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.

In January 2002, George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury since 1991, announced that he was retiring. Traditionally, the position alternates between the two “wings” of the Anglican Communion—the low church and the high church, the evangelical wing and the Anglo-Catholic one. Carey was an evangelical. Now it was the Anglo-Catholics’ turn, and Williams was put forward right away as a man for all seasons: socially liberal, yet Anglo-Catholic in his spirituality; low church in his Welsh roots and family life, yet high church in his command of the Oxbridge scene.

He was elected easily. In political terms, he had a mandate. But for what? As a writer, lecturer, and preacher, he had devoted hundreds of thousands of words to insisting that there were no obvious solutions to the problems the church faced. And yet, as the Anglo-Catholic candidate, he was now in debt to the wing of the church most agitated and impatient about the “problem” of homosexuality.

Stories began to circulate suggesting that he was in over his head. When Carey sent over his press rep to coach the new archbishop on how to deal with the media, Williams shooed him away, saying, “That’s quite all right: I know what I think.” When he went to Rome for a meeting with John PaulII, the ailing pope nodded off, for he had no idea who his guest was. (Williams tartly remarked: “Well, I won’t see him again.”) On the same trip, before a meeting with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Williams joked that he should show up wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words GRAVELY DEFICIENT. And back in London, the promotion of a little-known priest threatened to splinter the Church of England and send Williams into religiopolitical limbo.

“The Jeffrey John issue is when things came to a head here,” Giles Fraser told me, “and when things for Rowan turned positively Shakespearean.”

Fraser is the vicar of Saint Mary’s, Putney, a London church that gives the lie to notions of Anglican decline: a church at once full of families and wide open on gay issues. He met me at Waterloo Station in a black Barack Obama T-shirt and jeans, burly and baldheaded, semi-shaven, looking more like a skinhead punter than a vicar.

In the next hour Fraser, who studied theology under Williams at Oxford, told me the story of the controversial ordination. Jeffrey John is a Welshman and an old friend of Williams’s. He is gay and lives with another priest, Grant Holmes, to whom he was joined in a commitment ceremony, yet he is pledged to celibacy—which, his supporters say, makes him technically no different from a straight and unmarried priest. “At one point, when Rowan was bishop [of Monmouth],” Fraser told me, Williams and John “went to the archbishop of Canterbury about homosexuality, and Rowan apparently said to Carey, ‘Who pays the price for the gay policy? Gay people do.’ And he and Jeffrey lobbied Carey to make a change.”

But Carey made no change, and on top of that, he vetoed the nomination of Williams for the job of bishop of Southwark, near the Tate Modern in newly trendy south London, because of Williams’s obvious commitment to progress on gay issues. When Williams became archbishop of Canterbury, he sought to turn the tables. John was proposed for a post as the bishop of Reading, a half hour by rail from London, and Williams signed off on the appointment.

Then the campaign against the gay bishop began, with traditionalists on four continents forming a patchwork alliance. Fraser says those in America and England cared nothing about the views of the bishops of Africa until they saw the chance for an alliance against the progressives. They took up the ordination of gay bishops as a wedge issue, and made a show of unity; they claimed that a pro-gay agenda was a new form of imperialism against the global South. “They drafted the Church of Nigeria, with its numerical strength, as a way of raising a ruckus over it. They got the white man’s guilt going. The Internet sped it along.” And it worked. “Rowan backpedaled,” Fraser said. “He asked Jeffrey John to resign.”

“It was an utter shock—a complete reversal,” the bishop of Washington, D.C., John Bryson Chane, told me. “It emboldened those opposed, because they now knew that this issue was Rowan’s weakness: ‘Now we’ve got him by the neck.’”

Desmond Tutu was dismayed, too. “Most of us would have said that Williams would be ‘kosher’ on the issue,” he told me, “and we thought that he would employ his formidable intellectual and linguistic skills to affirm it. But those who were pulling in the other direction were much stronger than we had thought, and as a deeply prayerful and pastoral person, he wanted to accommodate them as fully as possible.” Tutu recalled a moment in the 1980s when the bishops of South Africa were divided on gay rights, with some favoring a frank affirmation of gay people and others wanting to “go slow” lest a dispute over gay issues shatter the church’s united front against apartheid. But Tutu thought that by 2004, the acceptable time for gay bishops had arrived and that in his good and wise friend Williams they had their champion.

