Anglicans, archbishops and presidential confusions

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
9 Oct 2012

As the Crown Nominations Commission struggles to decide who the next Archbishop of Canterbury and fall-back choice will be, it may be useful to reflect on what the current Archbishop has said recently. His successor too will have to be prepared for criticism by those on different sides on controversial issue, which has “just been a background to almost everything, a pretty steady 'mood music’.” Risk-taking will also remain important for the Church of England’s top cleric, along with a willingness to acknowledge fallibility.

An additional leader?

“The Anglican Church is drawing up plans for a historical overhaul that would see the introduction of a 'presidential' figure to take over some of the global role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams has revealed,” the Telegraph sensationally claimed in September.

Its report of an interview with the archbishop, who is due to move to a new role as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge at the end of 2012, was picked up by other media. “Church to divide archbishop's duties”, wrote Brisbane Times. Other journalists focused on his admission of failings over the heated debate on homosexuality which has strained international relationships among Anglicans.

The secretary general of the Anglican Communion, Kenneth Kearon, was quick to issue a correction. “The opening paragraph of this article is mischievous," he stated. "There are no such plans. The Archbishop of Canterbury simply said in the interview that he could see that in the future there might be some reflection on how the administrative load associated with the Anglican Communion might be better shared.” But the newspaper is not entirely to blame for the misunderstanding.

While Williams is thoughtful and often profound, he does not always make himself plain. And his attempts to promote a more centralised Anglican Communion have increased confusion over how this international family of churches is, in fact, structured.

Anglicans: a family of churches

In the nineteenth century, when theological differences were straining Anglican unity, bishops gathered from across the world. They decided that provinces would remain autonomous, though in close fellowship and taking heed of one another’s views, and this remains the case.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, chief bishop of the Church of England, convenes international bishops’ gatherings, promotes joint activity and communication with other churches and the wider world, and can act as a figurehead if necessary. But he has no authority over the Communion as a whole – and any proposals for change would have to win wide agreement, including by the Anglican Consultative Council.

Williams did however say in his interview that, because of growing demands, “I suspect it will be necessary, in the next 10 to 15 years, to think about how that load is spread; to think whether in addition to the Archbishop of Canterbury there needs to be some more presidential figure who can travel more readily”, who “has the support of the primates of the Anglican Communion” and “would have an executive role to implement what they decide”.

There are echoes of the controversial Covenant he had pushed for which would have bolstered the power of the primates over provinces other than their own, threatening “relational consequences” for those which failed to obey. This was rejected by the majority of dioceses in the Church of England and elsewhere, but it would appear that another drive for 'unity' is planned.

However, most of the overseas archbishops who have pushed hardest for disciplinary structures would be highly resistant to any interference in their own provinces, a recipe for further splits if any 'president' did not entirely do their bidding. Having an international leader could also be disastrous for the Church of England, already facing a sizeable drop in involvement in recent decades.

Handling the sexuality debate

“We’ve not exactly been on the forefront of pressing for civic equality for homosexual people, and we were wrong about that,” Williams confessed in the interview, but was adamant in opposing equal marriage. “We should have clarified the distinction” between 'the rights of the citizen' and 'ethics'", he continued.

But it is ethically questionable to continue to try to undermine loving, self-giving, lifelong relationships. He also avoided mentioning that, since 1978, international Anglican gatherings have repeatedly called for study of the ethics of same-sex relationships, involving dialogue with lesbians and gays, as well as human rights for all, though some primates have pointedly ignored such calls. Many theologians in the Church of England have contributed, not least Williams himself in the introduction to Speaking Love’s Mame in 1988 and, most importantly, his 1989 talk The Body’s Grace.

Instead he suggested he should have “gone sooner to the United States” to engage with bishops, presumably to persuade them not to consecrate partnered gays. But Church of England archbishops’ failure to admit the strength of the case for celebrating committed partnerships, let alone to treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people justly, has undermined the church’s witness to God’s gracious love without appeasing those most strongly opposed to inclusion.

It has also helped to create a culture of secrecy and dishonesty. There are numerous LGBT clergy and laypersons in positions of responsibility, frequently supported in their ministry by their partners, something which many bishops accept but few publicly acknowledge. Others – including some senior clergy – remain in the closet, often at high cost to themselves and damage to their vocation.

If the next Archbishop of Canterbury tries to revive the Covenant or presses ahead with the notion of an international presidential role, this could make matters worse. If, in ten or fifteen years, an Anglican 'president' who had supported human rights violations in his own country visited England and denounced local congregations for being too inclusive of LGBT people, or encouraged a crackdown on clergy in same-sex partnerships, this could fatally damage the Church of England.

While Williams has faced a difficult and sometimes thankless task as archbishop, his over-eagerness to please leaders of other churches – Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox – who are adamantly opposed to inclusion have made his role harder. His attempts to promote mutual listening among senior clergy have however been valuable.

More thought, prayer and openness are needed among Anglicans, especially on justice and sexuality, not a presidential figure.

Taking risks, making mistakes

In a Theos lecture in early October 2012 on ‘The person and the individual: human dignity, human relationships and human limits’, Williams defended speaking out on controversial topics such as the Iraq war and Sharia law, while admitting that he was not always right.

"I just don't think that it will do to be too cautious in a job like this,” he said. Instead he set out "To try and share a particular picture of what the world is like, what God is like, which of course leads you into sometimes risky and anything but infallible judgements about particular issues of the day."

Certainly risk-taking is sometimes necessary, if it is accompanied by a willingness to listen to other views and change one’s position, even apologise, if one finds that one is wrong. And Jesus was often bold in bringing good news to the poor and marginalised, even this offended the powerful or pious.

But if a future Archbishop of Canterbury were outspoken in defence of church privilege or the right to discriminate or exploit, this could do more harm than good. Tact and pastoral sensitivity will also be important to avoid alienating or hurting people unnecessarily.

Whoever is chosen will face a challenging task. It is important however not to expect one man, whatever his gifts and office, to substitute for the wider church community. If ‘ordinary’ Anglicans pin their hopes on a leader and fail to accept responsibility for witnessing to Christ and seeking the Spirit’s guidance, disappointment will be unavoidable.

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© Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on religion and politics. She has a particular interest in Anglican affairs, and is an Ekklesia associate.

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