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.
"Really, I pity him,” a man in the kitchen said in a crisp English accent. “Poor Rowan. He is in an impossible position. He wants to stand with us, I think. But he can’t.”
A West Village apartment; a warm spring evening. In the living room, men and women of middle age nibbled at nuts and flatbreads around a fortepiano. At the kitchen table, a man in a black suit sat signing copies of a book he had written. It was like many a book party in Manhattan’s old-line gay community, except that the author, wearing a scarlet shirt with a clerical collar, was the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, and the book was the story of his struggle to become the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion.
Paul Elie talks about Archbishop Rowan Williams's balancing act, and the schisms threatening the Anglican Church.
I was there, tagging along with a documentary filmmaker, and I found the Englishman’s remark striking. The point of the party was to honor Robinson, whose ordination as “the gay bishop” had made him a minor celebrity, a cross between Saint Francis and Barney Frank. But the conversation in the kitchen that May evening in 2008 centered on Rowan Williams instead. As archbishop of Canterbury—the so-called Anglican pope—Williams had treated Robinson’s ordination as an unwanted provocation and had refused to invite the new bishop to the Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade meeting of the bishops in the Anglican Communion. And yet the people around me weren’t denouncing him as the oppressor; they spoke as if he, not their friend Gene, was the one engaged in an unending struggle against impossible odds.
He is. At a time when Christianity is twisted into a pretzel over the issue of homosexuality, Rowan Williams—alone among the top Christian leaders—is trying to carry on a conversation about it. His approach has been quixotic, at times baffling. But the long-term goal seems clear: to enable the church he leads to become fully open to gays and lesbians without breaking apart.
Not so long ago, Williams was the great hope of liberal religion: a progressive counterpart to the conservative pope. He was elected archbishop of Canterbury in 2002 by the other bishops on a wave of enthusiasm like the one that would later carry Barack Obama into the White House, rooted in surprise that such a person—brilliant, decent, happily married, forward-looking—had reached the top without selling his soul. He had passed swiftly through Cambridge and Oxford to become a leading Anglican theologian and had risen equally swiftly from a small bishopric in Wales to the seat of Canterbury. He was only 52 years old. He spoke four languages and could read half a dozen others. He was a poet who (saints be damned) had a son named Pip and who (Tony Blair be damned) came out early against the war in Iraq. He seemed genuinely conflicted, an open-minded person in a world of ideologues and holy rollers. With his thick gray hair, salt-and-pepper beard, and aviator glasses, he looked like a well-kempt Jerry Garcia. Here at last was a religious leader to believe in.
As Williams began his tenure as archbishop in 2003, though, the ordination of Robinson sent the issue of gay bishops to the head of the agenda. By last summer, with the Lambeth Conference approaching, schism seemed inevitable. Some bishops opposed to homosexual clergy held a rival conference in Jerusalem, denouncing Williams as a liberal pawn. Traditionalists announced plans to “go over” to the Roman Catholic Church or form their own church unless Williams got rid of Robinson. Gay activists circulated an old essay by Williams in which he had eloquently celebrated gay and lesbian relationships; the commentariat mocked him as a holy fool for some approving remarks he had made about Islamic law. Friends of Williams said he might resign. “God has given you all the gifts,” one friend told him, “and as your punishment, he has made you archbishop of Canterbury.”
The schism hasn’t come—not yet. The Anglican Communion, the world’s third-largest group of Christians after the Catholics and the Orthodox, is still standing—a “hugely untidy but very lovable” body, in the words of its most famous member, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel laureate. But its unity has been compromised. In December, a half-dozen bishops broke with the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and announced their plans to found a rival Anglican Community for North America.
It is now, with his office under pressure from both left and right, that Rowan Williams’s real work is beginning. Now he must persuade the aggrieved, quarrelsome people he leads to bear with one another once and for all.
More than the future of a church is at stake. The crisis over homosexuality and the place of gay people in the church is one of the bitterest disputes in Christianity since the Reformation. Christian leaders grasp its importance: that is why they are so agitated about it. But it is hard to tell positions from prejudices. The mainline churches—Presbyterian, Congregationalist—are at the front of the equal-rights parade. Evangelicals are happily against homosexuality, the black church uneasily against, the fundamentalists fundamentally against. The Vatican insists its teachings on homosexuality are settled doctrine; the Mormons fund ballot measures such as California’s Proposition 8 against gay marriage. Ironically, many Christian leaders in Africa, the legatees of European missionaries, treat homosexuality as a dangerous import from the West.
