’ side because he didn’t subscribe to their struggle for equal rights for homosexuals.
Rowan Douglas Williams (1950) was born into a Welsh-speaking family in Swansea. He was a university lecturer and professor in Cambridge and Oxford until 1992, and after that Bishop and Archbishop in Wales. He wrote books on, among other topics, the heretic Arius and contemporary Russian-Orthodox theology. The Archbishop is married, to a theologian; they have an eighteen-year old daughter and a ten-year old son.
Do you in your heart of hearts ever despair that Anglican unity can be saved?
,,Despair is a very strong word, but there are moments that I really don’t know whether it is still possible. I just know that I have been given the task to preserve what unity and integrity there is.”
Unity in the Church – worldwide – is to you a means of coming closer to the truth. As you put it, ’If we don’t stay together, ’we are only following our own local denomination or our personal preferences. Where then do you draw the line? How far can unity be stretched within the boundaries of still being based on the Bible?
In reply to this question Williams starts off with a rebuke of those who argue it is high time the Church accepted gay relationships. Their ideal is the inclusive church. ,,I don’t believe inclusion is a value in itself”, says the Archbishop. ,,Welcome is. We welcome people into the Church, we say: ’You can come in, and that decision will change you.’ We don’t say: ’Come in and we ask no questions.’ I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ. That means to display in all things the mind of Christ. Paul is always saying this in his letters: Ethics is not a matter of a set of abstract rules, it is a matter of living the mind of Christ.
That applies to sexual ethics; that is why fidelity is important in marriage. You reflect the loyalty of God in Christ. It also concerns the international arena. Christians will always have reconciliation as a priority and refuse to retaliate. By no means everything is negotiable for me. I would not be happy if someone said: Let us discuss the divinity of Christ. That to me seems so constituent of what the Church is.”
Critics of the American Church’s gay policies say they have reached the boundaries.
,,In terms of decision-making the American Church has pushed the boundaries. It has made a decision that is not the decision of the wider body of Christ. In terms of the issue under consideration: there are enough Christians of good faith in every denomination – from evangelical to Roman Catholic – to whom it is not quite so self-evident. Who are not absolutely sure that that we have always read the Bible correctly. They are saying: this is an issue we must talk about. But if we are going to have time to discuss this, prayerfully, thoughtfully, we really don’t need people saying: we must change it now. The discussion must not be foreclosed by a radical agenda. The decision hasn’t been made yet. Or rather, the tradition and teaching of the Church is what it always was.”
You are commonly known as favouring the acceptance of gay relationships in the Church. Do you have to compromise your own ideas now as Archbishop?
,,Twenty years ago I wrote an essay in which I advocated a different direction. That was when I was still a professor, to stimulate debate. It did not generate much support and a lot of criticism – quite fairly on a number of points. What I am saying now is: let us talk this through. As Archbishop I have a different task. I would feel very uncomfortable if my Church would say: this is beyond discussion, for ever. Equally I have to guard the faith and teaching of the Church. My personal ideas and questions have to take second place.”
The Lambeth conference, the meeting of Anglican bishops worldwide every ten years, adopted a resolution in 1998 that says homosexual praxis is incompatible with Scripture. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for discussion.
”It doesn’t. That resolution also says we shall continue listening in the Church to the actual experience of homosexual Christians. We haven’t done a great deal of that yet. Now Lambeth resolutions don’t fall from heaven. There have been resolutions in the past that have then been discussed and moved on. Whether this one will ever change I don’t know. Certainly not without a lot more attention and patience with each other.”
What will happen to the six or more dioceses in America that have asked for alternative primatial oversight?
,,I don’t know yet. We are working intensively on what this might mean. I don’t want to make up church law on the back of an envelope, because in fact it’s a very complicated situation.”
It would constitute a split in the American church.
,,Indeed, and quite a serious one. And I have great concern for the vast majority of Episcopal Christians in the US who don’t wish to move away from the Communion at all, but who don’t particularly want to join a separatist part of their Church either. I want to give them time to find what the best way is.”
But these dioceses and the group around them won’t hold out in ECUSA for too long.
”No, and it is perhaps a rather larger group than some have presented it as being. I know too that if Canterbury doesn’t help, there will be other provinces that are very ready to help. And I don’t especially want to see the Anglican Church becoming like the Orthodox Church, where in some American cities you see the Greek Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Romanian Orthodox Church. I don’t want to see in the cities of America the American Anglican Church, the Nigerian Anglican Church, the Egyptian Anglican Church and the English Anglican Church in the same street.”
It would have reverberations in the Church of England too. Clergy and congregations would have to decide where there loyalties lie.