“We did expect a very great deal of him,” Tutu said of Williams, choosing his words carefully. “Maybe our expectations were unrealistic.”

"Yes, it has been more difficult than I expected,” Williams told me. “I don’t think we could have foreseen the depth of bitter feeling that’s arisen in the last three or four years. The sheer built-up resentment about certain kinds of relationships. The resentment toward the United States and England in some former colonial areas. The resentments between liberals and conservatives in the United States. I don’t think I’d registered how deep the culture wars could go.”

We were in his office at Lambeth Palace, a brick pile across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, and a place appealingly free of pomp and circumstance. The outside walls are sooty from traffic. The attached Gothic church is now a museum of garden history. Instead of a Swiss guard in full Renaissance costume, a porter in shirtsleeves opens an elfin door; you cross a courtyard, push open the timbered main portal yourself, and go up to some rooms that look like a period exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum. That day, some workers were hoisting an oil painting of Williams into place in the dining room; but in his office, Williams was surrounded by framed snapshots of his wife and children, which—like the Razor Scooter at the foot of the stairs—served as reminders that he too is a pioneer: the first archbishop of Canterbury in memory to raise a family in the palace.

The Lambeth Conference was a month away. The Fleet Street dailies were hammering at him over Gene Robinson. He leaned close, listening with his good ear, as we moved through the issues. Sharia? He had been misunderstood: his point was not that Islamic law could trump British law, but that religious groups have to be able to draw on their own values in the public square. Tony Blair? His conversion to Catholicism was no surprise—Cherie is a committed Catholic. Leadership? Sure, it had its privileges—such as the opportunity to debate religion at the National Theatre with the antireligious fantasy author Philip Pullman.

He was forthright and thoughtful—yet he seemed to relish the limitations of his office.

“Archbishops become the focus of people’s expectations in a very big way,” he said. “I want to say, ‘Don’t expect a magical resolution: I can bring what I’ve been given, and what the office gives, but I can’t guarantee outcomes. So bear with me.’”

I remarked that people saw a difference between his approach as archbishop and his personal views, and I asked how this applied to “The Body’s Grace,” the essay on gay sexuality. People were calling him a hypocrite: Was he?

“Never in my career did 5,000 words make such a tempest,” he said, and went on to distance himself from the essay—but not really. “I wrote it as a professor of theology contributing to an increasingly tense debate in the Church of England. I didn’t think, I’d better be careful what I say, in case I become a bishop one day. When people ask have I changed my mind, I can only answer, ‘Well, the questions I raised there are still on the table. They’re still questions. And I still think they’re worth addressing.’ That essay is my contribution, made in good faith at that time. Now my responsibilities are different. The responsibility is not to argue a case from the top or cast the chairman’s vote. It’s to hold the reins for a sensible debate—and that’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

Couldn’t it be that all the questions having to do with homosexuality were actually being pushed off the table—pushed by him?

“They’re not going to go away, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are,” Williams said. “But my question as archbishop of Canterbury is: How do we address this as a church, not just a group of local religious enthusiasts here and there? The ordination of Gene Robinson had effects that were extremely divisive because people elsewhere felt it committed them to a position they had not arrived at themselves. So part of my job becomes to ask: If there is to be any change, how do you decide what change is appropriate? And that leads to the characterization of being indecisive and all the other things that everybody always says.”

Reading his books, I’d been struck by his confident account of the life of faith as “human actions that seek to be open to God’s action.” How, I asked, did he hope God would act in the crisis?

He paused, steepling his fingers, then answered carefully. “I think the challenge that God is putting to us is this: Granted the differences of conviction, with how much positive expectation and patience can you approach the other? It doesn’t mean you stay together at any price, but it is a matter of whether we can demonstrate to the world a slightly different mode of operation than that which the world commonly operates with.”

It was a good answer, clear, subtle, truthful, and yet, listening to it, I couldn’t help but think of the night before, when Desmond Tutu had led a prayer service at the church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. Several hundred people crowded in. Archbishop Tutu stood at the foot of a staircase and spoke, in his singsong voice, about Robert Mugabe’s misrule of Zimbabwe, and although most of us could hardly see him, his blend of confident righteousness and puckish self-deprecation united us in minutes. This was charisma as a form of leadership: the charisma of a man who is not divided internally, who knows what he thinks.

Presented by

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

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In