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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

What did Rowan Williams say?

The Boston Globe headline (over a Los Angeles Times story) did not please the Philocrites household: "US Church Urged to Repent." Midway through his article about the Archbishop of Canterbury's Advent letter to the leaders of the world's Anglican churches, Larry B. Stammer writes:

[The Windsor Report] merely invited the US [Episcopal] church to express "regret" that its actions had caused consternation in many parts of the Anglican Communion. It also invited the church to undertake a self-imposed moratorium on similar ordinations in the future.

But Williams said yesterday that apologies were not enough, taking up a stand expressed earlier by several irate African bishops, who demanded that the US church repent.

Williams did not spell out whether he hoped the US church would cease ordaining gay men and lesbians as bishops. However, in church theology, repentance is understood to mean more than an apology. It means endeavoring to change direction and not to commit the same offense again.

"An apology may amount only to someone saying, 'I'm sorry you feel like that,' and that doesn't go deep enough," Williams wrote in a letter to the world's Anglican primates to mark the beginning of the Advent season, the period of repentance before Christmas.

"If it is true that an action by one part of the communion genuinely causes offense, causes others to stumble, there is need to ask, 'How has what we have done got in the way of God making himself heard and seen among us?" Williams wrote. "Have we bound on other churches burdens too heavy for them to bear, reproaches for which they may suffer? Have we been eager to dismiss others before we have listened?"

Stammer gives no indication at all that Williams also addressed African bishops, conservative Anglicans, and others. No repentance for them! It's as if Williams, who used to be known as a liberal orthodox theologian, had somehow decided that Archbishop Akinola is simply right when it comes to doctrine and biblical interpretation.

And yet other news coverage picked up a very different angle of the story, which Stammer doesn't mention at all. Reuters, for example, heads its story, "Anglican Leader Warns Churches on Gay Hate Message." The lede:

Anglican Church head Rowan Williams has warned church leaders that criticism of gay people could make them vulnerable to persecution or suicide.

Wow! That's a different angle! The story goes on to quote Williams:

"Remember that in many countries such people face real persecution and cruelty; even where there are no legal penalties, they suffer from a sense of rejection," Williams said in a copy of the letter released by his Lambeth Palace office.

"Young people are driven to suicide by the conviction that no one will listen to them patiently; many feel that they are condemned not for their behavior but for their nature," he added.

"Any words that could make it easier for someone to attack or abuse a homosexual person are words of which we must repent."

Huh! So repentance isn't just for liberal Americans who believe gay people have a legitimate place in the church. It's also for hatemongers in high places. But before the story settles into one news niche or the other — liberals wrong! conservatives heartless! — it would be extremely wise to take a step back.

I'd urge you to read Williams's pastoral letter itself, rather than depend on secular news summaries that arrive a bit quickly at political conclusions. Whether Williams is siding with conservatives or liberals is not, in the end, the most important question about this story; the really interesting question is whether he is providing theological language and reasoning that could help the church stay together. A further question is whether the Anglican Communion — a very loose federation in the first place — needs to "stay together" at all.

The archbishop's letter has five sections. The first section is a meditation on the meaning of Advent for the mission of the church:

We are drawn together by love and gratitude for what we see in Christ's first appearing — his birth in humility, his ministry, his saving death and glorious resurrection — and by loving hope for his coming again. . . .

Drawn into the fellowship created by the Holy Spirit, we live not from ourselves, our feelings, thoughts or achievements, not even from the fullness of our grasp of the faith into which God has called us, but from the life poured into us by God's free grace — so that the common life of the Church becomes a sign in the world of God's life and activity, a sacrament of his love.

Here there are judgments of trends on both "sides" of the current debate: Conservatives are more likely to emphasize the limitations of "our feelings, thoughts or achievements," but liberals are more likely to emphasize the shortcomings of "the fullness of our grasp of the faith." But Williams continues:

[The church] is made what it is by the Word of God incarnate, by the Word written in Scripture, by the Word proclaimed in speech and sacrament. As the Spirit makes the Word present and alive again and again among us, the Church is the place where God makes himself heard and seen.

