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.
Williams Processing past Anglican bishops from around the world at a service to mark the opening of the Lambeth Conference

The Sunday before I was to meet Williams in London, I went to Canterbury. The cathedral looms up over the town as it has since Chaucer’s time, an arched and buttressed slab of shortbread. The town, so long the site of pilgrimage, now hosts the forces of globalization: a thin-crust Italian pizzeria; a Starbucks in the half-timbered cottage adjoining the great arch. And yet the cathedral itself, that day, was pretty vacant: there were more entombed dead bishops than living congregants in the place. An article in the newspaper told of vandals stripping the lead from the roofs of English churches and sending it to China, and I could easily envision a time when the cathedral would be judged redundant and plundered for parts.

I rubbed the foot of the metal carapace of a bishop from the Tudor era, and as I did so I wondered how many of the dead bishops in the place were gay bishops.

There are now more Muslims than practicing Anglicans in Britain, and the Church of England’s reason for being is under review. Nominally, its head is the monarch, but Prince Charles’s civil marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles poses a problem: the church that Henry VIII founded because Rome would not let him remarry still officially opposes divorce and remarriage. So when Queen Elizabeth dies—she is 82—the church will have to justify its claim as England’s “established” church, and its preeminence in the Anglican Communion, as never before in its history.

But the Anglican Communion thrives on crisis and decline. Founded in the 16th century in a king’s fit of pique, it was swept along by the Reformation, challenged by Puritanism, weakened by the Oxford Movement of the mid-19th century (which turned many of its best minds Roman Catholic), mocked in its august pieties by the carnage of two world wars. The Anglican funeral for Princess Diana at Westminster Abbey, in 1997, had the air of a last rite for the English Church.

Again and again, though, losses in the Church of England have coincided with gains in the Anglican Communion elsewhere. With the spread of the British Empire, the communion defined itself as “the empire at prayer,” and the church’s decline in England was offset by growth in Nigeria and Uganda, in India and Hong Kong. Today, more than four-fifths of the 80 million Anglicans live outside England. Statistically, they don’t count for much. Roman Catholicism claims 2billion souls served. Islam is growing faster: today, while the dozens ofchurches in the old City of London stand gloriously empty at midday—their forecourts now spots where City bankers smoke cigarettes and talk on their mobile phones—a mosque on the high street in Hackney is full, with men leaving their shoes in a line on the sidewalk and kneeling in the garden for prayer call. And yet after 500 years the Church of England is still there, marrying and burying, keeping the flame of English-accented faith alive.

It is against this background that Williams emerged. He was born in a Welsh village called Ystradgynlais; shortly before he turned 2, he came down with spinal meningitis, which made him deaf in his left ear. Raised a Presbyterian, at age 10 he went to the Anglican church and persuaded his parents to follow him. As a teenager, he read deeply in Tolkien, Russian fiction, and Welsh poetry; he sought out Eisenstein’s films and played the stage manager in Our Town. He called himself a socialist but applied to Christ’s College, Cambridge, with a plan to study theology. It was 1968, and he was 18. He had been touted as a future archbishop of Canterbury since he was 12.

Williams at Cambridge is remembered as a “saintly person” who took in tramps and worked with disadvantaged children and yet was untouched by the tumult of the time. He steeped himself in Eastern Orthodox theology, the work of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and much else—“He seemed to have read everything,” one friend told me. For one course, he wrote his lecture notes in Latin.

He went to Oxford for a doctorate, studying Russian, and he began to explore the priesthood, making retreats at several Roman Catholic abbeys. He also joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and united the two impulses by forming the first of several movements in which he would try to reconcile his love of old-time theology and his progressive politics. After two romances foundered—a would-be girlfriend committed suicide; an engagement with a German exchange student ended abruptly—he was ordained in 1978.

In the priesthood, Williams found the combined role of scholar and leader that has defined him ever since. He took a job at a school in Yorkshire affiliated with a quasi-monastic settlement called the Community of the Resurrection, and there wrote his first book, The Wound of Knowledge, about mystics from Augustine to Saint John of the Cross. It is a commanding work, but it is framed with passages that show Williams to be wary of judgments and formulas. He declared:

Christian faith has its beginnings in an experience of profound contradictoriness. [So the church should proclaim] a hidden God, who does not uncover his will in a straight line of development, but fully enters into a world of confusion and ambiguity and works in contradictions.

Williams is a difficult writer, often abstruse and in a hurry to get to the next point. But his books are shards of autobiography, and his account of faith’s contradictoriness is an account of his own contradictoriness.

"He is the best theological mind in England—there’s no one with his combination of breadth and depth,” Timothy Radcliffe told me. We were eating a pub lunch near Blackfriars Hall in Oxford, where Radcliffe, a Dominican friar, first met Williams, in 1973. “People here were awfully surprised when he accepted the call to be a bishop in a small diocese in Wales.”

At Cambridge, Williams had met Jane Paul, a theology student; they would be married in 1981. Academically, he was on his way: he was named dean of Clare College, Cambridge, then Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, the top theological post in the university. Yet all the while, he was making his way, prosaically, as a priest—living in a rectory, giving talks in the tensely multiracial east London that the Clash sang about. In 1991, a bishop in Wales put his name forward as a candidate for bishop of Monmouth, even though he had never run a parish, and he got the job.