In all this, the Anglican Communion is a dramatic testing ground, because it—alone among the churches—has sought to have it both ways: at once affirming traditional Christian notions of marriage and family, love and fidelity, and adapting them to the experiences of gay believers.
It is not a church, strictly speaking, but an aggregation of 44 national or regional churches claiming 80 million believers in all. In theory, its leaders have dealt with conflict by trying to follow the via media, the middle way between extremes. In practice, this means that extremes coexist, jostling each other. Sunday service can feature brilliantined choirboys, or an organist, or dancing women in kente cloth. C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot were Anglicans; so are George and Barbara Bush. The Episcopal Church has a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as its presiding bishop, while the Church of England has no women bishops at all. If this church cannot find a way forward on homosexuality, then none can—and the clash between gays and Christians over marriage and the like may go on for much of the millennium.
All of this puts Williams in an impossible position. Like the pope, he is at the top of an organization with all the treasures and furniture of empire. But his actual power is closer to that of the Dalai Lama: the “soft power” of example and persuasion. And just as the Dalai Lama’s commitment to dialogue with China strikes some people as accommodation, so Williams’s willingness to let gay-friendly leaders and anti-gay ones each occupy space in the church can seem indecisive, even bumbling. But it is grounded in the conviction that the true Christian, rather than rushing to judgment, is willing to wait, confident, as Williams has put it, that it is “through the events of conflict and rupture, through the crisis of acceptable religious meanings,” that the way forward is found.
The Sunday before I was to meet Williams in London, I went to Canterbury. The cathedral looms up over the town as it has since Chaucer’s time, an arched and buttressed slab of shortbread. The town, so long the site of pilgrimage, now hosts the forces of globalization: a thin-crust Italian pizzeria; a Starbucks in the half-timbered cottage adjoining the great arch. And yet the cathedral itself, that day, was pretty vacant: there were more entombed dead bishops than living congregants in the place. An article in the newspaper told of vandals stripping the lead from the roofs of English churches and sending it to China, and I could easily envision a time when the cathedral would be judged redundant and plundered for parts.
I rubbed the foot of the metal carapace of a bishop from the Tudor era, and as I did so I wondered how many of the dead bishops in the place were gay bishops.
There are now more Muslims than practicing Anglicans in Britain, and the Church of England’s reason for being is under review. Nominally, its head is the monarch, but Prince Charles’s civil marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles poses a problem: the church that Henry VIII founded because Rome would not let him remarry still officially opposes divorce and remarriage. So when Queen Elizabeth dies—she is 82—the church will have to justify its claim as England’s “established” church, and its preeminence in the Anglican Communion, as never before in its history.
But the Anglican Communion thrives on crisis and decline. Founded in the 16th century in a king’s fit of pique, it was swept along by the Reformation, challenged by Puritanism, weakened by the Oxford Movement of the mid-19th century (which turned many of its best minds Roman Catholic), mocked in its august pieties by the carnage of two world wars. The Anglican funeral for Princess Diana at Westminster Abbey, in 1997, had the air of a last rite for the English Church.
Again and again, though, losses in the Church of England have coincided with gains in the Anglican Communion elsewhere. With the spread of the British Empire, the communion defined itself as “the empire at prayer,” and the church’s decline in England was offset by growth in Nigeria and Uganda, in India and Hong Kong. Today, more than four-fifths of the 80 million Anglicans live outside England. Statistically, they don’t count for much. Roman Catholicism claims 2billion souls served. Islam is growing faster: today, while the dozens ofchurches in the old City of London stand gloriously empty at midday—their forecourts now spots where City bankers smoke cigarettes and talk on their mobile phones—a mosque on the high street in Hackney is full, with men leaving their shoes in a line on the sidewalk and kneeling in the garden for prayer call. And yet after 500 years the Church of England is still there, marrying and burying, keeping the flame of English-accented faith alive.
