Interviews March 2009

A Flock Divided

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

What’s at stake for the Anglican Communion in the debate over whether to accept gay bishops?

Most of the Anglican Communion's traditions have to do with the fact of the English language—that it has unified Christians of many different lands who all speak English. So unity is both vaguely defined and vitally important. If the Anglican Communion were to split, not only would it be very confusing, but it would do away with one of the marks of Anglicanism, which is that it exists throughout the English-speaking world in a single form with a lot of internal variations.

As far as individual believers, it's only natural that they look to the church for some guidance about how to live their lives and how to think about the big moral questions of the age. They want their lives as believers to be credible.

You write that "no church has ever had a wholly consistent set of sexual teachings." Do you think church leaders need to develop a coherent theology on sexuality, or will consensus among believers eventually push the church in one direction or another?

I think any real leader has to engage with these issues. The question is what does it mean to engage? In the view of the people at the Vatican, to engage with the issue is to state very clearly what your position is, and then to keep stating it in every situation. Rowan Williams engages somewhat differently. He insists that these are issues that have to be discussed as questions, and that people on all sides have to admit that we don't know everything. It's not simply a matter of politicking – that whichever side has a more convincing argument prevails. All of us have to look at our own experience, and the experience of people unlike ourselves. Having empathy with the other seems to be quite Christian.

You write in your piece that "The Body's Grace," Williams’s 1989 lecture to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, has been highly controversial. Can you talk about why it’s so provocative and powerful?

Well, one of the many ways that it’s striking is that Williams isn't speaking as a manager or politician. He's responding as a human being and as a pastor. He's concerned not so much for the structure of the church but for the experience of the people in his care. And  he roots his argument in a novel, not in scripture or doctrine. He must have been reading Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, four novels about colonial India and the British there, when the expression "the body's grace" grabbed him. So in the talk he midrashes the expression and finds his way back to some home truths about Christianity. Here he is a married man, a church leader, working off a novel. It’s a very striking way to approach gay sexuality.

Williams seems to be someone who draws on both tradition and experience.

It's very easy, especially for traditionalists, to deride experience, and to talk about any leader who is mindful of experience as a captive to the most extreme trends of the day. "We can't have experience alone be our guide," they say. "Rather, we need tradition to help us understand our experience."

Of course, I do think we need tradition to help us understand our experience. To be a Roman Catholic, as I am, is to look to the Catholic tradition in that way. The bishops historically are understood to be teachers. But for many of us, bishops are not really teachers: they are instructors. We don't sense that the instructor's experience of life informs his teaching. In fact, his teaching is a rejection of experience, of his and of ours alike. What you sense in "The Body's Grace" is that Williams is doing what real teachers do, which is mediate between the text at hand and the experience of life.

The passage you quote from is truly moving:

There may be little love, even little generosity, in Clark's bedding of Sarah, but Sarah has discovered that her body can be the cause of happiness to her and to another. It is this discovery which most clearly shows why we might want to talk about grace here. Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.

It seems obvious once you’ve read it, but I was knocked out by it. I'm 43 years old, and I'd never come across an explanation of grace that was at once so straightforward and so beautiful. The woman in the passage felt wanted by another person; she felt wanted sexually by a man. He wasn't perfect. But she understood herself as wanted, apparently for the first time, and that changed her. The point Williams draws out from this is that grace is the experience of being wanted – wanted by God. It is a desire for us that comes from outside of us. It’s so often said that “God loves us,” but to say that “God wants us” – that somehow gets to the heart of the matter.

To me it’s akin to the experience I've known in marriage. My wife and I were married in 1999 in a beautiful ceremony in a grand old church. It was the happiest day of my life. One thing that struck me especially was the collective desire of all the people in the room for our marriage to be a happy one. Some were Christians, some Jews, and some people who keep clear of religion.  But all of them were people who see marriage as real and enduring. And I felt that they all wanted us to be happy not just so that we would be happy, but because of their own convictions about marriage and their belief in marriage. It was the kind of wanting that was larger than any aggregate of individual feelings. It was what a theologian might call “the economy of the sacrament” of marriage: what the people wanted that day was akin to what God wanted for us. It’s that kind of wanting that Williams, in “The Body’s Grace,” suggests shouldn’t be withheld from gay people.

Do you think Williams needs to act or speak more decisively on the issue of gay bishops?

Williams has led again and again in his life through his words and his intellect. Where I end the piece is by trying to call attention to that fact and invite him to lead a little more definitely through his words. This is a person who can get words around a problem better than just about anybody. So leadership in this moment would consist of him really finding the words for the situation a little more clearly and forcefully than he has.