Leaving Oxford for Wales was like leaving Yale for Ypsilanti. But Williams rerooted himself in the place by mastering Welsh, and in 1999 he was elected archbishop of Wales. He also wrote half a dozen books there. Two stand out; in them, he developed “contradictoriness” into a highly unorthodox approach to leadership.

In Lost Icons (2002), Williams mourned the “cultural bereavement” brought on by the loss of “the language of the soul.” This has led, he wrote, to a loss of the self, even as the self is superficially exalted. Free of obligations to one another, we are prone to mistrust and violence. The argument is an essentially conservative one, but instead of retrenchment, Williams urged patience, and conversation: “Current confusion over the family or gender roles or ‘sexual preference,’ over religion and secularity … and many other things suggests that no consensus is going to appear in a hurry.” In Anglican Identities (2003), a compilation of lectures given before his nomination, he suggested what a church (and a church leader) dedicated to such an approach might look like, in a series of portraits of leading Anglicans through the ages—such as the poet and priest George Herbert, whom Williams praised for his “embrace of emotional ambiguity and doubt on the basis of a deep and sophisticated doctrinal conviction.”

The books were well received, but these days another piece of writing gets all the scrutiny. This is “The Body’s Grace,” a talk Williams gave to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in 1989, at a grave moment in the AIDS crisis. In it he stood back from the tug-of-war over church teachings on sexuality in an attempt to “do justice to the experience, the pain and the variety, of concrete sexual discovery.”

The sources of Christian strictures on homosexuality are many: passages in the book of Genesis and the letters of Saint Paul; church traditions and customs; the notion of men and women as sexually complementary; the teachings that the only place for sex is within marriage and that the essential purpose of sex is the begetting of children. Over time, many of these strictures have been eased, if only informally—through readings of the Bible that acknowledge it as a selective, time-bound document, say, or through a view of sex that acknowledges all the good things about it besides procreation. Some thinkers have sought to argue that the prohibitions against homosexuality are theologically unsound. Others have sought to show them as petty compared with Jesus’ concern for oppressed peoples in the Gospels (which have nothing to say about homosexuality). Traditionalists, in response, treat homosexuality as part of a slippery slope—arguing that any easing of the prohibitions against gay sex will undercut the broader Christian view of sexuality, disfiguring not only the institution of marriage but “the nature of man … created in the image of God,” as Pope Benedict put it in a now-notorious address in December.

Williams took a different approach, focusing on the concept of grace. From a sex scene in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, he drew a definition of grace as beautiful and convincing as any I know.

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.

From there, the essay has the inevitability of a proof in philosophy. Gay people, too, deserve to be wanted sexually—deserve the body’s grace. The full expression of this grace through sexual relations takes time and the commitment of the partners to come to know each other—through the commitment of marriage or something like it. Sexual fidelity is akin to religious fidelity—“not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound.” For the church to stand in the way of such relationships, straight or gay, is to stand in the way of God’s grace.

It was brilliant theology: learned, human, equally open to tradition and to experience. And it was characteristically Anglican, following a via media between the traditionalists and the progressives. Unlike the more revisionist members of his communion, Williams didn’t apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to the Christian past and assume that old doctrines are unsound simply because they are old. Unlike gender theorists, he didn’t treat sexuality as merely a social construct. Unlike the present pope, he didn’t change the subject, considering homosexuality chiefly in terms of its effects on a constellation of Christian teachings about human nature. He wrote about homosexuality as a fact of modern life, and used a modern English novel to make his point.

What would a church dedicated to fostering “the body’s grace” look like? It is hard to say. Human sexual experience is as fluid and complicated as human religious experience, and no church has ever had a wholly consistent set of sexual teachings, even though (as Williams put it in the essay) “culture in general and religion in particular have devoted enormous energy to the doomed task of getting it right.” Saint Paul thought unmarried people shouldn’t bother seeking spouses, because the end of time was near; Luther was as enraged by the spectacle of monks with mistresses as he was by the selling of indulgences; the Roman Catholic Church, while championing marriage, has canonized precious few married people as saints, presenting “the married state” as inferior to “the religious life” of a priest or nun. Williams didn’t take up this pockmarked history in the essay, and it isn’t clear whether he expected Christian prohibitions on homosexual behavior to be rejected or just hoped they would fade away, like the medieval restrictions on lending at interest. But the omission of the big picture actually made his argument more credible. Here was a church leader considering the shape of sexual experience, not the structure of the church, and doing so through the notion, at once ancient and utterly familiar, of sexual fidelity: as a means of grace; and as a figure for the life of the church, in which believers can know the way forward only by going there together, staying faithful to God and each other even when they disagree.

It was theology like this, with its disregard for Rome, that led the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a curt document in 2000, to characterize the Anglican Communion, and all the other churches rooted in the Reformation, as essentially defective—little better than the “gravely deficient” non-Christian religions. And it was theology like this that led many Anglicans and Episcopalians to conclude that the ordination of openly gay people as bishops was not only permissible, but full of grace.

Presented by

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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