The first thing to be said about Dr. Rowan Williams is that he is by common consent a subtle theologian, a sensitive pastoral priest, and a genuinely good and holy man, because a great many less flattering things will be said about him in the next few months, some of them further down this column. Dr. Williams announced last Friday that he intended to resign at the end of the year as Archbishop of Canterbury and therefore as spiritual leader of the Church of England and, by extension, of the 77 million–strong Anglican Communion around the world.
His announcement came as a surprise. He had been appointed archbishop only ten years ago at the age of 52. As archbishops go, he was a mere stripling. The general expectation had been that he would serve a good round 20 years before handing in his miter. But when the initial shock had faded, his resignation seemed, however regrettably, the right decision.
His tenure had been littered with avoidable errors — mainly bold statements that needed immediate corrections that themselves then needed further corrections. He was the angel who rushed in where journalists, policemen, politicians, and cynics of every kind feared to tread. He would then fall with innocent surprise through a series of trapdoors marked “partisan politics,” “Islam,” and, riskiest of all, “sexual politics.”
The trapdoor through which he plunged most frequently was partisan politics. Like almost all Anglican bishops, he was a man of the Left, and his political sermons reflected the fact. Like his fellow bishops too, he seemed more self-confident breezily issuing pronouncements on political questions than agonizing over religious ones.
But as the late T. E. Utley, a distinguished Anglican journalist of an earlier generation, pointed out: “Christianity does not tell us what answers to give in politics; it tells us what questions to ask.” With certain obvious exceptions, the faithful may give a range of political answers to them. Their answers should rightly combine the moral arguments implicit in the questions with practical considerations resting on non-religious authority. Thus the pope may ask how best to help the poor; but Milton Friedman is better equipped to prescribe the method. Since there may be several legitimate answers from a Christian standpoint, the Church should in general make the moral questions plain, stand back, and allow the laity to choose between the answers.
Rowan Williams found that hard, if not impossible. Following the 2008 financial crisis, he declared somewhat wildly: “Every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game.” As Wilmoore Kendall remarked of a similarly rash statement (from Senator Barry Goldwater, as it happens): “There’s nothing wrong with that remark that couldn’t be put right by 100,000 well-chosen words.”
As if to justify Kendall, Williams wrote a longer and considered piece in the London Spectator, available here, on the crisis of financial capitalism as a species of idolatry. It dealt reasonably with the moral and other problems of managing risks that even their inventors didn’t fully understand. One of the things it made plain, however, was that someone other than the Archbishop of Canterbury would have to solve this conundrum.
Unlike left-wing politics, the gradual advance of Islam in Britain was a challenge that the spiritual leader of Anglicanism could hardly avoid. It was a task that required a nice balance between defending the Christian faith and assuring British Muslims that there was an honorable place for them in British society. And as if that were not difficult enough, Williams had to contend with a secular officialdom that did everything it could to appease extremist Muslims while treating Christian anxieties with indifference and even a kind of bland contempt.
Maybe no one could have squared this circle, but Williams blundered badly. He gave a long, thoughtful, and well-intentioned speech that the tabloids were able to compress into the headline “Sharia Courts in Britain, Says Arch-Bish.” Nor were the tabloids being wholly unfair; that was what he was more or less saying.
And as a general uproar erupted, it became clear that Williams had not really ironed out the wrinkles in his argument. He had called for the limited use of sharia courts within British law — rather like Orthodox Jewish marriage courts or private arbitration between companies — on the grounds that this was “unavoidable” in a Britain that included large Muslim communities. He now stressed that such a partial accommodation would not mean the lower legal status for women that sharia enforced in the Muslim world.
But which was it? Was sharia unavoidable? In that case how could British officialdom arbitrarily determine which parts to incorporate in secular law? Or could the Brits pick and choose from a menu of sharia rules and penalties? If so, then it wasn’t unavoidable.
Any move in the direction of incorporating sharia could therefore be made conditional upon explicit statements from Muslim authorities acknowledging the sovereignty of British law. Such a balanced proposal might have soothed Christian (and secular) anxieties, strengthened the authority of moderate imams and mullahs, and been seen by Muslims generally as a further step in their honorable integration into British society. But that wasn’t quite what Williams had advocated, and what he had advocated produced uproar and ill-feelings all around.
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.
Between them they will therefore want to appoint a primate who will distract the faithful into thinking about other matters, instead of “obsessing” about gay marriage. That will not be easy. The bookmakers’ current favorite is John Sentamu, an immigrant from Uganda and a theological conservative, who, as Archbishop of York, is already number two in the CoE hierarchy. He is potentially a formidable opponent of gay marriage because, in addition to possessing the common touch, he personally represents the Anglican majority of the global South.
And so do many other Brits. Anglicanism’s global South has now come home to Britain. Some of the most vigorous Christian communities in the U.K. are immigrant churches that are evangelical in spirit and belief, whether belonging to the Anglican tradition or to a more nakedly Protestant one. In that way, Britain’s religious market, beneath the surface of a secular dominance, is very slowly becoming more like its American counterpart.
So there is a larger pool of active religious conservatism in Britain than either the political or religious establishments realize. It is disproportionately drawn from the ethnic minorities that all parties anxiously court in other contexts. It is spirited and unclubbable. For these reasons, Archbishop Sentamu would be its natural and effective leader. Watch, therefore, for stories to appear about his “divisiveness,” his “grandstanding,” and other unsuitable qualities.
Otherwise, appointing a more or less open supporter of gay marriage to the See of Canterbury would risk creating a massive crisis within both the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion. It might also anger and arouse a new evangelical-Christian subculture that has hitherto been detached from British politics, in exactly the same way that the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court drove Southern Evangelicals into politics in the 1970s. If anything like that began to happen, marginal supporters of gay marriage might begin to calculate that the reform is premature and perhaps not worth the candle.
What, therefore, can David Cameron and the establishment do?
They might want to watch a DVD of the classic 1980s situation comedy, Yes, Prime Minister. In one episode, Sir Humphrey is urging Prime Minister Jim Hacker to pass over appointing a saintly and qualified orthodox priest to a vacant bishopric in favor of someone with, well, very different qualifications.
Hacker, dubious, points out that the second candidate is vain, lazy, and totally uninterested in Christianity.
“Yes,” replies Sir Humphrey triumphantly, “but he’s not against it. . . . He would make a thoroughly suitable British bishop — cricket, steam engines, and a complete ignorance of theology.”
That’s your man, Dave, a bishop who can restore the ancient claim of Anglicanism to be the best inoculation against religion ever devised. You’re going to need him.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.