Do you sense that he will do this?

I think he put his perspective into words in "The Body's Grace." If he wanted to renounce the essay, he's had many opportunities to do so. People are badgering him all the time to give a simple answer on the question of sexuality, so the fact that he hasn't done so suggests to me that he stands by the piece. And why shouldn't he?

Now it may be that his reluctance to develop the point is tactical, an attempt to hold the church together. But I also think that his ability to frame the issues forthrightly in words is at the core of his leadership. It's one of his great gifts. And you have to ask yourself: what does it mean when a leader is essentially renouncing one of his greatest gifts in the name of leadership? It's sort of like asking Barack Obama not to use his BlackBerry – asking him not to keep communicating with people outside the government, when two-way communication is one of his great gifts. It would seem unfortunate if Rowan Williams – a person who's unusually capable of finding words for the very tough issue of Christianity and sexuality – would take a vow of silence on it in these years.

Barack Obama invited Gene Robinson to give an invocation at the beginning of the inaugural festivities – but only after he’d invited Rick Warren, who regularly speaks out against homosexuality, to give the invocation at the main event. Was that a token gesture, or something more substantive?

That’s our new president’s “contradictoriness.” It’s been pointed out endlessly that Obama is willing to sit down and have a conversation with people on different sides of an issue—meeting with the conservative journalists as well as the more progressive ones, and so forth. To some extent that was the point of having both Rick Warren and Gene Robinson give invocations at the inaugural. This is a president who's saying we can't resolve all of the questions beforehand. He’s saying we need to bear with a little contradictoriness and go forward together, even though we don't all line up on the issues in the same way. I think that's been Williams's strategy too. And it's a big difference from what we've been used to both politically and religiously.

That's a telling comparison. It also occurs to me that the issue of the hope and expectation for Williams is in some ways similar to the expectations in this country for Obama. Has it been a good thing that Williams is being held to such high expectations?

I think it's a great thing. To go back to politics for a minute: eight years ago, many reasonable people, even before the war in Iraq, expected they'd never trust a politician again, on account of the stolen election of 2000. And now not only are they trusting a politician, but they're investing outsized hopes in that politician. In the same way, many people have hoped that Williams is up to the job because they had been so disappointed with the leadership of the Church before him. Flannery O’Connor joked that the church’s policy in naming bishops was “The Wrong Man for the Job.” It seemed that Williams was different – still does, to many of us.

Has leadership of the Church had a wearying effect on him?

I think it has. My guess is that he deals with it through his writing. He has written a number of books since he became Archbishop of Canterbury – most recently the book on Dostoyevsky that he drafted in Washington. I think that writing is his way of not losing himself totally to the job. In a book, he can be the one posing the questions, not merely reacting to the things that people are asking him. He can also engage with the questions in effect posed by the dead.

He interprets Dostoyevsky as a polyphonic novelist – one who doesn't resolve the great religious questions one way or the other but dramatizes them by putting different voices with different views into conflict – such as the conflict among the four Brothers Karamazov, each with his own distinct view of God. Williams celebrates Dostoyevsky as an artist who makes it possible for us to feel religious questions as ultimate questions—as matters of life and death.

Williams tries to do something like the same thing himself. He is trying to frame the questions so they seem as important as the Christian tradition claims them to be.

You end the piece noting that at the Lambeth Conference things went smoothly. It seems that Williams's strategy has succeeded so far in holding the church together. What do you see happening in the immediate future? Will there be further confrontations, bishops breaking away to form their own communions, or has the church reached a place of stability?

I think there will be some low level agitation in the Anglican Communion for the rest of our lives. As I point out in the piece, simmering discontent is a fact of Anglican existence. It was a real achievement for Williams to coax or guide the bishops at Lambeth into a kind of unity.

I don't think that anyone really wants a schism – the so-called rebel bishops, the traditionalists, least of all. Once you've broken off, you move to the margins pretty quickly. If that's what the traditionalists think is right, I guess they'll do it, but traditionalists really prefer to influence their traditions from within.

Supposedly the Church of England is in steep decline in England itself. Did you notice any of that when you were over there?

I did, but it’s nothing new. I felt it when I was first traveling around England in 1986 –a kind of sadness that these beautiful Christian churches seemed lightly used and sparsely occupied. The Church of England is probably in the middle stage of a long decline, the sun setting on the Empire at Prayer, so to speak.

And yet it's important to remember that religions shouldn't be evaluated by their numbers. That's the world's way of measuring things. If the people in those churches are living their lives with integrity and really searching for the authentically Christian way to live, who are we to say that there are too few of them?

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Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.

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