Geoffrey Kirk on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s apparent commitment to a theology of dialogue

Like everyone else I have been reading Rupert Shortt’s book about Rowan Williams. (‘To write one book about the Archbishop might be thought to demonstrate admiration, Mr Shortt, to write two looks dangerously like an obsession.’) It is well-informed, readable and intelligent. And it raises in an acute form the salient question: how orthodox is Rowan?

Christina Rees once memorably described him as ‘incredibly orthodox’ (which neatly summarized her attitudes both to the Archbishop and to orthodoxy itself). But broad generalities will not do. Shortt’s book provokes us to ask more specific questions, related directly to the very toils in which the Communion presently finds itself. They are questions about the relationship between the personal and the ecclesial, and between unity and truth.

That Rowan has unresolved problems about the relationship of his personal opinions and his ecclesial loyalties became only too obvious in the sorry saga of Jeffrey John. There the personal and the ecclesial came into conflict, crisis even. What Williams had upheld and done in Wales he discontinued at Canterbury. And John was part of the fall-out.

That the Archbishop personally believes what the Church has never taught – that faithful, permanent and stable same-sex partnerships are godly – is beyond doubt. The problem arises when we try to understand why, as a bishop, he felt able to act on those convictions in one set of circumstances and not in others.

The explanation given [Shortt p. 262] is that Rowan was eager to abide by the teaching of the Church in the matter. In England he feels bound by the House of Bishops document Issues in Human Sexuality; in Wales, where no such statement exists, he felt free to act.

But a moment’s reflection is sufficient to demonstrate that such an explanation will not do. Imagine the moral chaos which would result if we all behaved as though everything was licit on which the Welsh Bench of Bishops had not yet definitively ruled. You do not have to be the brightest Archbishop since Anselm to assess the widespread implications. The principle would not hold even if the notion of provincial autonomy in the matter of doctrine and morals were one worth upholding, which clearly it is not.

There is, however, more to the Jeffrey John affair than first meets the eye. One might initially suppose that, by refusing to consecrate John, the Archbishop was, as he claimed, upholding if not the teaching of the Church, then at least the current position of the House of Bishops. But not so.

Rowan went on to explain his opposition to the appointment not on the grounds of John’s teaching or practice, but because of the vocal nature of opposition to it. ‘Such unhappiness means that there is an obvious problem in the consecration of a bishop whose ministry will not readily be received by a significant proportion of Christians in England and elsewhere.’ [Shortt p. 273]

Yet even here there was no clear principle involved – for the Archbishop has no qualms, it seems, in appointing and consecrating women as bishops, though as many Christians (if not more) in England and elsewhere would be unable to receive their ministry.

Can a clear moral or dogmatic position be deduced from the Archbishops words or actions in this tragic matter? It is a question which Shortts book provokes and to which the answer must sadly be no.

The current Anglican equivalent of the question about the chicken and the egg is, of course, that of the relationship between unity and truth.

Often voiced in terms of which is worse, heresy or schism, it is a dilemma which defines modern Anglicanism. More often than not dialogue is the canvassed solution. The demand is that everybody should be ‘kept at the table’; in the most intractable cases that there should be an ‘open period of reception’.

Sometimes there is even the suggestion that dialogue (in some quasi-mystical way) is truth: that the Christian life is one extended academic seminar, at the conclusion of which the eschaton will bring in the final synthesis and reconciliation.

Shortt makes it abundantly clear that some such attitude underlay the rationale of the 2008 Lambeth Conference and that Rowan played a distinctive and definitive part in its conception and delivery. It is reasonable then to ask if such a view of truth is compatible with Christian orthodoxy and how far it is an essential part of the theology of the Archbishop.

The problem with a dialogue model of ecclesiology is that it seems at first both rational and compassionate. ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’ Opinions appear less effective and so less harmful than deeds. They can thus be more readily entertained and even excused. (What was thought to matter in the case of Jeffrey John, for example, was that he was now celibate, not that he was still maintaining the godly equivalence of same-sex relationships.)

But nothing could be further from the truth. If theft is wrong, then it is worse to maintain, as a dogmatic principle, that it should always be condoned and worse still to hold that property is equivalent to it. Error, as G.K. Chesterton made it his vocation to proclaim, is more serious than crime. And the additional problem is that dialogue more often than not gives greater respect to both positions than either party intends.

You cannot dialogue with an a priori ethical assertion, as the opponents of the ordination of women quickly discovered when they took the idea of a period of reception seriously. And to dialogue with error, as they should in any case have understood, is to endanger the faith, and possibly the salvation, of weaker vessels who might be led astray.

The ecclesiology of dialogue gives the illusion of side-stepping the dogmatic principle. It feels ‘open’ and ‘inclusive’. But it is an illusion. Just as all relativizers are hoist with their own petard, so all enemies of dogma are entrapped by their own dogmatism.

And the partisans of inclusion paradoxically demonstrate their inclusivity by those whom they deride. T had to change after looking around at my own side, and seeing the company I was keeping,’ said Rowan to Angela Tilby about his attitude to the ordination of women. [Shortt p. 95]