It is against this background that Williams emerged. He was born in a Welsh village called Ystradgynlais; shortly before he turned 2, he came down with spinal meningitis, which made him deaf in his left ear. Raised a Presbyterian, at age 10 he went to the Anglican church and persuaded his parents to follow him. As a teenager, he read deeply in Tolkien, Russian fiction, and Welsh poetry; he sought out Eisenstein’s films and played the stage manager in Our Town. He called himself a socialist but applied to Christ’s College, Cambridge, with a plan to study theology. It was 1968, and he was 18. He had been touted as a future archbishop of Canterbury since he was 12.
Williams at Cambridge is remembered as a “saintly person” who took in tramps and worked with disadvantaged children and yet was untouched by the tumult of the time. He steeped himself in Eastern Orthodox theology, the work of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and much else—“He seemed to have read everything,” one friend told me. For one course, he wrote his lecture notes in Latin.
He went to Oxford for a doctorate, studying Russian, and he began to explore the priesthood, making retreats at several Roman Catholic abbeys. He also joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and united the two impulses by forming the first of several movements in which he would try to reconcile his love of old-time theology and his progressive politics. After two romances foundered—a would-be girlfriend committed suicide; an engagement with a German exchange student ended abruptly—he was ordained in 1978.
In the priesthood, Williams found the combined role of scholar and leader that has defined him ever since. He took a job at a school in Yorkshire affiliated with a quasi-monastic settlement called the Community of the Resurrection, and there wrote his first book, The Wound of Knowledge, about mystics from Augustine to Saint John of the Cross. It is a commanding work, but it is framed with passages that show Williams to be wary of judgments and formulas. He declared: "Christian faith has its beginnings in an experience of profound contradictoriness. [So the church should proclaim] a hidden God, who does not uncover his will in a straight line of development, but fully enters into a world of confusion and ambiguity and works in contradictions."
Williams is a difficult writer, often abstruse and in a hurry to get to the next point. But his books are shards of autobiography, and his account of faith’s contradictoriness is an account of his own contradictoriness.
"He is the best theological mind in England—there’s no one with his combination of breadth and depth,” Timothy Radcliffe told me. We were eating a pub lunch near Blackfriars Hall in Oxford, where Radcliffe, a Dominican friar, first met Williams, in 1973. “People here were awfully surprised when he accepted the call to be a bishop in a small diocese in Wales.”
At Cambridge, Williams had met Jane Paul, a theology student; they would be married in 1981. Academically, he was on his way: he was named dean of Clare College, Cambridge, then Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, the top theological post in the university. Yet all the while, he was making his way, prosaically, as a priest—living in a rectory, giving talks in the tensely multiracial east London that the Clash sang about. In 1991, a bishop in Wales put his name forward as a candidate for bishop of Monmouth, even though he had never run a parish, and he got the job.
Leaving Oxford for Wales was like leaving Yale for Ypsilanti. But Williams rerooted himself in the place by mastering Welsh, and in 1999 he was elected archbishop of Wales. He also wrote half a dozen books there. Two stand out; in them, he developed “contradictoriness” into a highly unorthodox approach to leadership.
In Lost Icons (2002), Williams mourned the “cultural bereavement” brought on by the loss of “the language of the soul.” This has led, he wrote, to a loss of the self, even as the self is superficially exalted. Free of obligations to one another, we are prone to mistrust and violence. The argument is an essentially conservative one, but instead of retrenchment, Williams urged patience, and conversation: “Current confusion over the family or gender roles or ‘sexual preference,’ over religion and secularity … and many other things suggests that no consensus is going to appear in a hurry.” In Anglican Identities (2003), a compilation of lectures given before his nomination, he suggested what a church (and a church leader) dedicated to such an approach might look like, in a series of portraits of leading Anglicans through the ages—such as the poet and priest George Herbert, whom Williams praised for his “embrace of emotional ambiguity and doubt on the basis of a deep and sophisticated doctrinal conviction.”
The books were well received, but these days another piece of writing gets all the scrutiny. This is “The Body’s Grace,” a talk Williams gave to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in 1989, at a grave moment in the AIDS crisis. In it he stood back from the tug-of-war over church teachings on sexuality in an attempt to “do justice to the experience, the pain and the variety, of concrete sexual discovery.”
