Response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Second Lambeth Presidential Address

Response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Second Lambeth Presidential Address

By

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.

10 thoughts on “Response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Second Lambeth Presidential Address

  1. Dr. Harding, you wrote:

    “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.”

    This is even beyond an extraordinary disappointment, and it is a monumental failure on the part of Abp. Williams. A failure that sets a new modern standard for failure. The belief and praxis of 77 million souls assembled worldwide and poised to splinter, and Dr. Williams shows that he is wildly incapable of leading water down a waterfall.

    This is a massive failure of leadership. I even wonder if Dr. Williams actually knows what the word means.

  2. The liberals can squeeze out the Anglo-catholics by forcing women bishops. And they know precisely how to force out the evangelicals. With each new outrageous action, the Evangelicals place becomes more untenable. Gene Robinson mugging for yet another interview, gay marriage with full orchestra at St Bart’s, London. They have to be somewhat creative on how to top the previous affront, but they have shown themselves to be quite resourceful in this regard.

    Simply put, their is no via media between liberalism and Evangelicalism. The Global South understands in a very literal way that liberalism is death to Evangelicalism. The Integrity crowd understand this and are using it to the hilt. It is sad that Rowan Williams can’t see this.

  3. George: Just because he is not doing what you want him to do does not mean that he is not leading. +Rowan certainly knows what the word means (did you really “wonder” if he didn’t? Didn’t think so.), but he is wedded to a pastoral approach to the train wreck rather than a prosecutorial approach. He has charitably and objectively stated much of the contending parties perspectives, and provided his vision for the way forward, i.e., the Covenent. What more can a leader do? The fact that you want him to expel certain provinces or bishops and he has not done so does not mean he is a “failure.” Only time will tell.

  4. Thank you for this analysis, Dr. Harding. My own disappointment is that in the reactions to both the archbishop’s address and your analysis, there has been little if any engagement with Dr. Williams’ final question, “Having heard the other person, the other group, as fully and fairly as I can, what generous initiative can I take to break through into a new and transformed relation of communion in Christ?”

    Your analysis points out that Dr. Williams may not have heard conservatives as fully and fairly as you would like him to, but would you at least grant that he is doing his best to hear “as fully and fairly as [he] can”? And, if you grant this, I would like to know what “generous initiative” you would recommend conservatives take in order to “break through into a new and transformed relation of communion in Christ,” or as Dr. Williams also writes in his concluding paragraph, “speak life to each other.”

    I am not surprised that the accusations of Dr. Williams’ “failure” as a leader are being reasserted in the face of what you have generously termed a “courageous” address, but this only highlights for me the failure of people on all sides to take seriously his challenge to stop operating in what he terms an “annihilating judgement” mode that attempts to undermine Dr. Williams’ own legitimacy by pouring scorn on his witness.

    Or are we simply at the stage in this conflict where all sides are simply unable to hear and rise to the challenge of his final question? If this is the case, the failure is not Dr. Williams’, but our own.

    Nathan Humphrey+
    http://communioninconflict.blogspot.com/

  5. A young woman came into my office and told me through tears of the now habitual fights and mutual hurt she and her husband have that have led them to the brink of divorce. We talked about how hard it is when these responses have become habitual and unthinking to change the behavior.

    As a priest who has made my fare share of ‘annihilating judgements’ over time, and a priest who remembers well the two or three times a day fights with my adolescent sons, I can only hope and pray that a ‘generous initiative’ will come from some quarter to help us ‘speak life’ in this communion I love and have lived my life in.

    Andrew Osmun, St. Peter’s, Milford, CT

  6. If TEC would allow something very close to the pastoral scheme recommended by Dar Es Salaam that would be a step on their part and using that mechanism would be a step on the part of traditionalists.

  7. Dear Nathan,

    As I engage with Dr. Williams’s final question, I’m frustrated. The question itself seems deaf to fundamental concerns.

    On the surface, it sounds oh so pastoral. Listening, generosity, transformation, communion in Christ…what’s not to like if you’re a Christian, right? I assume ++Rowen is sincere in his analysis and in asking the question. (Although, if more designing minds ever attempted to sneak a particular brand of tolerance under the noses of defenders, they could find no better Trojan horse than to co-opt some of evangelical Anglicanism’s favorite language: discipline, change, growth, transformation.)

