Exit the Archbishop
On gay marriage and other issues, the Church of England is left adrift.

Dr. Rowan Williams


John O’Sullivan

In retrospect, however, it is the archbishop’s handling of sexual politics — notably, women bishops, gay bishops, and the looming prospect of gay marriage — that is likely to define his stewardship. Liberal Anglicans accuse him with some bitterness of having betrayed his own liberal convictions and colluded in intellectually disreputable compromises on sexual issues in order to appease the theologically conservative Anglicans of the “global South.”

There is some truth in these charges. Williams had given a lecture, “The Body’s Grace,” to a gay and lesbian Christian group as early as 1989. It is a subtle and fascinating argument (with some surprising implications) that should be read in full, available here, but it cautiously concluded that homosexual acts were not necessarily sinful. Yet Williams as archbishop had helped craft the shifty compromise that priests in committed gay partnerships were unacceptable as bishops but might receive what one liberal called “the consolation prize” of the lesser office of dean.

Insofar as these charges of inconsistency and betrayal were true, however, they were actually to the credit of Rowan Williams. Lacking anything like papal authority, he had to use persuasion and example to lead a worldwide religious communion divided between those who thought homosexual acts a grave sin and those who thought them a valid lifestyle. To impose either view, even if practicable, would have broken Anglicanism apart. Williams sought instead to maintain as much Anglican unity as possible, even at the cost of illogical compromises, while the Holy Ghost directed the souls of all Anglicans towards a better understanding of sexual truth in whatever direction He chose. Despite some small schisms, Williams has so far largely succeeded.

As it happens, however, the liberals’ accusations of inconsistency are greatly exaggerated. Rowan Williams is more conservative than his liberal admirers think, both in general and on sexuality in particular. Responding to John Shelby Spong, the post-Christian former Episcopalian bishop, Williams asserted his personal belief in the literal meaning of the Resurrection with wry exasperation: “I think he has said that of course I know what all the reputable scholars think on the subject and therefore when I talk about the risen body I must mean something other than the empty tomb. But I don’t. I don’t know how to persuade him, but I really don’t.”

His argument for the Christian legitimacy of same-sex intercourse, similarly, rests upon a distinction that turns out to have the surprising implications mentioned above. It is a distinction between two different kinds of sexuality with different physical and psychological purposes: namely, procreative heterosexuality on the one hand and sexuality designed to deepen mutual love and commitment through what Williams calls “the body’s grace” on the other. This second sexuality is familiar from past debates on contraception. As Williams argues in an oblique aside, it is now accepted as sufficient justification for heterosexual intercourse by all Christian denominations except the Catholic Church. When employed to justify same-sex intercourse rather than contraception, it remains a liberal position (arguably an advanced one) within Anglicanism. But its implications, as well as being surprising, turn out to be quite conservative in relation to the debate on gay marriage — on which, as it happens, Williams has again been disappointing his liberal supporters.

Williams in recent days has joined other Christian leaders in Britain in defending heterosexual marriage against the plans of David Cameron’s coalition government to open it to same-sex couples. He has not recently elaborated his reasons for opposing same-sex marriage. But that opposition has been clear and definite. And his earlier distinction between procreative heterosexuality and sexuality premised on “the body’s grace” seems to lead naturally to a distinction between marriage and civil partnerships as two institutions that respectively enable each sexuality to be responsibly and appropriately fulfilled. If that is correct, then Williams would be saying, among other things, that marriage is a heterosexual institution by its very nature. It would therefore be no injustice to exclude same-sex couples from it.

If Rowan Williams were to mount a case along these lines, it might prove a telling intervention in an otherwise stagnant debate in which, as Damian Thompson observed coolly in his Telegraph blog, “the ruling class has chattered and the result is in.” Whether inside or outside of Lambeth Palace, however, Williams might be able to disrupt this smoothly ruthless progress toward revolutionizing the most fundamental unit of society with minimal discussion. He has the standing and the ability to mount a serious critique of a state policy that intellectually rests on a few simple arguments, a manufactured sense of inevitability, and the wholesale stigmatizing of opponents as “homophobes” and “bigots.” And whatever may be said about Rowan Williams, those who accuse him of bigotry and homophobia would be laughed out of church.

Prejudices exist, of course, but on both sides of the debate. Some Anglican liberals manifestly resent the influence that their conservative co-religionists in Africa and Asia exert over the native Church of England by virtue of their greater numbers. In a Spectator commentary on the archbishop’s resignation, Tom Sutcliffe, the opera critic and Anglican layman, declared that CoE members “do not want to have their own Archbishop apparently kowtowing to evil prejudices apparently endorsed by senior Anglican clerics in parts of Africa.” It will not do, however, to tell ordinary Anglicans anywhere in the world that what their Church taught as authoritative doctrine in living memory is little more than evil bigotry. Or at least it will not do without a respectful attempt to change their minds by full and genuine debate. Seemingly, neither David Cameron nor Anglican liberals have much appetite for that.