The sources of Christian strictures on homosexuality are many: passages in the book of Genesis and the letters of Saint Paul; church traditions and customs; the notion of men and women as sexually complementary; the teachings that the only place for sex is within marriage and that the essential purpose of sex is the begetting of children. Over time, many of these strictures have been eased, if only informally—through readings of the Bible that acknowledge it as a selective, time-bound document, say, or through a view of sex that acknowledges all the good things about it besides procreation. Some thinkers have sought to argue that the prohibitions against homosexuality are theologically unsound. Others have sought to show them as petty compared with Jesus’ concern for oppressed peoples in the Gospels (which have nothing to say about homosexuality). Traditionalists, in response, treat homosexuality as part of a slippery slope—arguing that any easing of the prohibitions against gay sex will undercut the broader Christian view of sexuality, disfiguring not only the institution of marriage but “the nature of man … created in the image of God,” as Pope Benedict put it in a now-notorious address in December.
Williams took a different approach, focusing on the concept of grace. From a sex scene in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, he drew a definition of grace as beautiful and convincing as any I know.
"There may be little love, even little generosity, in Clark’s bedding of Sarah, but Sarah has discovered that her body can be the cause of happiness to her and to another. It is this discovery which most clearly shows why we might want to talk about grace here. Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted."
From there, the essay has the inevitability of a proof in philosophy. Gay people, too, deserve to be wanted sexually—deserve the body’s grace. The full expression of this grace through sexual relations takes time and the commitment of the partners to come to know each other—through the commitment of marriage or something like it. Sexual fidelity is akin to religious fidelity—“not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound.” For the church to stand in the way of such relationships, straight or gay, is to stand in the way of God’s grace.
It was brilliant theology: learned, human, equally open to tradition and to experience. And it was characteristically Anglican, following a via media between the traditionalists and the progressives. Unlike the more revisionist members of his communion, Williams didn’t apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to the Christian past and assume that old doctrines are unsound simply because they are old. Unlike gender theorists, he didn’t treat sexuality as merely a social construct. Unlike the present pope, he didn’t change the subject, considering homosexuality chiefly in terms of its effects on a constellation of Christian teachings about human nature. He wrote about homosexuality as a fact of modern life, and used a modern English novel to make his point.
What would a church dedicated to fostering “the body’s grace” look like? It is hard to say. Human sexual experience is as fluid and complicated as human religious experience, and no church has ever had a wholly consistent set of sexual teachings, even though (as Williams put it in the essay) “culture in general and religion in particular have devoted enormous energy to the doomed task of getting it right.” Saint Paul thought unmarried people shouldn’t bother seeking spouses, because the end of time was near; Luther was as enraged by the spectacle of monks with mistresses as he was by the selling of indulgences; the Roman Catholic Church, while championing marriage, has canonized precious few married people as saints, presenting “the married state” as inferior to “the religious life” of a priest or nun. Williams didn’t take up this pockmarked history in the essay, and it isn’t clear whether he expected Christian prohibitions on homosexual behavior to be rejected or just hoped they would fade away, like the medieval restrictions on lending at interest. But the omission of the big picture actually made his argument more credible. Here was a church leader considering the shape of sexual experience, not the structure of the church, and doing so through the notion, at once ancient and utterly familiar, of sexual fidelity: as a means of grace; and as a figure for the life of the church, in which believers can know the way forward only by going there together, staying faithful to God and each other even when they disagree.
It was theology like this, with its disregard for Rome, that led the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a curt document in 2000, to characterize the Anglican Communion, and all the other churches rooted in the Reformation, as essentially defective—little better than the “gravely deficient” non-Christian religions. And it was theology like this that led many Anglicans and Episcopalians to conclude that the ordination of openly gay people as bishops was not only permissible, but full of grace.
In January 2002, George Carey, the archbishop of Canterbury since 1991, announced that he was retiring. Traditionally, the position alternates between the two “wings” of the Anglican Communion—the low church and the high church, the evangelical wing and the Anglo-Catholic one. Carey was an evangelical. Now it was the Anglo-Catholics’ turn, and Williams was put forward right away as a man for all seasons: socially liberal, yet Anglo-Catholic in his spirituality; low church in his Welsh roots and family life, yet high church in his command of the Oxbridge scene.
