Interviews March 2009

A Flock Divided

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

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?

Justine Isola is an Atlantic staff editor.
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