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.

The events of the next few weeks were God’s gift to the tabloids. Religion correspondent Chris Morgan of The Sunday Times of London committed suicide, by jumping in front of an oncoming train; he had been the best man at Williams’s wedding. Two male Anglican priests were in effect married by a third at Saint Bartholomew’s, the grand church in Clerkenwell, where Four Weddings and a Funeral was filmed. Gene Robinson and his partner of 20 years celebrated their civil partnership in New Hampshire: “I always wanted to be a June bride,” Robinson quipped. Robinson journeyed to England and preached at Saint Mary’s, Putney, where he was shouted down by a zealot: “Repent, repent! Go back to your own bloody church!” The breakaway bishops held their conference in Jerusalem and got good press. The bishops of England, meeting in a synod in York, approved the ordination of women bishops, allowing no provision for traditionalists to “opt out”; photographs taken during the all-night final session showed Williams, who had sought to accommodate the traditionalists, sitting alone with his head in his hands.

“He has traded truth for unity,” one confidant of Williams’s told me, “and you just can’t do that.” Giles Fraser had seen Williams a few days earlier: “You ask him, ‘How are you?’ and those eyebrows of his screw up in a half-grimace, half-smile.” But he predicted that things would change once the conference began: “You’ll see people rallying around Rowan despite their differences because he’s holding the line against ‘these nasties.’”

While Williams went on retreat to a Benedictine abbey, the press, in effect, wrote his obituary: the Anglican Communion is in organized confusion; the church has lost its head.

It was confusing. And yet, given the tortured history of sex and religion, it was something to see. Here were people openly staking out rival positions on questions of sexuality that whole churches still consider off-limits. Here was the archbishop of Canterbury getting outvoted, the maximum leader yielding to his subordinates. Here was a church grappling with its future in plain sight, and Williams was not shutting down the process but trying to keep it civil and open.

The 2008 Lambeth Conference was held in a big blue circus tent on the campus of the University of Kent at Canterbury, overlooking the cathedral, where the bishops met for worship, Bible study, and prayer. They took part in daily small-group meetings grounded in a form of conflict resolution called indaba. A note on the archbishop’s Web site explained that the Zulu word describes “a gathering for purposeful discussion … both a process and method of engagement.” Its use was an attempt both to acknowledge the importance of African Christians and to help resolve a crisis. It was ridiculed in the press (“indaba-daba-doo-doo,” some bishops were calling it), but it was an ingenious device, for it concealed the conference’s roots in the thought of Rowan Williams.

Some 25 years earlier, Williams had written:

In the early Middle Ages, the great Burgundian monastery of Cluny sponsored and encouraged an experiment in conciliation among its feudal neighbors. The arrangement, known as “the truce of God”, was that all hostilities should be restricted to three days in the week (Monday to Wednesday). Of course, this was never observed for any length of time … But it is more than a comical bit of mediaeval eccentricity. Behind it lay the recognition that for baptized Christians … to be in a state of war with one another was horrible and ridiculous.

Published in 1983, The Truce of God was a book about the arms race. But in it Williams argues that conflict resolution is the church’s reason for being. The church claims to show

the results of an act of divine reconciliation in terms of a distinctive kind of human community … It is worth hoping that out of this will emerge, not a programme to resolve all conflict, but at least a sense of what is asked of believers that is different from the prevailing accounts of peace, conflict, guilt and human possibility.

As it was for the arms race in the age of Reagan and Thatcher, so it has been for the standoff over gay bishops in our own day. As 650 bishops converged on Canterbury and two hundred or more stayed away, Williams’s goal was a truce of God.

"Did it work? We don’t know yet,” said Timothy Radcliffe, who attended the conference.

On the face of it, Lambeth 2008 was not dramatic. The bishops ate, slept, prayed, waited on line for credentials or coffee; they squirmed on the small folding chairs in the big blue tent. They all went by bus to London to walk the streets in support of the communion’s campaign to halve world poverty by 2015—the kind of work that many bishops feel has been pushed to the side by the disputes over sexuality. And they listened as Rowan Williams gave a series of talks on Anglican unity. “Our communion longs to stay together—but not only as an association of polite friends,” he declared. “It is seeking a deeper entry into the place where Christ stands, to find its unity there.”