He was elected easily. In political terms, he had a mandate. But for what? As a writer, lecturer, and preacher, he had devoted hundreds of thousands of words to insisting that there were no obvious solutions to the problems the church faced. And yet, as the Anglo-Catholic candidate, he was now in debt to the wing of the church most agitated and impatient about the “problem” of homosexuality.
Stories began to circulate suggesting that he was in over his head. When Carey sent over his press rep to coach the new archbishop on how to deal with the media, Williams shooed him away, saying, “That’s quite all right: I know what I think.” When he went to Rome for a meeting with John PaulII, the ailing pope nodded off, for he had no idea who his guest was. (Williams tartly remarked: “Well, I won’t see him again.”) On the same trip, before a meeting with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Williams joked that he should show up wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words GRAVELY DEFICIENT. And back in London, the promotion of a little-known priest threatened to splinter the Church of England and send Williams into religiopolitical limbo.
“The Jeffrey John issue is when things came to a head here,” Giles Fraser told me, “and when things for Rowan turned positively Shakespearean.”
Fraser is the vicar of Saint Mary’s, Putney, a London church that gives the lie to notions of Anglican decline: a church at once full of families and wide open on gay issues. He met me at Waterloo Station in a black Barack Obama T-shirt and jeans, burly and baldheaded, semi-shaven, looking more like a skinhead punter than a vicar.
In the next hour Fraser, who studied theology under Williams at Oxford, told me the story of the controversial ordination. Jeffrey John is a Welshman and an old friend of Williams’s. He is gay and lives with another priest, Grant Holmes, to whom he was joined in a commitment ceremony, yet he is pledged to celibacy—which, his supporters say, makes him technically no different from a straight and unmarried priest. “At one point, when Rowan was bishop [of Monmouth],” Fraser told me, Williams and John “went to the archbishop of Canterbury about homosexuality, and Rowan apparently said to Carey, ‘Who pays the price for the gay policy? Gay people do.’ And he and Jeffrey lobbied Carey to make a change.”
But Carey made no change, and on top of that, he vetoed the nomination of Williams for the job of bishop of Southwark, near the Tate Modern in newly trendy south London, because of Williams’s obvious commitment to progress on gay issues. When Williams became archbishop of Canterbury, he sought to turn the tables. John was proposed for a post as the bishop of Reading, a half hour by rail from London, and Williams signed off on the appointment.
Then the campaign against the gay bishop began, with traditionalists on four continents forming a patchwork alliance. Fraser says those in America and England cared nothing about the views of the bishops of Africa until they saw the chance for an alliance against the progressives. They took up the ordination of gay bishops as a wedge issue, and made a show of unity; they claimed that a pro-gay agenda was a new form of imperialism against the global South. “They drafted the Church of Nigeria, with its numerical strength, as a way of raising a ruckus over it. They got the white man’s guilt going. The Internet sped it along.” And it worked. “Rowan backpedaled,” Fraser said. “He asked Jeffrey John to resign.”
“It was an utter shock—a complete reversal,” the bishop of Washington, D.C., John Bryson Chane, told me. “It emboldened those opposed, because they now knew that this issue was Rowan’s weakness: ‘Now we’ve got him by the neck.’”
Desmond Tutu was dismayed, too. “Most of us would have said that Williams would be ‘kosher’ on the issue,” he told me, “and we thought that he would employ his formidable intellectual and linguistic skills to affirm it. But those who were pulling in the other direction were much stronger than we had thought, and as a deeply prayerful and pastoral person, he wanted to accommodate them as fully as possible.” Tutu recalled a moment in the 1980s when the bishops of South Africa were divided on gay rights, with some favoring a frank affirmation of gay people and others wanting to “go slow” lest a dispute over gay issues shatter the church’s united front against apartheid. But Tutu thought that by 2004, the acceptable time for gay bishops had arrived and that in his good and wise friend Williams they had their champion.
“We did expect a very great deal of him,” Tutu said of Williams, choosing his words carefully. “Maybe our expectations were unrealistic.”
