Interviews March 2009

A Flock Divided

Paul Elie talks about Archbishop Rowan Williams's balancing act, and the schisms threatening the Anglican Church.

Rowan Williams—reader of Tolkien and prolific author, opponent of nuclear weapons and the Iraq War, Latin note-taker and distinguished scholar at Cambridge, husband and father—presides over 80 million Anglican believers around the world.  Elected as archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, he is now, as Paul Elie describes in his March Atlantic piece, “The Velvet Reformation,” uniquely poised to guide his flock through a controversy that threatens to split it in two: whether to accept gay bishops and how to open the church to lesbian and gay members.

As the gay rights movement has come into its own over the past several decades, and as cultural norms and understanding of sexuality have evolved, many religions have had to grapple with how to address these changing frames of mind and experience. Even just within Christianity, there have been stark differences over how to address homosexuality: the Presbyterian and Congregationalist Churches, for example, have committed to embracing equal-rights for all, whereas Evangelical churches and the Roman Catholic Church have opted to hold gay people firmly at a distance. The Anglican Communion alone, Elie writes, “has sought to have it both ways: at once affirming traditional Christian notions of marriage and family, love and fidelity, and adapting them to the experiences of gay believers.”

But straddling such a tendentious fault line has not been easy. Schism seemed imminent last summer when the Anglican bishops met for their once-a-decade gathering in Canterbury. Shortly before the conference, a group of traditionalist bishops had held a rival meeting in Jerusalem, upset with what they perceived as Williams’s tolerance of gay clergy. Progressive church leaders expressed disappointment, too, after Williams decided not to invite Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the only openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, to the conference. In the end, despite a boycott by the Communion’s most conservative members, more than 600 bishops assembled and affirmed their unity and commitment to forging ahead on the issues facing the Church in the 21st century.

As Elie tells it, Williams deserves much of the credit for having kept the Anglican Communion together through this difficult period. Williams is, in Elie’s words, a man “wary of judgments and formulas” whose patience and willingness to listen distinguish him even as they frustrate those hoping for speedy resolution. Elie traveled to England to see the state of the debate for himself and found a community that while not thriving numerically is spiritually robust, guided by a leader who commands the respect and hope of those on both sides of the Church’s aisles.

I interviewed Elie by phone and email at the end of January.

—Justine Isola

You met with Rowan Williams while reporting this piece. What were your impressions of him?

My daily work is editing books and working with authors, and when I sat down with Williams for the first time, I felt immediately that he identifies himself as an author. That might seem obvious: he's written several dozen books. But the point is that he understands himself as a writer first of all. Not as a bishop who writes, or as a pastor who happens to be a bishop and writes books on the side, or a scholar who happens to have a leadership position. The way he spoke and carried himself reminded me of the writers I work with.

It was through his writing – not, say, his position on gay bishops – that I first took an interest in him. I'm the author of a book about the novelist Flannery O'Connor, among other writers. A few years ago I read a couple of essays Williams had written about O'Connor, and I found them striking in their depth and attention to the texts. They weren’t the usual after-dinner remarks by a public figure about one of his favorite writers.  They were literary criticism – and literary criticism with a real religious dimension. A couple of years afterward I heard that Williams was in Washington, spending the summer writing a book on Dostoyevsky in the Jesuit community at Georgetown University. This I found impressive too. That the head of the Anglican Communion would take a leave from his job and come to a Roman Catholic university in Washington to write about Dostoyevsky suggested an unusual independence or literary identity.

In your piece, you mention Williams's use of the term "contradictoriness" to describe the experience of Christian faith. It's not a word one hears often.

I think Williams made it up. It's a characteristic expression for him – intellectual, a little awkward, but oddly memorable. And in the piece I make the case that it’s the key to his character.

He sees “contradictoriness” as a quality at the root of Christianity, and he sees that as a strength. What he means is that any tradition as broad as Christianity is going to have contradictions all over the place. Any honest Christian believer feels contradictions all the time between what we hold as home truths versus what we see around us, or even between our beliefs and the way we ourselves act. You can either try to resolve these contradictions by force, or you can try to wait for them to resolve themselves on their own over time.

Williams seems inclined to wait.

That’s right. Right after Thanksgiving last year, he gave a homily for the first Sunday of Advent, and it was a beautiful explication of what might be called his theology of waiting. Our culture doesn't want us to wait. We're always encouraged to get things done, to master the task at hand, to make a decision and move on to the next thing. For Williams, the fact that the Christian church sets aside four weeks for the anticipation of the birth of the child Jesus is a reminder of the importance of waiting, of anticipation.

You can see how the practice of waiting becomes a problem for a public figure. It certainly has been a problem for Williams. The press usually doesn't want to hear "Could you please come back to us in 10 years on this issue?"

You show in the piece that Williams is urging the Anglican Communion to take its time on the issue of gay sexuality, while many other Christian denominations have already adopted firm stances on the issue, one way or another. Is there anything about the Anglican Church's history or theology that has caused it not to be able to outline a clear position on this by now?

The Anglican tradition has one foot in Protestantism and one foot in Catholicism. There have always been people who claim that it's essentially an outgrowth of the Catholic Church, which goes back through the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, and also people who claim that it's an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation, which was a rebellion against the Catholic Church. Among Anglicans, there's a continuing fear that this ambiguity is going to be resolved one way or the other. Traditionalists are afraid that the further the Anglican Communion goes in creating openings for women in the clergy, for married clergy, and openly gay clergy, the less it will be able to claim any kinship with the Roman Catholic Church, which is against all these things. They say that if you go too far down this slippery slope, tolerating modern views of sexuality, you will just find yourself on the path of Protestant individualism.

 Then again, it's many of the Protestant churches that are most set against homosexuality. The real reason why sexuality in the churches makes so many people uneasy is because it forces the churches to move into areas where traditional formulas and distinctions don't make things any clearer.

Why is this issue attracting so much attention now?

The church, like any traditional organization, is always very troubled by the question of how to change. How do you profess faithfulness to things that happened a couple of thousand years ago, while also keeping faith with the lives of your people today? On black civil rights, for example: how can it be that the churches aided and abetted slavery at some points in their history, and then were a source of strength for the civil rights movement at a later point in their history? They moved from doing the wrong thing to doing the right thing, obviously, but does the change suggest that the church’s older traditions don’t have any authority at all?

Christians discuss this in terms of an expression of St. Paul's: "Now is the acceptable time," Paul wrote. “Now is the day of salvation.” Desmond Tutu, when he was Archbishop of Cape Town, had to figure out what he thought the acceptable time was on a whole range of issues. He thought the church in South Africa should go forward with an affirmation for gay people, but some of the other bishops wanted to go slow and focus on apartheid only. Things went their way, and yet now the times are more propitious.

Rowan Williams faces the same question: when is the acceptable time to put pressure in a certain direction? The difference is that there are developments in the church that didn't await his initiative. The ordination of an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as the bishop of New Hampshire put the issue front and center.

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Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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