The Future of Canterbury

by Michael Potemra

I will not pile on the departing Rowan Williams, except to say that he is probably the least enlightening brilliant writer I have ever read. His prose circles around itself in impressive spirals, and, when reading it, I am left in no doubt as to the author’s great intelligence; what I’m not clear on is what he’s actually saying. (You will at this point be thinking: What about Henry James? To which I respond, it’s not a just comparison. In the case of Rowan Williams, I have the strong suspicion that the author is, rather frequently, trying to say something.) The failures of his tenure in Canterbury are being recounted in great detail throughout the journo-world; I strongly recommend the article here on NRO by John O’Sullivan, which was a real standout, a work of great fairness and generosity even in its harshest criticisms.

I wish the retiring archbishop all the best, but my great interest at this point is in the future of the see of Canterbury. Most of the serious objections to Williams’s tenure had to do with his failure to articulate a coherent and convincing vision of the Anglican Communion that could comfortably include both American-style liberals and African-style conservatives — in other words, his failure was one of ecclesiology. The question now is: Should Anglicans double down on trying to square the ecclesiological circle, or should they (we) move Canterbury’s focus on to something more promising?

I would suggest a move away from church politics of that sort and toward a greater focus on the basics of the Gospel. This would require a frank acknowledgment that “keeping the Anglican Communion together” should not be a central goal for Anglicans. There are already many Christian churches — Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, the whole endless variety — yet we can recognize all of them as brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. Would a recognition of the split among Anglicans really do such great damage, in a global-church situation that is already such a complicated patchwork? Note that I say recognition of the split: Rowan Williams’s “Anglican Covenant” proposal is an attempt to deal with real divisions that actually exist, by strengthening and centralizing authority in a quasi-papal manner. To which many Anglicans are responding — my paraphrase — “If we wanted a pope, there already is one, in Rome; being Anglicans, we have decided we don’t need one — so thanks for the offer, but no thanks.” 


Would any good purpose be served by spending another decade on this fruitless discussion (I mean “discussion” in the narrower sense of “shouting match”)? One fellow in New York favors, e.g., gays and women bishops; some chap in Uganda disagrees; but for the two of them to devote themselves to bludgeoning each other on these issues for years to come would be a sad waste. (If the 1054 split hadn’t happened, isn’t it possible that every church council would have become an angry rehash of the filioque issue?) To go our separate ways would give all sides more breathing room to talk, in our different ways and with varying local emphases, about the basic issues of the faith: man’s brokenness and God’s redemption.

The world would benefit greatly from an archbishop of Canterbury who was an evangelist, pure and simple, and not a church politician. Sadly enough, one of the best evangelists today also espouses the church-political view I think is so harmful: Tom Wright, Bible scholar and former bishop of Durham, whom the bookies are now giving 9-1 odds of getting the Canterbury post. (Some interesting discussion of his candidacy here.) Wright’s book on the Resurrection is a masterpiece, and his writing even on difficult theological issues is clear and accessible to the layman — which would make him much better at the evangelistic task than Williams was. But consider Wright’s comments on Anglican unity, in a 2010 interview. Asked whether he favored the proposed Anglican Covenant, he responded: “I think so, because I don’t think really there’s any alternative. . . . [It] provides a framework within which you can have the discussion in a way which tries to keep all parties at the table. Obviously if parties decide to walk away from the table that’s their business . . . ”

What I have been suggesting in this post is that we have already invested rather too much effort in keeping people at this specific table, and indeed spending too much time at that table ourselves — getting overweight on a surfeit of intra-church culture clashes. In this regard, would a Tom Wright tenure at Canterbury be significantly different from Rowan Williams’s? Listen to Wright, in the same interview, talking about a specific hot-button issue: “My own position is quite clear on this, that I have supported women Bishops in print and in person. I’ve spoken in Synod in favour of going that route, but I don’t think it’s something that ought to be done at the cost of a major division in the Church.” In other words, I am for it (and thus angering the conservatives) but I am against it (and thus angering the liberals). That is Rowan Williams ecclesiology, of the kind that has only fed the rancor within Anglicanism over the past ten years: the theory that if everyone is unhappy, nobody will be angry enough to leave. If that is what is meant by church unity, is it really worth the candle?

So would Wright at Canterbury be Tom Wright the great popular evangelist, or Tom Wright the Anglican intramural politician? Of one thing we can be certain: The journalists who are writing articles today listing all the left-wing statements Rowan Williams ever made — and indeed, any journalist worth his salt can, with a minimum of effort, prove that Williams is not a movement conservative — will have no end of material with Wright. (Here are a couple of examples.)

The post of archbishop of Canterbury has been a thankless one in recent years largely because its occupant has been focused on the wrong things — he has been, in one of my favorite phrases, “majoring in minors.” The selection of his successor is a welcome opportunity for a rethink, about what we want the archbishop of Canterbury to be about.