"Yes, it has been more difficult than I expected,” Williams told me. “I don’t think we could have foreseen the depth of bitter feeling that’s arisen in the last three or four years. The sheer built-up resentment about certain kinds of relationships. The resentment toward the United States and England in some former colonial areas. The resentments between liberals and conservatives in the United States. I don’t think I’d registered how deep the culture wars could go.”
We were in his office at Lambeth Palace, a brick pile across the Thames from the Houses of Parliament, and a place appealingly free of pomp and circumstance. The outside walls are sooty from traffic. The attached Gothic church is now a museum of garden history. Instead of a Swiss guard in full Renaissance costume, a porter in shirtsleeves opens an elfin door; you cross a courtyard, push open the timbered main portal yourself, and go up to some rooms that look like a period exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum. That day, some workers were hoisting an oil painting of Williams into place in the dining room; but in his office, Williams was surrounded by framed snapshots of his wife and children, which—like the Razor Scooter at the foot of the stairs—served as reminders that he too is a pioneer: the first archbishop of Canterbury in memory to raise a family in the palace.
The Lambeth Conference was a month away. The Fleet Street dailies were hammering at him over Gene Robinson. He leaned close, listening with his good ear, as we moved through the issues. Sharia? He had been misunderstood: his point was not that Islamic law could trump British law, but that religious groups have to be able to draw on their own values in the public square. Tony Blair? His conversion to Catholicism was no surprise—Cherie is a committed Catholic. Leadership? Sure, it had its privileges—such as the opportunity to debate religion at the National Theatre with the antireligious fantasy author Philip Pullman.
He was forthright and thoughtful—yet he seemed to relish the limitations of his office.
"Archbishops become the focus of people’s expectations in a very big way,” he said. “I want to say, ‘Don’t expect a magical resolution: I can bring what I’ve been given, and what the office gives, but I can’t guarantee outcomes. So bear with me.’”
I remarked that people saw a difference between his approach as archbishop and his personal views, and I asked how this applied to “The Body’s Grace,” the essay on gay sexuality. People were calling him a hypocrite: Was he?
“Never in my career did 5,000 words make such a tempest,” he said, and went on to distance himself from the essay—but not really. “I wrote it as a professor of theology contributing to an increasingly tense debate in the Church of England. I didn’t think, I’d better be careful what I say, in case I become a bishop one day. When people ask have I changed my mind, I can only answer, ‘Well, the questions I raised there are still on the table. They’re still questions. And I still think they’re worth addressing.’ That essay is my contribution, made in good faith at that time. Now my responsibilities are different. The responsibility is not to argue a case from the top or cast the chairman’s vote. It’s to hold the reins for a sensible debate—and that’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
Couldn’t it be that all the questions having to do with homosexuality were actually being pushed off the table—pushed by him?
“They’re not going to go away, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are,” Williams said. “But my question as archbishop of Canterbury is: How do we address this as a church, not just a group of local religious enthusiasts here and there? The ordination of Gene Robinson had effects that were extremely divisive because people elsewhere felt it committed them to a position they had not arrived at themselves. So part of my job becomes to ask: If there is to be any change, how do you decide what change is appropriate? And that leads to the characterization of being indecisive and all the other things that everybody always says.”
Reading his books, I’d been struck by his confident account of the life of faith as “human actions that seek to be open to God’s action.” How, I asked, did he hope God would act in the crisis?
He paused, steepling his fingers, then answered carefully. “I think the challenge that God is putting to us is this: Granted the differences of conviction, with how much positive expectation and patience can you approach the other? It doesn’t mean you stay together at any price, but it is a matter of whether we can demonstrate to the world a slightly different mode of operation than that which the world commonly operates with.”
It was a good answer, clear, subtle, truthful, and yet, listening to it, I couldn’t help but think of the night before, when Desmond Tutu had led a prayer service at the church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. Several hundred people crowded in. Archbishop Tutu stood at the foot of a staircase and spoke, in his singsong voice, about Robert Mugabe’s misrule of Zimbabwe, and although most of us could hardly see him, his blend of confident righteousness and puckish self-deprecation united us in minutes. This was charisma as a form of leadership: the charisma of a man who is not divided internally, who knows what he thinks.
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 Guardianpublished 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.