Rowan Williams considers our accountability to one another

AS I write, I’m waiting to hear the outcome of the US General Convention’s debates; it’s an interesting tine (to put it mildly) to be reflecting on the nature of Anglicanism. But the current controversies over sexuality are only one cluster of issues where fault-lines are spreading. I don’t want in this brief article to try and shape a full scale strategy, even supposing I could, but to note what seems to me the basic theological core of several debates, and why what ND represents is significant in those debates.


In a nutshell, what seems to be most deeply at issue is the question of whether as Anglicans – and of course as Christians in general – we are accountable to anyone or anything other than a humanistic wisdom. I’m not suggesting that people who take different sides in this or that controversy can be characterized simply as to whether they say yes or no to this question about accountability, only that it needs to be looked at quite hard.

Classically, for both Catholic and Reformed Christians, the life of faith begins from nowhere in this world. It is a supernatural gift. Consequently, the Church too is a supernatural body; the sacraments are God’s ordinances, not simply a set of identifying rituals, the Bible is the Word written, not simply an historical deposit. Most importantly of all, unity is not human consensus but a common identity through incorporation into the risen and glorified Christ.

When we are reasonably clear about this, we know as Christians how to talk with each other, to argue with each other, to call each other to account and to conduct mission together. But this basic structure says something more. It tells us that the way Christians have `classically’ been (to use the rather neutral expression with which I began the last paragraph) is not just a matter of historical record. In the Body of Christ, we are accountable to each other for how we speak; and our Christian predecessors are not our ancestors but our contemporaries in Christ. There is an accountability to the Christian past that is not really different in kind from accountability to each other now.

The focal worry for Anglicans now is whether there are substantial areas of our church life where all this is simply not understood or taken for granted. In this sense, the great public controversies – women’s role, sexuality, interfaith relations – are only the tip of an iceberg. The problem becomes visible in small and local particulars. Does this act of worship, this new book of resources, this scheme of ministerial training or whatever look as though it began from a sense of accountability of the kind I have been outlining?

I can remember this coming home to me on a Sunday morning some years back after listening on holiday to a sermon which was so wholly concentrated on human aspiration rather than divine gift that I was genuinely baffled as to why it should be described as Gospel. It wasn’t a piece of liberal theology or revisionist polemic; the church in question was a very ordinary and `safe’ one. It was just monumentally not about anything except us.

Sometimes it helps to remember that these matters need to be recognized at root and confronted in terms that are more than political and issue-based. I have appreciated the fact that ND has tried to go to these places and address matters from there as well as doing the political job. There have been pieces by, say, Arthur Middleton and Christopher Idle and Paul Richardson that, over the years, have given me nourishment of a kind not always found in other journals. Critics of ND (there are one or two, they tell me) might acknowledge that pieces like these cover a multitude of… well, other things.

Unity versus truth

In a way, much of this is about the unity versus truth tension to which ND has constantly drawn attention. But this is where I also want to put a couple of questions back. A couple of years ago, one of the Primates’ Meetings in its communiqué said that the breaking of communion should be restricted to cases where the basic `grammar’ of faith and practice had been altered, and proposed the Lambeth Quadrilateral as a rule of thumb for identifying that grammar. Translating this into the terms I’ve been using, this is about agreement over a common accountability, so that we know we’re all speaking the same language.

Thus, for example, abandoning the threefold name in baptism makes it impossible to know whether we are still really talking about baptism – that is, about becoming directly involved in that supernatural reality which is the Body of Christ, who is the second person of the eternal Trinity, active in us through the Spirit in consequence of his incarnation. Cut these threads and baptism is an arbitrary initiation rite, no more.

