Simon Heans takes a philosophical look atDr Williams’ nuanced approach to the CofE’s current conundrums

When I was on pilgrimage to Lourdes I heard from a priest friend in the Chichester Diocese that the Bishop has told his Catholic clergy that the trouble with Rowan is that he is an Hegelian.

My friend asked me to explain and, although the Archbishop himself was there, Lourdes has a way of making you forget the Church of England, so the conversation did not get very far.

But I was reminded of it when I heard Fr Houlding say, at the recent extraordinary assembly of Forward in Faith, that Rowan told him he thinks that both proponents and opponents of the ordination of women have truth on their side.

I must say I laughed when I heard this, but on reflection I think we have here evidence in favour of the Bishop of Chichester s thesis.

How can both positions on the ordination of women be true? Answer: because there is a Yet Higher Truth in which they are reconciled and transcended.

The desire for purity

Rowan devoted that part of his opening address to Synod which dealt with women bishops to an exposition of it. He begins by identifying YHT with the study of the Bible. ‘We can see’, he said, ‘that the other person is trying to listen to Gods self-communication in Scripture, not just imposing an agenda.’ But is this true? Do not feminists accuse traditional exegetes of patriarchal bias? And don’t we say they impose their agenda on the text?

Bible study would not seem to be the place to look for a YHT. The Archbishop tries again with a discussion of ‘purity’. This is associated by him with self-love.

We are told that ‘we all have a bit of us that is in love with purity, that wants to find in the other a perfect echo of ourselves.’ And, since their positions have their roots in self-love, liberal and traditionalist alike must learn that they need to go beyond them. There is a YHT.

But Rowan believes in progress, as Hegel did, and so he is optimistic: there is a greater ideological maturity around. ‘Both’, he says speaking of liberals and traditionalists, ‘have to some extent turned their backs on the fantasy of a Church that is ‘pure in their own terms? But there is still work for the dialectic to do. for YHT is by definition beyond ideology.

The Revision Committee is its chosen instrument. The question the dialectic will ask of it is, ‘What is the form of legislation best adapted to the good of the Church as a body where The Others do not simply go away and become invisible?’ The members of the Committee must ‘hold in mind the vision of a Church in which a difficult plurality of conviction will not simply be done away with’.

The hope of history

This is Rowan’s dialectical vision in which difference becomes not a cause of conflict but a source of a YHT. And this, Rowan argues, has been true of Anglicanism in the past. As with Hegel, so with Rowan: the progress of the dialectic in the future is bound up with its history.

Thus he refers to ‘the diversity of personal perception or reception of the common heritage’ within Anglican history, an historical dialectic which derives from ‘the commitment of our Church of England to be genuinely a church for this particular place and culture.’ The Lutheran Hegel was a keen believer in a national church too.

However, the Bishop of Chichester is obviously no Hegelian because he prefers division to Rowan’s synthetic vision. In his National Assembly speech he spoke of the need for ‘a negotiated separation’ when there are women bishops, on the grounds that an ecclesiology that both accepts and rejects the episcopal ministry of women is a contradiction in terms.

But, of course, according to the Hegelian logic this could not be the case for the contradictory is really – deep down or rather higher up – complementary. There is always a YHT.