Gay and not-so-gay

George Austin considers Dr Williams' understanding of gay relationships and the trouble this causes him as Archbishop of Canterbury trying to reconcile the starkly opposing views within the Communion

Before the Lambeth Conference, there were dire predictions that the gay issue would bring down the fragile unity of the Anglican Communion. Even at the best of times any Archbishop of Canterbury is in a no-win situation, never able to please all the factional groups baying for his attention and support. For the 2008 Conference it was worse, given the refusal of many of the overseas bishops to attend, and with the deliberations of GAFCON seemingly as an alternative to Lambeth itself.

But this year for the Archbishop his impossible job was as bad as it has been for many a year, particularly with Lambeth coming after the bitterness of the York General Synod only days before, which itself probably heralded the end for the orthodox Catholics in the Church of England, after the rejection of Rowan Williams's lead by a large majority of the bishops, clergy and laity.

The earlier letters

The determination of the Lambeth organizers to avoid damaging conflict, conducting such discussion as there was in so-called indaba groups, which would consider issues but come to no conclusions, meant that some bishops returned home wondering if it had been worth the 5m+ cost. After all, conflict is never resolved if it is simply brushed under the carpet as at Lambeth or if it is replaced by the vicious take-it-or-leave-it rejection of York.

Sadly for Rowan Williams there was even worse to come. On August 7 The Times published a report about letters dealing with his changing attitude to the issue of homosexuality, written by Williams in 2000 and 2001 when he was Archbishop of Wales.

In them he explained how he had after 1980 gradually come to the conclusion that 'an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage.' He did make the important proviso however that this was only if it had the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness.' And he added that he was 'not convinced by the argument that the ethics for homosexual relationships should be different from those for heterosexuals (i.e. that they should not be exclusively faithful or lifelong).'

These restrictions on the unbridled liberal position go to the heart of today's divisions and should be welcomed by those who are concerned to hold to biblical principles. The impression given by those, particularly of The Episcopal Church in the USA, who seek to advance the Church's attitude in their direction, is too often that homosexuals should not in any way be restricted by the ethical standards that apply to heterosexuals.

At the same time, it is not surprising if the gay lobby came to believe that they would have the wholehearted support of Williams when he was translated to Canterbury, and that they are somewhat disappointed in his reticence. He does make clear that there has to be some conflict between his views as a theologian on the one hand and as a leader of the church on the other. This was emphasised in the letter to The Times of August 9 signed by the Bishop of Durham and seventeen other bishops, though the letter also made the point that 'many among them did not agree that Dr Williams's contention that a same-sex relationship "might reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage",' In fact this does show clearly if inadvertently that the divisions within the Church are profound.

Deeply thoughtful scholar

Liberal hopes for Dr Williams's support on the gay issue go back well before the hopes for his appointment to Canterbury. When the see of Southwark was vacant in 1998, Jeffrey John, then a residentiary canon at the cathedral, lobbied hard for Williams, at that time Bishop of Monmouth, to be appointed. A reliable source who was then a member of the Vacancy-in-see Committee claims that as a result Williams's name was presented to the Appointments Committee as the diocesan choice, with Tom Butler - then much more conservative in his views -not even mentioned; but that Archbishop Carey would have none of it.

But Rowan Williams is a spiritual man as well as a deeply thoughtful scholar, one who will come to his conclusions and give his support not because it follows a current trend but because it seems right as he judges the evidence - and thus probably just the right man to deal with the current controversies in the Church as Archbishop of Canterbury.

This is reflected in the correspondence of 2000. When he speaks of a same-sex relationship and comments that it 'might reflect the love of God', he goes on to say that he is 'not convinced by the argument that the ethics for homosexual relations should be different from those for heterosexuals (i.e. that they should not be exclusively faithful or lifelong)'.

This view, held by the more extreme liberals, effectively rules out any understanding of sinfulness, and is one of the major problems in coming to a satisfactory conclusion in the present arguments dividing the Church. The condemnation in Leviticus 20.13 is against sodomy -rather than a condemnation of a man for being a homosexual.

What remains as sin

It would be false argument to reject this on the grounds that the writer then goes on to demand the death penalty for this, since only a few verses earlier he has demanded the same punishment for adultery - which Jesus himself clearly rejected when he forgave the woman taken in adultery. But adultery remains a sin as does sodomy, and for the same reason that adultery, theft, deception and the rest are still sins - that they deliberately damage.

But the loving acceptance by Jesus of the adulterous woman is also a curb on those at the other extreme who seem to consider the homosexual condition itself as a sin. The only solution in the present crisis in the Anglican Communion lies between those two extremes.

It will not be solved if The Episcopal Church in the United States continues to make and break agreements, nor if the conservative African and South American branches of the Communion refuse even to talk. Rowan Williams has the combination of theology, spirituality and common sense which could provide the leadership so desperately needed. \ND\

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