THE GHOST OF CANTERBURY ADDRESSES THE GLOBAL SOUTH
By Canon Gary L'Hommedieu
Earlier today a video address by Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was broadcast to the assembled delegates of the Fourth Global South to South Encounter meeting in Singapore. As always, we will be wondering what Dr. Williams said for days, if not for the rest of our natural lives.
Rowan Williams is too easy a target for critics. His erudition translates directly to obscurantism, and one suspects that he is hiding his "real" intentions and commitments. But it's possible that he is more straightforward in his obscurantism that we at first think. In spite of his remarkable intelligence, he may really have nothing to say. There may be no reality upon which to fix his eloquence.
It's too easy to make fun of the Archbishop. For one thing, he looks funny. Poor man, the morose gravity of his manner contrasts with the contrived nature of his verbiage so that without exception the words ring hollow. Here is the pathos of Rowan Williams: there is more gravitas communicated through his Tolkienesque visage than through his pained erudition. Still, I don't think he is insincere as much as genuinely out of touch. It's what he is out of touch with that calls for speculation by critics and observers.
If he's covering something up, it may be something he is not aware of himself, something which has gradually come to light in an apparent effort to conceal and obfuscate. Dr. Williams is the apologist par excellence for organizational "process," but process signifies direction, movement, even purpose. The reconciling purpose to which Dr. Williams referred in his address was a pure abstraction, existing perhaps in the mind of God. The "end" he mentions is demanded not so much by the situation of the Anglican Communion as by the logical structure of processes: they go somewhere and achieve ends.
In his address the Archbishop crafts a formula for "the broader vision" of the Anglican Communion, of which the newly minted Covenant is destined to play a key role. The vision, however, is not something he himself envisions. He does not see any end result when he speaks, but only deduces it through stringing words together.
His address featured an exposition of Romans 9 in which four terms--adoption, glory, relationship and covenant--are cited as variables in an algebraic formula. Briefly: adoption plus relationship equals glory. Covenant is mentioned throughout as the guarantor of the divine nature and reconciling character of this relational glory.
"We are adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. And in that being drawn into the adoptive relationship with the Father, what happens is glory." From this arises the pattern or model that Christians show the world, that of "the glorious liberty which belongs to the children of God."
Unfortunately this "pattern" which Anglicans are to "model" for all the world to see is not based on any actual community, in spite of the Archbishop's claim that such "patterns" have characterized the Christian community "from time immemorial." The "pattern" to which the Archbishop refers is not so much a social reality as an administrative calculation, deduced by stringing together a series of terms from a manager's lexicon: "mutual attention and respect," and of course "mutual listening."
If there's a real message here, it's the usual plea to the Global South to follow his lead in doing nothing about the latest TEC provocation. Better simply to wait. Not that there is something to wait for, although we are assured there is. Such "assurances" are the outward form of English diplomacy. Pep talks like these are understood to promise something while delivering nothing, except the next round of promises. This is the recognized form of an address by a professional diplomat, particularly one of rank. Some acknowledge it as being quintessentially British, others as quintessentially rubbish. Either way, I do not suspect the Archbishop is hiding anything. He has nothing, and nowhere, left to hide.
What is clear is that for Rowan Williams waiting has become an end in itself. It is not even a tactic--like stalling--because tactics necessitate some practical outcome to which strategic methods are related. Waiting endlessly is characteristic of one accustomed to occupying a position of power when there is suddenly no one left over whom to reign.
The tragedy of Rowan Williams may be his role, not as a misplaced academic, but as the prophet of a time that has passed. He is the icon of an arrested development, the manifestation of a history that has come to an abrupt end. He does not posture and obfuscate in order to deceive, as many suspect. He does so because he is powerless to do anything else.
Dr. Williams' address to the Global Encounter is a study in theology as platitude. The biblical citations are taken out of context, as they must be: there is no context to which to refer them. Western Anglicans long ago surrendered their right to "model the life of reconciliation with the Father." They cannot now recover it simply because this is an eloquent phrase whose theological merit derives from an age when Christianity was a living faith. The theological content of the Williams address consists only in the inner logic of the terminology: adoption plus relationship equals glory. That's what the words mean. It is "true" even if no such reconciled community has existed for a thousand years.
It is Dr. Williams' pastoral arithmetic that reveals the vacuity of his position as Archbishop. His domain is one that has ceased to exist. His theology has nothing to attach itself too. It is pure calculation--not the shrewd calculation of a political gamesman, but the mechanical calculation of a pastoral logician. He is trying to conjure spiritual reality through "true" statements based on echoes of a religious past. His hope is that the Conference attendees will give weight to his office out of politeness and propriety, since his position and person no longer carry weight.
Wherever he goes the Archbishop of Canterbury announces the end of the Church of England as the faith of a people. This is no fault of his, even when the stewardship of his office can be questioned. The end of Christian England is a fact that attaches itself to his person insofar as he occupies the role of Primus. The sociological reality of the Archbishop of Canterbury is that of a ghost. The present Archbishop could not speak authoritatively even if he had real convictions, guarded or otherwise, hence the awkwardness of his address to the representatives of an exploding, vibrant community of the Spirit.
The role of the present Archbishop of Canterbury can only be to wait, and, borrowing the urgency of events, to urge others to wait. Only the theological misstatements of his address betray the slightest connection with a live community. For example, he thinks of the Glasspool election as a problem calling for "solutions." The biblical response, quite simply, is discipline, not some administrative "solution."
He blunders further that "we must all share in repentance and the willingness to be renewed." This is true as a platitude but not as a biblical response to willful sins by members of a purportedly biblical community. Williams' expectation is that the Western cliché of universal angst will pass for biblical repentance. This is of course impossible. Repentance means turning around and going the other way. Angst means going full speed ahead, only with a furrowed brow. Angst is the entry point for assigning moral equivalency to all sins on the basis that all are equally sinners--again, a platitude in search of spiritual reality. In practical terms, the comment is meant to defuse the biblical contradiction of the Glasspool election and transpose it into an administrative conundrum, thus providing fodder for the waiting game.
The cabal of Old World churchmen that attach themselves to his person, waiting for his shadow to pass over them, are in a similar historical place. The Episcopal Church seems to be controlling the Archbishop so that they can control the Communion, but that is too much like a real endgame. TEC is hoping to siphon off a measure of his historical prestige in order to legitimize themselves as an historical reality. Here's a perplexing irony for the modern liberal churches and particularly for TEC: by claiming to stand within the community that interprets the Bible, they negate themselves simply by being. TEC has become a living contradiction. They try to capitalize on the absurd dynamic of this contradiction--calling it "prophetic"--but they are the only ones who do not see it for what it is.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is struggling for his existence as the leader of a national faith that no longer needs a High Priest. In his address to the Global South he is like the Risen Lord eating with his disciples to prove he is not a ghost, only with a twist: Dr. Williams is looking to the delegates to give him an occasion to prove his reality. This they cannot do. Even while they hold him in high regard, they are powerless to transfer their living substance to a ghost.
The sun set long ago on the Church of England as the priesthood of an empire that lies in ruins. Her power structure exists now for no purpose, and this vacuity of purpose is manifest. The Global South to South Encounter is puzzling over a number of questions: among them, whether the Mother Church must soon be confined to assisted living, while an adult in the prime of life assumes the role of parent.
---The Rev. Canon J. Gary L'Hommedieu is Canon for Pastoral Care at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando, Florida, and a regular columnist for VirtueOnline.
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