Rowan Williams as World Leader of the Communion

The particular path trodden to Lambeth Palace by the Archbishop of Wales, strewn as it has been with unseemly publicity leaks and world-wide media speculation, means that, by the time of his enthronement, Rowan Williams’ appointment will already be old news.

Williams is well known in Australia for his ability to expound patristic theology and spirituality in such a way that the Fathers come alive for students and ordinary people alike, as well as for the hard work he puts into bringing Gospel insights to bear upon the complex issues of our time. A friend of mine who attended one of his seminars in Sydney speaks of the gentle prayerfulness, academic rigour, social concern and old-fashioned graciousness that blend together in this man.

General welcome

As might be expected, the general reaction of bishops and archbishops throughout Australia has been enthusiastic. Even Peter Jensen of Sydney welcomed the announcement of Williams’ appointment by acknowledging his fundamental orthodoxy in areas like the Virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Jensen went on to express the hope that, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams would ‘lead the Communion in faithful adherence to the teaching of the Scripture, especially in regard to the Biblical teaching on marriage and family.’

And here is the rub. Given the reductionist christologies represented by some of the first world Anglican primates, Australian Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics are relieved that Saint Augustine’s chair will be occupied by a man who gives a blisteringly orthodox account of who Jesus is. But there are other issues, derived issues maybe, but issues that directly confront us today, on which Williams is less clear, such as the ordination of women, the general feminization of Christianity, and the context in which human sexuality ought to be genitally expressed. These are not peripheral matters – they affect the day to day life of the Christian community.

Personal and public

One of the curious things Rowan Williams did recently was to give the undertaking that when his personal views on various matters differ from the Church’s understanding of Holy Scripture, he will uphold the latter. In this particular instance the subject was the genital expression of homosexuality. His turn of phrase reminded me of an interview I had with a Roman Catholic bishop ten years ago. The bishop said he believed with all his heart that I was a validly ordained catholic priest; but because that was his opinion and not ‘yet’ the official teaching of the Church he would naturally have to ordain me from scratch if I decided to swim the Tiber (which he hoped I would do). I could accept the bishop’s problem in the light of our historic difficulties. But in terms of Rowan Williams being the figurehead leader of the Anglican Communion, most Anglicans would expect a greater convergence between publicly proclaimed private views and what it is his responsibility to teach.

A number of conservative commentators have expressed dismay at Williams’ appointment. Because of his ambivalence in these derived areas such critics portray him as a Griswold writ large. But others who know him well, both Evangelical and Catholic alike, have encouraged us to wait and see. They speak of his spirituality, of his kindness as a pastor, of his fairness in dealing with difficult problems, and the fact that wherever possible he has ensured a place for our people. There is no shortage of Williams supporters among our friends, here and in the UK!

We are not concerned that we have an Archbishop of Canterbury with whom we cannot completely agree. What matters to us, given the nature of Anglicanism at the start of the new millennium, with its sacrosanct doctrine of provincial (and, in some places, diocesan) autonomy, is whether or not Rowan Williams will be able to ensure a future for Evangelical and Catholic minorities in his own Church, and encourage that future in the other liberal provinces of the Communion.

Toothpaste and tube

It has often been said over the last 25 years in the USA that those traditionalists who remain in the Episcopal Church are trying to put the toothpaste back into the tube. If ever there was an example of that, it was the speech George Carey made at the recent Hong Kong meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in which he fired broadsides at New Westminster, Pennsylvania and Sydney. Carey, who in 1992 helped cement the doctrine of provincial autonomy over the ordination of women – a cause close to his heart – does not want others to exercise it in areas in which they are equally convinced.

Is it possible, now that we have reached this stage, – however many ‘instruments of unity’ there are – to return Anglicanism to what it was on the eve of our troubles? Are we not, in fact, witnessing the devolution of Anglicanism into its constituent components? If that is so, then surely there should be generosity and tolerance for those of us who are classically Anglican, as we wait and see what God has for us in the future.

Schism or compromise

At least in England, those who after 1992 continued to believe in the Universal Church’s teaching and practice with regard to Holy Orders were given flying bishops to assuage their consciences and enable them to remain in their Church. It has also not escaped notice that the Welsh flying bishop system came into being largely as a result of Rowan Williams’ sincerely held opinion that good and faithful people must not be unchurched for holding on to what has been believed everywhere, always and by all.

In contrast to the accusation of our Australian critics and people like Charles Bennison in Pennsylvania, that alternative episcopal oversight is institutionalized schism, we continue to assert that it is the least radical way of holding the largest number of people as closely together as possible.

One of the real fears in liberal circles is that the provision of alternative episcopal oversight will cause our constituency to grow. This is obviously why there is such enthusiasm to do away with it in the Church of England. Thanks to the ministry of the PEVs there is emerging in England a real ‘church within the church’.

Can Rowan Williams persuade the theologically liberal parts of the Anglican Communion to be more tolerant of orthodox Catholics and Evangelicals, and take the risk that if provided for we will grow? More people than he will ever know are grateful for his letter supporting Father David Moyer. Will he likewise support others around the Communion who are persecuted for their orthodoxy?

Rowan Williams is in our prayers.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’ Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.