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Dr Williams and his Bishops: wheels within wheels?

Dr Williams and his Bishops: wheels within wheels?

by John Richardson
August 9, 2008

The ability of the Anglican Church to undergo apparently impossible convolutions has been further highlighted by the publication of, on the one hand, letters written between Rowan Williams during his time as Archbishop of Wales and a former Anglican Evangelical and, on the other, a letter supporting Dr Williams signed by nineteen bishops and published in today's edition of The Times.

Dr Williams' letters tell us nothing really new in terms of either his theology or his church polity. He believes certain homosexual relationships are acceptable, provided they entail "the same rules of faithfulness and commitment would have to apply as to heterosexual union", basing this on an understanding that the Bible's prohibitions are addressed to something else.

It is well-known, however, that Dr Williams believes he should subsume his personal views to those of the office of a bishop. This is underlined by a statement released in response to the publication of the letters in which he says that he understands his responsibility "to be to the declared teaching of the church I serve, and thus to discourage any developments that might imply that the position and convictions of the worldwide Communion have changed."

The only new detail emerging from the correspondence for most of us will be about the timing and the process of Dr Williams' change from "the traditional ethical understanding of homosexuality" to his present position (elaborated in The Body's Grace, which I reviewed in Churchman for 2007) of acceptance. Some of us may be concerned that one of the influences was Jeffrey John's Permanent, Stable, Faithful, which I have reviewed here and which is inadequate in many respects. However, whilst the 'how' may be questionable, the facts of Dr Williams' position are well established.

Yet at the same time, this correspondence highlights what concerns both Conservatives and Liberals. Thus Dr Williams writes, "if I'm asked for my views as a theologian rather than a church leader, I have to be honest and admit that they are as I've said". Yet what is a bishop, if not a theologian? And how is a bishop to lead if not by teaching? And how can a bishop teach with integrity, let alone conviction, what he does not believe? And how can a bishop advise in 'pastoral' situations those whom he would want (as a theologian) to encourage, but must (as an official) discourage?

The difficulty is demonstrated by what subsequently happened to Jeffrey John, whom Dr Williams was instrumental in dissuading from taking up the episcopal office which he had been offered. What did Dr Williams really feel was the justification in acting this way? It could hardly have been a disagreement with Dr John's views, which had persuaded Dr Williams himself. Nor could it have been his lifestyle, which surely reflected the commitment Dr Williams endorsed. No wonder Liberals are still smarting!

Then we come to the letter from the nineteen bishops. What exactly are they trying to say in their 'support' for Dr Williams? Why, given their (presumed) disagreement with his personal convictions, is it signed by so many Evangelicals? And why, given its own disavowal of 'entryism', is it signed by Liberals who support exactly that policy, including two patrons of Changing Attitude?

Thus the letter affirms that Dr Williams, "has spoken out frequently against the 'foot-in-the-door' tactic of divisive innovation such as the consecration of the present Bishop of New Hampshire." Yet it is signed by Bishop John Gladwin who said, when that consecration took place, we should wait to see whether it would eventually 'seem good to the Holy Spirit', and who presumably thinks it has.

And if bishops Wright, Dow, Gledhill and Pritchard believe (as they seem to suggest) that they disagree with Dr Williams' theological views (the views, that is, which he holds 'as a theologian') on such a fundamental issue, surely they must believe that his holding these views must be detrimental to his functioning within his office, for the reasons raised above?

They write that "the Archbishop has said repeatedly ... that there is a difference between 'thinking aloud' as a theologian and the task of a bishop (let alone an Archbishop) to uphold the church's teaching." Yet Dr Williams has also shown repeatedly that he is not merely 'thinking out loud'. His correspondence describes his 'conversion', from one set of convictions to another (albeit, one with some fuzzy edges about such things as appropriate ceremonies). Moreover, as has been observed in some of the comments in response to the bishops' letter, Dr Williams did not write the letters in question 'as a theologian', but as the Archbishop of Wales, responding in a pastoral context to correspondence from a church member.

This is not to say I disrespect Dr Williams, and clearly one of the reasons why they have written is that the nineteen bishops feel some disrespect has been shown. I think I understand what he is trying to do, and to some extent why. But I believe his balancing act, weighing off personal belief against the 'beliefs of the Church', expresses a wrong understanding and expression of the episcopal office. A bishop cannot 'bishop' by repeating the 'party line' of what 'the Church' believes whilst, at the same time, holding entirely other convictions in his heart.

Not least, the reason is that although he may be able to persuade himself that his position is tenable, when those conviction become known to others they themselves can see that it is not. If we know what the man thinks, we will hardly be persuaded when he says something else.


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