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Rowan Williams: pragmatism and belief

Rowan Williams: pragmatism and belief


From The Times
August 7, 2008

A letter from Rowan Williams may reopen argument within the Church of England. But he should not be afraid to voice in public his liberal views

It would be naive to suppose, because the Lambeth Conference did not end in schism, that the rifts have been healed or the differences over the most contentious issues narrowed. For two weeks, the 670 bishops were able, through prayer, discussion, personal encounter and a skilful focus on the spiritual rather than the political, to reach out enough to touch each other's point of view, if not to embrace their differences. Now, however, they have returned to their sees around the world. Positions look clearer from afar. Arguments have been reignited. And there is every danger that the harmony temporarily enjoyed in Canterbury will prove too brittle to survive.

Already it is clear that those who boycotted the conference are not prepared to accept its outcomes. They will not abide by its exhortations for the Anglican Communion's 38 provinces to respect each other's jurisdiction and not accept the allegiance of dissidents from other churches and nations. The Global Anglican Future Conference, which met in Jerusalem before Lambeth, believes the Church to be in real danger. It is still determined to prevent the communion from embracing principles and practices that it sees at odds with scriptural teaching. And within the Church of England, both the Catholic and the evangelical wings remain unreconciled to any compromise with social or doctrinal liberalism.

Much will therefore be made of the letter that Rowan Williams wrote shortly before he became Archbishop of Canterbury in which he says that he has concluded that "an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage". His critics will parade this as evidence that he is, in private, an extreme liberal whose views reflect those of the gay lobby. Liberals may also attack him for not standing, as Archbishop, by his own principles.

Such attacks would be as unfair as they are unhelpful in holding together the communion. Dr Williams's letter, written in reply to criticism by an evangelical Christian of any accommodation with homosexuality, is an honest account of how his views evolved since 1980 in light of his reading, scriptural studies and meetings with gay Christians. His plea is essentially for tolerance, not just of gay people, but of opposing views within the Church on this issue. And far from endorsing different standards of ethics, he insists on the proviso that stable gay relationships are of value only if they have "the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness".

He may be vulnerable to criticism from liberals that, in his present office, he has placed pragmatism above conviction. It is not only his earlier retreat over Jeffrey John's appointment as Bishop of Reading; it is his insistence, in the run-up to Lambeth, on the Anglican Communion abiding by earlier decisions not to bless same-sex relationships or to countenance the ordination of homosexuals. Was he not, some may argue, guilty of hypocrisy in decrying political pragmatism - such as Tony Blair's diplomacy before the Iraq war - while subordinating his own convictions to the pragmatism of church politics?

The charge is wounding. But it overlooks Dr Williams's conviction that the communion has to be held together, as schism would be as damaging to faith as it is to church organisation. He is prepared, therefore, to be reticent and wait.

There is nothing dishonourable or hypocritical in this. But there are dangers. The Church will miss the lead that an archbishop should offer on matters of practice and belief. Simply waiting for time to ease divisions and persuade his opponents is naive: they are ready to push their agenda hard. The great archbishops have been men of spiritual courage. Dr Williams has views that are important for the Church. They should be aired.


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