Response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Second Lambeth Presidential Address
The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.
Rowan Williams has just made a very courageous second presidential address to the Lambeth conference. He has tried to put in his own words what traditionalists hope to be heard saying and what those standing for the innovations hope to be heard saying. This sort of thing is very basic pastoral work and many pastors will immediately recognize a larger version of their own role of being a mediator and peace maker in family and parish life. His paraphrasing of the traditionalist and revisionist positions is very articulate. He tries to put both at their best and challenges both sides to an act of imagination and charity that could allow the communion to go forward. He defines his own position in favor of a covenant with strengthened instruments of communion. There is much to admire in this statement and especially so as it comes from a man under immense pressure. I hope that it will have a major impact and influence on the final outcome of the conference.
I have my disappointments with the statement as well. One cannot do everything in a short statement but the terms of debate about homosexuality as presented in popular culture are taken on without comment or critique. The statement assumes that there is a debate between traditionalists and revisionists about how to respond to “gay” and “lesbian” Christians. Rowan Williams is accepting that homosexuality is a descriptor of human identity in the same way as gender or race is. This is a disputed question both scientifically and theologically, and the constant assumption that the theological dispute is a dispute about how to deal appropriately with the same facts confuses things. There is also a dispute about what the facts are.
There is another subtle subtext to this message. The Archbishop has implicitly described the dispute as a North vs South dispute. The imaginary conversation sounds like a conversation between TEC and the African churches. There is an implication that Africans and others in the global South are in a pre-critical cultural context and that those in the global North are dealing with the complexity of a post-critical situation with a more enlightened and nuanced understanding of homosexuality. This is inaccurate and an oversimplification. Among other things it misses the massive disagreement and division in North America and fails to register the sophistication of the scientific and theological objections to the homosexual agenda in the church that cuts across the global North-South divide. The Archbishop’s statement sadly implies that all who resist the homosexual agenda in the church have not engaged seriously the cultural and scientific issues.
A final disappointment is the Archbishop’s failure to grasp the degree to which in North America and among North Americans the dispute is far deeper than over the proper response to homosexuality. The uniqueness and divinity of Christ are very much at play in our setting. The Archbishop is right that it is easy to judge too sweepingly and too harshly but his statement does not really register the worry that many traditionalists have in North America about fidelity to basic Christian doctrine on the part of the leaders of their churches. It is not the case that traditionalists are making judgments on the basis of the homosexual question alone. Statements by key leaders in the Episcopal Church contradict the most basic teachings of the faith including the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What is even more worrying is the use of the traditional language of faith with a very different intention and meaning by many of our leaders. I think traditionalists in North America would like this concern to be truly heard by the Archbishop and the Lambeth meeting and not implicitly dismissed as prejudiced or over-reaction.