Profile March 2009

The Velvet Reformation

The place of gay people in the church is one of the bitterest disputes in Christianity since the Reformation. The Anglican Church is trying to have it both ways—affirming traditional notions of marriage and family while seeking to adapt its teachings to the experiences of gays and lesbians. Presiding over the debate, gently—too gently?—prodding the communion toward acceptance of gay clergy, is Rowan Williams, the brilliant and beleaguered archbishop of Canterbury. He’s been pilloried from all sides for his handling of these issues, but his distinctive theology and leadership style may offer the only way to open the Anglican Church to gay people without breaking it apart.
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"Really, I pity him,” a man in the kitchen said in a crisp English accent. “Poor Rowan. He is in an impossible position. He wants to stand with us, I think. But he can’t.”

A West Village apartment; a warm spring evening. In the living room, men and women of middle age nibbled at nuts and flatbreads around a fortepiano. At the kitchen table, a man in a black suit sat signing copies of a book he had written. It was like many a book party in Manhattan’s old-line gay community, except that the author, wearing a scarlet shirt with a clerical collar, was the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, and the book was the story of his struggle to become the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion.

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

I was there, tagging along with a documentary filmmaker, and I found the Englishman’s remark striking. The point of the party was to honor Robinson, whose ordination as “the gay bishop” had made him a minor celebrity, a cross between Saint Francis and Barney Frank. But the conversation in the kitchen that May evening in 2008 centered on Rowan Williams instead. As archbishop of Canterbury—the so-called Anglican pope—Williams had treated Robinson’s ordination as an unwanted provocation and had refused to invite the new bishop to the Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade meeting of the bishops in the Anglican Communion. And yet the people around me weren’t denouncing him as the oppressor; they spoke as if he, not their friend Gene, was the one engaged in an unending struggle against impossible odds.

He is. At a time when Christianity is twisted into a pretzel over the issue of homosexuality, Rowan Williams—alone among the top Christian leaders—is trying to carry on a conversation about it. His approach has been quixotic, at times baffling. But the long-term goal seems clear: to enable the church he leads to become fully open to gays and lesbians without breaking apart.

Not so long ago, Williams was the great hope of liberal religion: a progressive counterpart to the conservative pope. He was elected archbishop of Canterbury in 2002 by the other bishops on a wave of enthusiasm like the one that would later carry Barack Obama into the White House, rooted in surprise that such a person—brilliant, decent, happily married, forward-looking—had reached the top without selling his soul. He had passed swiftly through Cambridge and Oxford to become a leading Anglican theologian and had risen equally swiftly from a small bishopric in Wales to the seat of Canterbury. He was only 52 years old. He spoke four languages and could read half a dozen others. He was a poet who (saints be damned) had a son named Pip and who (Tony Blair be damned) came out early against the war in Iraq. He seemed genuinely conflicted, an open-minded person in a world of ideologues and holy rollers. With his thick gray hair, salt-and-pepper beard, and aviator glasses, he looked like a well-kempt Jerry Garcia. Here at last was a religious leader to believe in.

As Williams began his tenure as archbishop in 2003, though, the ordination of Robinson sent the issue of gay bishops to the head of the agenda. By last summer, with the Lambeth Conference approaching, schism seemed inevitable. Some bishops opposed to homosexual clergy held a rival conference in Jerusalem, denouncing Williams as a liberal pawn. Traditionalists announced plans to “go over” to the Roman Catholic Church or form their own church unless Williams got rid of Robinson. Gay activists circulated an old essay by Williams in which he had eloquently celebrated gay and lesbian relationships; the commentariat mocked him as a holy fool for some approving remarks he had made about Islamic law. Friends of Williams said he might resign. “God has given you all the gifts,” one friend told him, “and as your punishment, he has made you archbishop of Canterbury.”

The schism hasn’t come—not yet. The Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest group of Christians after the Catholics and the Orthodox, is still standing—a “hugely untidy but very lovable” body, in the words of its most famous member, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel laureate. But its unity has been compromised. In December, a half-dozen bishops broke with the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and announced their plans to found a rival Anglican Community for North America.

It is now, with his office under pressure from both left and right, that Rowan Williams’s real work is beginning. Now he must persuade the aggrieved, quarrelsome people he leads to bear with one another once and for all.

More than the future of a church is at stake. The crisis over homosexuality and the place of gay people in the church is one of the bitterest disputes in Christianity since the Reformation. Christian leaders grasp its importance: that is why they are so agitated about it. But it is hard to tell positions from prejudices. The mainline churches—Presbyterian, Congregationalist—are at the front of the equal-rights parade. Evangelicals are happily against homosexuality, the black church uneasily against, the fundamentalists fundamentally against. The Vatican insists its teachings on homosexuality are settled doctrine; the Mormons fund ballot measures such as California’s Proposition 8 against gay marriage. Ironically, many Christian leaders in Africa, the legatees of European missionaries, treat homosexuality as a dangerous import from the West.

In all this, the Anglican Communion is a dramatic testing ground, because it—alone among the churches—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.

It is not a church, strictly speaking, but an aggregation of 44 national or regional churches claiming 80 million believers in all. In theory, its leaders have dealt with conflict by trying to follow the via media, the middle way between extremes. In practice, this means that extremes coexist, jostling each other. Sunday service can feature brilliantined choirboys, or an organist, or dancing women in kente cloth. C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot were Anglicans; so are George and Barbara Bush. The Episcopal Church has a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as its presiding bishop, while the Church of England has no women bishops at all. If this church cannot find a way forward on homosexuality, then none can—and the clash between gays and Christians over marriage and the like may go on for much of the millennium.

All of this puts Williams in an impossible position. Like the pope, he is at the top of an organization with all the treasures and furniture of empire. But his actual power is closer to that of the Dalai Lama: the “soft power” of example and persuasion. And just as the Dalai Lama’s commitment to dialogue with China strikes some people as accommodation, so Williams’s willingness to let gay-friendly leaders and anti-gay ones each occupy space in the church can seem indecisive, even bumbling. But it is grounded in the conviction that the true Christian, rather than rushing to judgment, is willing to wait, confident, as Williams has put it, that it is “through the events of conflict and rupture, through the crisis of acceptable religious meanings,” that the way forward is found.

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Paul Elie, a senior editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own.

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