I think what the Primates were getting at was that unity becomes finally unintelligible and un-worthwhile when it itself ceases to be a theological category. Staying together is pointless unless it is staying together because of the Body of Christ. But equally, breaches of communion may be dangerous if the issue isn’t in some way bound up with the supernatural character of the Body, namely, there may be matters of disagreement of real seriousness that still don’t fracture the possibility of recognizing the language someone else is speaking. Has ND consistently spelled out why certain questions are evidently and crucially a matter of believing in the supernatural character of faith and of life in the Body? Has it a clear justification for defining theological unity (as opposed to a pointless and bland co-existence) in such close connection with the particular issues it has focused on?

The crux

But here, you may well say, is the crux. What those matters are that define the theological character of unity is in itself a matter of controversy. Typically, some simply don’t think that women in priestly ministry or policies about homosexual people constitute communion-breaking problems because they leave open the possibility of still recognizing a common language. But some simply do think this; for them, these are the tests of accountability – all the stronger, you could say, for being apparently marginal.

My challenge is not that the traditionalist should abandon such a position, but that they might acknowledge that we are dealing with a spectrum of matters here, on any account – as witness those (a substantial number in England and in the Communion) for whom same-sex blessings is a defining issue, but women’s ordination isn’t. That immediately suggests that people who share a serious view of accountability may come out in different places on some things. But what I and others who share some of my theological perspective have to take on board is that in a climate where there is felt to be a general drift from accountability and belief in the supernatural character of the Church, it may be very hard indeed to persuade some that a novel policy doesn’t simply reflect an indifference to accountability.

The much-discussed ND questionnaire on the beliefs of various clerical groupings made the point devastatingly. It suggested that an uncomfortable number of us actually don’t know how to do joined-up theology which seeks to work out the implications of grace and salvation as divine gift. But this isn’t in itself a ground for assuming the worst about the possibilities of continuing exchange. I suspect that the ND constituency and its critics both need to ask how they can avoid a standoff-how they can express their accountability to each other in theological exchange.

At times, paradoxically, both sides lose sight of the supernatural nature of the Church. The `revisionist’ may assume that the Church here and now determines its policies and limits and what it decides as a matter of current policy settles the question, so that a dissident from the new consensus becomes, ipso facto, not worth listening to. But the `traditionalist’ can do just the same, assuming that the calling of Christ into his Body is simply annulled for some because of their adoption of flawed or heretical perspectives. What are the implications of believing that another person’s membership in the Body may still be in some sense real even if they are stretching to breaking-point the recognisability of Christian language?

It is because of all this that I think it worth working at structures in Anglicanism that don’t either commit us to a meaningless structural uniformity or leave us in mutual isolation. If you’re not going to be a Roman Catholic, with clear universal visible tests for unity, you’re going to be involved in some degree of structural complexity – and I’m assuming that as Anglicans we have enough theological reservations about the RC model of visible unity to make it worth our while exploring how `structural complexity’ can witness to the supernatural character of the Church.

By the time you read this, you’ll know what the General Convention has done and something of the reaction to it. I suspect that those who speak of new alignments and new patterns, of the weakening of territorial jurisdiction and the like, are seeing the situation pretty accurately. But what then becomes the danger to avoid is an entirely modem or post-modern map of church identity in which non-communicating and competing entities simply eradicate the very idea of a `communion’ of churches.

There can be an untheological pluralism as there can be an untheological unity. The task is to keep in focus the conviction that what makes a church a church, even through the struggles of major disruption and disagreement, is a shared divine calling, so that we a re never simply in a position to say once and for all, `The Church’s territory stops here’ – so long as the fundamental acknowledgement of accountability is visibly in place in the practice of the sacraments and the use of Scripture and Creeds.

I don’t expect the next few years to be anything other than messy as far as all this is concerned. The question is not whether we can avoid mess, but whether we can hang on to common convictions about divine grace and initiative. There is a real issue there, not often enough named and faced. I think that ND has, over the years, kept up a perfectly proper challenge about this in what can look like a theologically lazy environment. It’s because of this that I can, at the end of the day, regard some of the bruises liberally dealt by ND as wounds received in the house of friends; and it is on that basis that I wish ND many happy returns.

Rowan Williams was the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. This article appeared in the September 2003 edition of New Directions.