The Way We Live Now

Desert Island Bishops

GREEKS bearing gifts are nowhere near so dangerous as archbishops giving interviews. Remember George Carey and the Readers Digest? His tongue loosened by the congenially secular ambiance, the neophyte Archbishop said what he thought, rather than what he knew he ought to say. ‘The idea that only a male can represent Christ at the altar is a most serious heresy.’

It is not often that the leader of a Church is so candid about the theological opinions of its major ecumenical partners. Characterized, thus, as both heretics and heresiarchs, the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch no doubt drew their own conclusions.

Poor George! He spent the rest of this archiepiscopate trying to live it down. Only when retirement beckoned was he able, in an interview with the same journalist, to repeat and reaffirm what had obviously always been his opinion.

It was Sue Lawley and Desert Island Discs which caught Rowan Williams out.

Rowan had knowingly ordained a practising homosexual in the Diocese of Monmouth. Would he do the same in Canterbury, asked the probing Sue. There was a long silence. No, came the considered reply, he would not. He had felt free to act as he had in Wales because the Welsh Church had no statement on the matter; the Church of England, however, did have a statement, and he would abide by that.

It seemed like neat footwork, and it was enough for Lawley. But the towering mind of the new archbishop must have seen through his own subterfuge. Rowan must have known that his response raised more questions than it answered. In a Communion in danger of disintegration on the issue of provincial autonomy, it is not easy to see how the new Archbishop’s contribution could be helpful.

First of all, the claim that, because the Welsh Church does not have a ‘statement’ on the matter, an individual bishop can act according to his own conscience is both misleading and dangerous.

It is misleading because, though it is true that there is no Welsh equivalent of Issues in Human Sexuality, that does not mean that the teaching of the Church in Wales is or has been ambiguous on the matter of clerical homosexuality. Even the English document, it must be remembered, was an attempt to uphold and adapt existing teaching and practice (largely shared by the Churches of England and Wales), not a consideration of the matter de novo.

The claim is dangerous because it sets precedents. There will, at any given time, be numerous matters on which the contemporary House of Bishops of a particular province has not issued a definitive statement (particularly when that House of Bishops has not yet celebrated the centenary of its own inception). The role of the bishop is faithfully to interpret, in contemporary circumstances, the tradition he has received; not solipsistically to anticipate possible modifications of it. It is, or should be, the long view which counts.

The second issue is Archbishop Rowan’s appeal to Issues in Human Sexuality.

Whilst it is true that that document was the shibboleth of the last archiepiscopate (and probably the best compromise that could be reached, considering the episcopal personnel involved), it has never been debated or approved by the General Synod of the Church of England. Nor was the suggestion that it should be discussed at deanery and diocesan level taken up with alacrity. This might simply be because the laity of the Church of England could think of better things to do of an evening than to gather in windswept church halls to discuss the sexual proclivities of their clergy. Or it might indicate a gut instinct that the question had better not be put because (as on so many other matters) a consensus could not be reached.

Whatever the reason, the document was effectively not discussed at any synodical level, and therefore is not (and cannot be said to be) the teaching of the Church of England. It is merely a gentleman’s agreement among bishops who still consider themselves gentlemen. Whether it endures will to a large extent depend on whether the new incumbent at Lambeth continues the coercive fireside chats which allegedly characterised his predecessor (and of which Rowan himself is said to have fallen foul in his candidature for Southwark). The new Archbishop, having done what he has done in Wales, will find it increasingly hard to keep up the pressure in England on an episcopate who have most of them, though clandestinely, done the same thing.

But that is not the point. The point is that the status of the statement to which Rowan is appealing very largely depends on how he himself chooses to implement it. It is not a decision of the General Synod over which he has no control. He cannot appeal to it to let him off the hook of private judgement.

Canny observers of the precarious world of Anglican ecclesiology will, I suspect, have noticed a curious omission from the Archbishop’s reply to Ms Lawley. There was no mention of the decision of the last Lambeth Conference (though Dr Williams has referred to it on other occasions).

Williams was a major (if not entirely pellucid) contributor to the debate on human sexuality and Anglican ecclesiology which was a major feature of that conference. The Resolution of the Conference has been at the centre of debate about ‘local option’ on homosexual conduct ever since. It seems strange, to say the least, that the convenor of the next Lambeth Conference did not on this occasion (and after considerable thought) profess to have been guided by the deliberations and conclusions of the last.

Whatever line you take on the ordination of practising homosexuals and the blessing of same sex unions (and readers of this magazine will vary in their positions and their conclusions) none of this can be supposed to be, ecclesiologically speaking, very satisfactory. It is frankly alarming when an archbishop freely admits that private judgement takes precedence over enduring tradition, and that he can only legitimately be restrained by the exercise of the very provincial autonomy which he has himself described as threatening the unity of the Communion.

Since few provinces have as yet seen the need for the sort of ‘statement’ which Williams declares to be the only restraint on unilateral action, his reply to Ms Lawley can only be construed as an incitement to every episcopal maverick (in a province which has not made such a ‘statement’) to do his own thing. We can expect, moreover, as recently in Canada, a plethora of ‘statements’ after the event – and the consequent depressing sound of stable doors slamming after the departure of the relevant horse.

There is, so far as I can see, no winner in this situation; not gay people, not Anglican unity and solidarity, not ecumenical understanding and dialogue. An Anglican Communion which degenerates into a local option shopping mall of moral and doctrinal diversity – ‘private judgement in gorgeous raiment’ – is bad news all round. And not less so for the author of the Dimbleby Lecture 2002.


Geoffrey Kirk Has been Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham for the last twenty-two years.

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