,,Indeed, and my nightmare is that action is now going forward that will tie us all up in law courts in ten years, in disputes about property. That would take so much energy from what we’re meant to be doing.”
How do you picture the Anglican Church in ten years time? Tied up in law courts, as you said? Or will unity be preserved and rifts have been healed?
,,I don’t think all rifts will be healed. We can prevent those endless lawsuits, I think, if there is enough co-operation in the central mission of the Church. When I am travelling I am privileged to see many examples of this. In Sudan earlier this year I dedicated a Cathedral which had been built with aid of the American Church. In Juba we discussed with Anglicans and Roman Catholics the foundation of a common school, with support of Anglicans and Catholics in England. In Burundi I have seen the work of the Mother’s Union among victims of rape and violence. That is the work of the gospel and I trust that will continue. I also think of an initiative I took quite early in my years as Archbishop, to raise money for the planting of new churches and new expressions of being Church. We now have five hundred new groups registered. Pretty well every diocese supports this, practically, personally and financially. So when I look ten years into the future – and I don’t have any gifts of clairvoyance – I trust that the Kingdom will do its work. Whatever the structures. And if that work continues it may also help us in finding those structures.
Do you have an explanation as to why Anglicans are prepared to let the Church split now over homosexuality, and not for example when a Bishop denied the Resurrection of Christ?
,,I am intrigued by that. On the one hand it says something about our own age, which is obsessed with sexuality – left and right. But I think there’s something else. Christian often find it difficult to describe what distinguishes them. More and more they live like the people around them. Divorce is a sad case in point. For some people homosexuality is the last issue where you can draw a clear line. And then it is for many people a central issue of the authority of Scripture. I don’t want to minimize that. Even about divorce there are certain things in the Bible that seem to give a bit of room for manoeuvre. It is harder to say that about homosexuality.”
What would you say makes the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian?
,,A Christian believes that he or she is responsible to God. That may sound harsh, in terms of judgment and so on. But it is what Scripture says: we shall have to answer for our words and our actions. Therefore Christians ought to be distinguished by their willingness to repent. A Christian will always be ready to revise his actions and his own image of them, to make peace, to ask for forgiveness from God and other people. You find a living Christian community mostly where people help each other in their failings. Because everybody knows their lives are open to God. That means for example a greater willingness than is shown in our culture today, to reconsider what you perceive as your needs, emotions, instincts, and bring them under the scrutiny of Christ. In the international arena a Christian will always have reconciliation as his priority, and refusal to retaliate. Not because mistakes don’t matter, but because he is aware of his own need to repent and to be reconciled.”
There is a hunger for spirituality in today’s world and yet the Church doesn’t seem able to connect. Do you have any idea why?
,,Maybe because in the West we have perceived Christianity as a system rather than a life. That is one of the things I have learned from my contacts with the Eastern Orthodox Church: belief is first of all a life and then a system. It begins with a renewed relationship with God as Father through Jesus Christ; we express that in liturgy and out of that comes theology. People find that in Taizé for example: faith is being lived there in a pattern of prayer and discipline. A second cause is, I think, that as a society why are so scared of commitment. We have such short term horizons, in almost everything. The notion that you commit yourself to Jesus Christ and to a community, for life and beyond, is very strange. People say: what do I get out of that? The gospel rather uncomfortably says: no, I’m sorry, the question is: what will you give? That is a big threshold. It is the same problem we face when it comes to marriage. People don’t join political parties. So there is an enormous gap with culture. And the only way to bridge that gap – apart from the integrity of our own discipleship – is to convey that faith is an immense mystery, so mysterious and so rich that it will take your lifetime and longer to live into it.
What do you mostly pray for these days?
,,For myself, for discernment, and honesty. It is very easy in a public function, to think that you have done what you can. But how deeply have you really engaged, how justly have you acted? Again it is this willingness to repent. (Laughing) Fortunately there a quite a number of people in the Church that are more than ready to tell me about my mistakes when I make them; I have to regard that as a gift from God, though not always welcome. At Lambeth Palace we begin each day with prayer, my staff, the two nuns who share our life there, and myself – first in silence, then Morning Prayer and Holy Communion. That is the anchorage of every day. And also every year I take at least a week to pray in silence in a monastery, to reconnect with myself.”
What would you like to preach about next Sunday?
,,I would normally always preach about the gospel of the day. Preaching from the gospels is I think what I like best. Two weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching – in Welsh – in a small Congregationalist chapel where I have family connections. Romans 8 was the reading of the day, so I talked about the prayer ’Abba, Father’ and the power of the Spirit. Being a Christian means to be given the freedom to say ’Abba, Father’. That transforms all your relationships, with yourself, God, other people, and the whole Creation. That is something I would like to preach about, and again, and again.
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