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UGANDA: Understanding (or not) Rowan Williams

UGANDA: Understanding (or not) Rowan Williams

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue in Entebbe
August 26, 2010

In the heavily nuanced world of verbal gymnastics inhabited by Dr. Rowan Williams there lies a single truth: He is not on the same page with the vast majority of Anglicans in the Anglican Communion most notably in the Global South.

This was evident this past week when he made a guest appearance at the All Africa Conference of Bishops known as CAPA in Entebbe, Uganda.

In his address to some 400 Anglican bishops from a dozen African nations, Williams used his sermon to allude to the difficulties in the Communion, saying bishops have a "special responsibility to show the world the preciousness of those who are hated or neglected by others or by society at large".

Clergy need to listen to those they lead and serve, to find out what "their own hopes and needs and confusions are". They should not pick and choose to whom they minister, he added. "We must love and attend to their humanity in all its diversity. We cannot assume we always know better, that we always have the right answer to any specific question."

The subtext in Williams' words, especially when you see the word "diversity" is not merely those in poverty or with HIV/AIDS but also to homosexuals whom he believes met the criteria of "hated and neglected".

A deeper fiction could not be found. Williams has separated this out in his mind and, by his actions, his private views on the subject from what he must uphold as the church's received teaching. Never mind that no other single group in the world is winning the Culture Wars more decisively than those pressing the case for the full acceptance of homosexual practice. Anyone who dare opposes this behavior can now find themselves losing jobs, businesses and going to jail. The new oppressed are those willing to stand up and call sin by its name and to affirm heterosexual behavior as the only acceptable biblical practice.

We never hear anything from The Anglican Communion leader for those who stand up for the faith in the area of human sexuality and suffering for the "faith once delivered" for maintaining biblically mandated heterosexual behavior. There is a worldwide retreat by Christians in the face of cries of homophobia to anyone who dares oppose sodomy as an opportunistic behavior that has the possibility of killing you.

Williams will declaim at allegations of homophobia in Nigeria or Uganda, but say nothing about a priest of his in the Church of England who, at the age of 64, says he will "marry" a 25-year old black male model in violation of Scripture, tradition, history, medicine and reason. His silence gives consent to (the Rev.) Colin Coward. Perhaps Williams thinks that Coward and his partner are among the truly "oppressed".

Such behavior is viewed with repulsion in the Global South. This was echoed in the words of Nigerian Primate Nicholas Okoh who argued plausibly that only a man and woman in marriage are entitled to express themselves sexually. In fact the orthodox archbishop went further to state that the nature of the family is destroyed by any other sexual combination.

Williams said nothing in his speech about the sacredness of the family even though he himself is a family man. He had a golden opportunity to affirm the sanctity of the family, the joys (sometimes pain) of family life and the sacredness of sex between a husband and wife while lauding the need to reach out to the poor and oppressed and those caught in the oppression of same-sex behaviors. He didn't.

Archbishop Robert Duncan

For those attuned to Anglican politics it was particularly notable that the leader of North America's newest and fastest growing Anglican province - The Anglican Church in North America -- the Most Rev. Robert Duncan is present at this august gathering of world Anglican leaders.

He was photographed with the other Global South archbishops including John Chew of Southeast Asia and Mouneer Anis of Egypt. The photo appeared in the Guardian newspaper, no doubt to the embarrassment of Dr. Williams and to the chagrin and anger of TEC Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori who was not invited, nor would she have felt comfortable, or have anything in common with these godly African Anglican leaders.


Another theme struck by Williams was that of transformation. He said:

"God in Christ steps into our world because he wants no-one to be lost, and so he gives to each and all the possibility of changing their lives and being recreated through the Spirit. The heart of our gospel proclamation is always to say, pointing at the cross, 'See how he loves you.' and to say, pointing at the work of the Spirit in the Body of Christ, 'See what you might become.' So that when we seek to share the good news, we always begin with these two moments - gratitude for the work of redemption and hope for our transformation.

"We are called, we who are pastors and leaders, to follow this imperative by the transformation of our own lives - by recognizing our own humanity and seeking grace every hour of every day; by laboring without interruption to find ways of speaking to the depths and the true heart of all those we seek to serve so that our voice can be recognized as a voice of hope and renewal; by standing alongside our people in life and death, as so many of the saints and heroes of this continent have done."

But is transformation really the goal? An astute VOL reader wrote, "I am always struck by Christian leaders who talk about personal transformation as the goal of Christianity and the gospel. The more I study, the more convinced I become that this is simply not true.

Christ lived, died and rose again to reconcile lost men to God. Full stop. He didn't suffer and die to transform our lives. "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will." (Rom. 12:2)

"Transformation happens as we follow Christ, but so do lots of other things. In this fallen world you can also show that plenty of other worldviews and religions produce transformed lives."

Williams follows this line of thinking in the opening words of his sermon..."When we are made bishops, we pray that we may be given the grace to follow the one Good Shepherd, Our Saviour Jesus Christ, knowing that only in following him will we be set free to help bring about in his world the changes that he desires."

Focus on changes in the world and human transformation puts man right back at the center. This is man-centered religion, it is not God centered. It is ultimately egocentric and narcissistic.

Christianity is God-centered, God-focused, and God glorifying through the work of his Son. We are redeemed so that we can know God. We are not redeemed so that we can bless others. To know God and have fellowship with the creator is primary. Blessing others, human transformation, social justice, etc. are secondary issues that are by-products of being reconciled to the creator.

Part of the reason that thinkers like Williams and many evangelicals have lost their sharp edge is that they/we are competing with the world on its terms. Justice, love, mercy, transformation, "the change that he desires", etc. can be produced by Mormonism, Christianity, Joel Osteen, Oprah, Chopra, you name it. Being in Christ and reconciling men to God is at the core of what everyone needs. We are alienated, through our sin and rebellion, from our creator. Until this is fixed, nothing else matters and everything else is secondary.

Williams focused on secondary issues. He should have drawn his listeners closer to Christ. He did not. He concluded: "... our focus is on our responsibility to bring healing, justice (and sometimes judgment too), to bring hope where there is none; our responsibility to show the society we live in that there is a way of life together in society that, because it is in accord with God's purpose for men and women, promises fullness of life both here and hereafter." Nothing about this smacks of the New Birth or the promise of redemption.

Hearing whose voice?

"We listen to Jesus and then we must learn to listen to those we lead and serve, to find out what their own hopes and needs and confusions are. We must love and attend to their humanity in all its diversity, so that we become better able to address words of hope and challenge to them," said Williams. The truth is, this is a bottomless pit. There is no end to listening and serving. What is needed primarily is proclamation of the Good News in spite of the infirmities and messes people find themselves in. Jesus did not do psychotherapy with the woman who had five husbands only to discover she had commitment issues. He gave her his best one line, "I (the messiah) who speak to you am he." Healing for her life came from bowing before Him.

Williams comes across like a grand humanist with a peanut butter spread of Christianity. It is why when I hear him, I get frustrated and don't come away with anything but a lot of words thrown together designed to impress. Judging by the polite applause he got at the end, many others felt the same way.

Trying to grasp Williams is a bit like grasping hair spray from a bottle. It can't be done. One is left to wonder what exactly did he say, more importantly what did he mean, and finally what am I supposed to do about it once I really understand it?

Williams may seem to be ruling over an unruly and divided Anglican family, but many believe as a "father in God" his ability to rule is growing shakier with each passing day. If the children of the family, those with miters, lose confidence in him they will go their own way, and in the end they will take their sheep with them, and there is nothing he can do to stop it.


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