The bishops in Canterbury came to some rough-and-ready agreements: they established a new “pastoral forum” to help resolve disputes; they upheld existing moratoria against the ordination of openly gay and partnered people as bishops and against the public church blessing of same-sex unions.

What was dramatic was what did not happen. There was no schism, no walkout, no uproar to serve as fodder for the conflict-hungry press. As the conference ended, the English commentator Austen Ivereigh wrote:

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s press people will be smiling this morning: “How Williams kept his flock together” is the Guardian’s headline; “Way ahead found in Church gay row” is the BBC’s; while the London Times’s runs: “Bishops back Archbishop Rowan Williams” ... Dr Williams’s strategy of avoiding divisive resolutions and of getting the bishops to listen to each other and understand each other has been a triumph.

“Lord, give me chastity and continence, but don’t give them to me yet.” So asked Saint Augustine, writer and bishop. Rowan Williams seems to be asking something similar: he seems to be asking God, or the forces of history and culture, to make straight the paths for gay people in the Anglican Communion—but not yet.

Has he traded truth for unity? I would say no. In keeping the communion together last summer, he actually moved it in a certain direction. True, he asked the gay bishop not to come, but the traditionalist bishops stayed away voluntarily. In doing so, they ceded the center to the progressives, who made clear that the Anglican middle way is still open.

The founding of a neo-traditional Anglican movement in Wheaton, Illinois, in early December actually confirmed the point. The event made the front page of The New York Times, but the facts belied the claims about its impact. The announcement took place not in Jerusalem, but in a borrowed church in a midwestern suburb, and none of the African bishops was present. Although the breakaway bishops claimed the support of 100,000 people, the 800-seat church was half-empty, and already those bishops faced conflicts among themselves—about the status of women priests, for example. It is the threat of schism, and the dramatic Reformation history that the word calls to mind, that gives the dissident bishops their power. Should they actually secede, they would soon be reduced from headlines to footnotes.

Meanwhile, reports of Williams’s demise seem greatly exaggerated. No sooner had the Lambeth Conference ended than The Guardian published extracts from letters written in 2000 and 2001 (which had shown up in the mail during the conference) in which Williams had said he thought the church might change its stand on gay marriage. Then news came that Williams’s old friend Jeffrey John was up for a bishop’s job in the Church of Wales, an appointment that Williams—as the head of the Church of England—would have no authority to block. The press made these out to be fresh troubles, but surely they were developments he had anticipated—further movements in the church’s gradual opening to gay people.

So why won’t he say so? Rowan Williams is one of the strongest, subtlest voices in all Christianity. Surely it is right for him to try to moderate the discussion about the place of gay people in the church. But that is not enough. He is a leader, not a stage manager. He should also take part in the conversation; he should somehow declare himself for the course of action he favors—which seems obvious—if only to say that he doesn’t favor it yet.

One day last fall, I attended the weekly noon Eucharist for the staff at Lambeth Palace. It is held in a cryptlike chapel that was once a wine cellar: rough stone walls, plank altar, candles, icon. A hymn was sung, texts were read, and then the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, robed in white, came to the threshold to preach to two dozen of us on Paul’s remarks in the First Epistle to the Corinthians “concerning the unmarried”—the passage in which the saint first advises people, married or unmarried, to hold to the state they are in, and then in the next breath tells them to disregard the bond of marriage after all, for the world is passing away.

I couldn’t help but hear Williams’s description of the saint as a description of himself, a man saved from his contradictoriness by his obvious integrity. “That’s a hard text to preach on,” he began. “Paul is thinking on his feet: ‘Of course on the other hand,’ he says, and ‘Well, that is true, but however …’ But Paul, for all his hemming and hawing, has a clear point to make. This is not it. Capital letters. I. T. Whatever you’re doing—your job, your passion—there is something more.”

There was a reception afterward, and when I found myself near Williams, I maneuvered around to the side of his good ear. In the Anglican Communion, I said to him, all the changes that the traditionalists have resisted—married priests, women priests, openly gay priests—have eventually come to pass. Did he think there would be openly gay bishops in the Church of England in 10 years? Was it just a matter of time?

“I highly doubt it,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have progressed that far in our discernment process.”

It was not a no, just a not yet. Even as he declined to endorse the ordination of gay bishops, with that roundabout phrase about progress he left the possibility open—the possibility that it would come to pass eventually, and that he would think it a good thing, too.

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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