Notice what he is doing here: The Word is not just embodied in Jesus and in scripture (as fundamentalists would tend to have it). It is also encountered in the life of the church ("proclaimed in speech and sacrament") and in contemporary experience ("present and alive again and again among us") — which, from the point of view of liberals, is one of the ways we come to recognize God's blessing in the lives of gay and lesbian people. The Anglican tradition emphasizes scripture, reason, and tradition as authoritative — and liberals would say that reason includes our thoughtful, faithful meditations on contemporary experience and the needs of the world. Williams is explicitly acknowledging the significance of each branch of Anglican theological authority. He then writes:

But the Church is also where our failures are most painfully visible. The Church therefore must show God to the world not only in its faithfulness and holiness, but in its willingness to repent and begin again its journey of discipleship. . . . [I]n the Church we can never call on others to repent without ourselves acknowledging that we too in all sorts of ways are sinners in need of grace. If only the Church's renewal were always a matter of other people's repentance! But God speaks the same words to all and our first (though not our only) duty must be to hear clearly what he says to each of us.

The second section briefly describes the difference between apology and repentance. The third section is what both sides of the news coverage focused on while ignoring its larger context. Williams sets the repentance of the liberal churches in the US and Canada in the context of their failure to show sensitivity to scripture and tradition: "Have we acted in such a way as to suggest that we do not believe we are under the authority of Scripture — that the Church is not the creation of the Word?" The Los Angeles Times coverage makes it seem that Williams only emphasized this point, making him into a sudden advocate of biblicism. Although he is less explicit about this, one could argue that Williams sets the repentance of the conservatives in the conext of their failure to show sensitivity to reason and experience. My continuing frustration with Williams is that, while trying to urge liberals to present their scriptural and theological case, he keeps on neglecting to urge the conservatives to pay attention to what the Spirit may be saying in the lives and experiences of gay Christians.

Williams writes that the 1998 Lambeth Resolution concluded that Anglican churches cannot with scriptural warrant bless "homosexual practice," but this is where he also writes at some length about the dangerous homophobia of some conservatives. (Reuters and other news outlets focus in on this section.) Williams concludes: "We are bound to ask, with the greatest care, how we best communicate the challenge of the gospel to homosexual persons and how we may free ourselves from unreasoning fear or even hatred." Actually listening to them would seem key to me.

The fourth section addresses questions of polity and interdependence among the various Anglican churches. If I could raise one ecumenical red flag here, it would be in response to this statement: "How can we be true to our consciences, yet aware that the Church as the whole Body needs to reflect and decide — not just ourselves and our friends?" The Anglican Communion is not "the whole Body" because the church extends well beyond the borders of Anglicanism. From one perspective, I would strongly endorse the notion that the full church — the whole church, right to left, Catholic to Quaker — is reflecting on the mission God gives it. But unity can be an idol. Anglicanism has been a loosely federated sort of tradition for very solid reasons, and some of the proposals for tightening the constraints on national churches' independence seem to violate at least two centuries of practice in the Episcopal Church.

The final section is an invitation to spend the second week in Advent reflecting on the issues facing the Anglican Communion. As the aspiring spouse of an Episcopal priest — and as someone with a long and abiding interest in the Anglican tradition — I suppose I've already started to take him up on the invitation.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 30 November 2004 at 10:15 PM

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Larry Stammer:

December 1, 2004 09:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

Actually, as published in the Los Angeles Times, the story did, in fact, mention that conservative bishops had been taken to task.

The second and third paragraphs:

The spiritual head of Anglicanism also appeared to direct criticism at conservative bishops in Africa and South America who violated church laws by claiming jurisdiction over U.S. parishes that disagreed with their church's stands on homosexuality. The Episcopal Church is the American wing of the Anglican Communion.

In calling for repentance on both sides, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was more forceful than the recommendations made last month by a panel that examined how the 77-million-member Anglican Communion could maintain unity in the face of the Episcopal Church's elevation last year of a gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire.

Another paragraph from the same story as published by The Times:

In the same letter, Williams underscored the Communion's stance against homophobia, admonishing church leaders not to use "any words that could make it easier for someone to attack or abuse a homosexual person." A gay man was recently killed in a brutal attack near the archbishop's London residence.

Larry B. Stammer
Los Angeles Times


December 1, 2004 10:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm very grateful to Larry Stammer for pointing out paragraphs that did appear in his original article in the Los Angeles Times but which the editors at the Boston Globe cut. When I went to the Times Web site to compare the two versions, I skimmed quickly through the article, looking primarily to see if more of the story had been cut from the end. Holding a bit too closely to the old "inverted pyramid" notion of journalistic prose, I thought the editors at the Globe would have trimmed from the bottom. But no: Instead it turns out that the Globe cut two crucial paragraphs higher up in the story specifically about the archbishop's comments about homophobia.

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