Rowan Williams and the cost of communion

I really didn’t want to write this post. The grim sound of the Anglican churches tearing themselves to pieces over human sexuality has been a constant through the quarter-century over which I have studied the history of those churches, yet I have until now largely kept my counsel. What follows will not add to the biblical and theological arguments about the status of same-sex relationships, which are (as I see it) now stale, and unlikely to yield any further development. Those who are convinced by them are now unlikely to change their minds. However, the decision of the General Synod (as I read it) moves the Church of England into quite new territory, in that it commits the church to some kind of affirmation of same-sex relationships, but stops short of identifying them precisely with heterosexual marriage in its full symbolic and sacramental significance. This has been roundly dismissed as Anglican fudge, but that is to evade the issue. The church now has an opportunity: to take the time it has given itself, and to work out what it would mean to affirm permanent, faithful and stable same-sex relationships as something of equal value but distinct. There is, for now, some space open in which to develop a theological understanding of those relationships that is durable and not merely a staging-post to something else.

I fear, however, that it will not be possible to keep that space open, because too many on both sides of the debate do not wish it to remain open. For some, the current situation could only ever be an interim stage in a longer transition to full equality; on the conservative side, the implications of the Synod vote are already unacceptable, and require an ecclesiological fix to create two churches within the Church of England, in order that the two sides need no longer be required to acknowledge each other. Similar lines are being repainted in the wider Communion. Everyone, of course, must decide which issues are fundamental. But too many on both sides have simply ceased to listen. Worse, I fear that too many have reached the stage where they have ceased to think of the Other as really Christian at all. Most are too polite to say as much in public, of course. But when one simply cannot comprehend the position of the Other, it is dangerously easy to suppose that their position is not held in good faith – that it cannot really be the product of a prayerful and sincere reflection on Scripture, history and the world which we see around us. It must therefore (the argument goes) instead be the product of something else: from one point of view, a refusal to attend to the prompting of the Spirit, or deeply-held fear (homophobia, in its strict definition), or a desire to preserve a heteronormative and unjust social order (of which one is a beneficiary), or a simple failure to love one’s neighbour; on the other hand, it is tempting to assume that the liberal position is evidence of a fundamental lack of seriousness, the refusal of the proud fallen mind to accept what has been clearly revealed. At such a point dialogue, or even co-existence, become difficult if not impossible. But it must be attempted nonetheless.

As always, I turn to history. The 1998 Lambeth Conference is well known for its rancorous exchanges over sexuality, and (eventually) the wholly conservative Resolution 1.10. In 1998, Rowan Williams was bishop of Monmouth, yet to become archbishop of Wales or of Canterbury; the controversy over the abortive appointment of Jeffrey John as bishop of Reading lay ahead. Williams gave an address to a plenary session of the Conference, a revised version of which was subsequently published in the Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics, entitled ‘Making moral decisions’. In it I find a call to a kind of Christian deliberation that speaks directly to the present situation. It is a rich and complex piece of writing, and hard to summarise, but I here try to draw out some key themes.

In order to frame the issue of moral discernment in a less heated way, Williams is talking here not of sexuality, but of the manufacture and retention of weapons of mass destruction, against which Williams had campaigned for many years. ‘I believe it is impossible for a Christian to tolerate, let alone bless or even defend’ the possession of such weapons. However, ‘I at once have to recognise that Christians do it; not thoughtless, shallow, uninstructed Christians, but precisely those who make themselves accountable to the central truths of our faith…. I cannot at times believe that we are reading the same Bible; I cannot understand what it is that could conceivably speak of the nature of the Body of Christ in any defence of such strategy.’ But Williams knows that these are the people whom he meets at the Eucharist, who do indeed hear the same Scriptures as he does ‘and I am aware that they offer their discernment as a gift to the Body.’ So though Williams wants to argue against such views ‘with all my powers’, and believes that Christian witness to the world is weakened by the expression of them, ‘yet it seems I am forced to ask what there is in this position that I might recognise as a gift, as a showing of Christ.’

There will be limits to what can be tolerated, however, which when reached would justify a breaking of communion; the paradigmatic case is among the German churches in the 1930s. But that point will not be easy to discern in advance, and will not yet have been reached if ‘we can recognise that our partners in this conversation are speaking the same language and wrestling with the same given data of faith… We watch to see if our partners take the same kind of time, sense that they are under the same sort of judgement or scrutiny, approach the issue with the same attempt to be dispossessed by the truth they are engaging with.’ In the meantime ‘this leaves my own decisions to some extent under question. I cannot have absolute subjective certainty that this is the only imaginable reading of the tradition’. If I still conclude that the brother and sister that I recognise is mistaken in their decision, and that that mistake is a deep and damaging one, then ‘I accept for myself the brokenness in the Body that this entails. These are my wounds; just as the one who disagrees with me is wounded by what they consider my failure or even betrayal’. So long as we have a language in common – and what Williams calls a ‘grammar of obedience’ – then to remain in communion is vital, despite the cost. The need is not for separation, or some other form of impaired fellowship, but ‘to turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided.’

At Lambeth 1998 Williams was already known as a ally of gay and lesbian Anglicans, and his intervention was no doubt mostly read as a tacit rebuke to the conservatives. Yet, read without prejudice, it catches both sides in its net. In a diverse church, no-one should hope to avoid the hard work of dialogue, and its cost. If it really is the case that Anglicans can no longer recognise each other as members of the same Body, responding faithfully to the same data – and the situation cannot somehow be recovered – then the Communion will not survive in its current form, and will not deserve to.

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