    But there seem to be in ++Rowen’s words–and in your pressing the question–some assumptions which need to be examined, such as:

    1) That if we aren’t achieving unity or communion, we just aren’t listening to each other enough. Not always true. In marriage I’ve found that just as many hurts and offenses happen because one has heard the other all too well. In my marriage, at any rate, there are truly times when, having listened deeply to my wife, I realize that I–and I only–have to repent and change. When this is the truth, to tell her to listen better or find the centre of our life together or saying “you don’t understand me” is to make excuses, delay, or rub salt into her wounds.

    2) That there is no “other person” or “other group” bearing Christ’s name towards whom I should not be “generous” and with whom I should not desire “a new and transformed relationship.” Well, a generous spirit is usually a good thing. But not everything new–not every transformation–in relationships is good. And not every relationship should deepen. As generous and welcoming as Jesus was, he and his disciples did have boundaries. There were ideologies and behaviors which scandalized them. At the risk of self-contradiction, I’ll say that in some cases the most loving and generous thing a sister or brother can hear from us is, “Repent!” But we are so boundless in our tolerance and tepid in our love that I can’t imagine an Archbishop of Canterbury saying, “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent” (Rev. 3:2, 3).

    3) That a “generous initiative” precludes a spirit of discernment. Hmmm. Are some Episcopalians not generous enough having passed judgment on Pike or Spong, or have most been too generous? ++Rowen tells us to stop exercising “annihilating judgment” towards one another. But his choice of adjective shouldn’t frighten us away from the noun. Jesus and those who preserved his teachings said, “Judge not.” But they also gave us teachings and case studies on exercising judgment in Church discipline. Insider and outsider were valid categories. None of us can damn another, but we can–as heartbreaking as it is, as prone to misuse as it is, in all humility–consider another damnable.

    So, I don’t know how much good it will do to engage the ABC’s question now. It seems a diversion from more pressing questions which are long past due but hard to say in plain English.

    Paul+

  8. Dear Paul+,

    Thanks for engaging my questions. I freely grant your point in #1, but would only add that in order for either side in a dispute to come to a realization that they need to repent, listening is still key, as your illustration shows. Applied to our current troubles, even if one side is entirely theologically and morally correct, this does not mean that it has treated the other side with complete ethical integrity, that is, in as Christlike a manner as possible, nor would I expect such, as we are, after all, still sinners. Yet the fact that we won’t treat each other well does not excuse us from genuine acts of repentance and reconciliation toward even those whom we regard as completely wrong, and–I would argue–even in the midst of the very conflict itself, as waiting until the dust has settled is already too late. Part of the archbishop’s challenge, as I understand it, is to engage in our conflicts in a more Christlike manner, which entails the practice of virtues not often seen when we are convinced of our own right(eous)ness.

    I grant your second point about boundaries, as well, but would like to point out that the only way one can proclaim a message of repentance with integrity (assuming one already treats one’s opponents in a Christlike manner) is by maintaining a relationship with them. “Relationship,” I grant, is a polyvalent term, but what I mean specifically in this context is that speaking the truth is not enough; speaking the truth in love means wanting a relationship with the other. Christ’s desire to save extends, after all, even (perhaps especially) to those who crucify him. In fact, reflecting on the Gospels, I cannot think of a single instance where Jesus is described as being *scandalized* by the actions of others–certainly the disciples are, and the Pharisees & Co. are, but usually by the wrong things! The extraordinary thing about Jesus is that in the face of what normally is scandalous, he always chooses relationship–and it is through choosing relationship that conversion and repentance follow. So I think you are mistaken in lumping Jesus’ response to people in with that of his followers. You are right, *we* are scandalized quite often. But God in Christ has seen it all and does not stumble. God in Christ always chooses to offer us a relationship. We may reject that offer, but even in the face of our rejection, Christ’s followers are called to seek out the lost and enter into relationship with them even in the midst of their rejection of us, for our rejections are always reversible, thank God, and even if we are not successful in our efforts, our efforts themselves are a part of our walking the way of the cross.

    As for #3, I do not see how my own comments or that of the archbishop’s preclude a spirit of discernment. (In fact, my whole blog, http://communioninconflict.blogspot.com is dedicated to the theme of discernment in the midst of conflict.) They do, I suppose, preclude a false notion of judgment that allows us to write anyone off. I consider plenty of people damnable, myself included. But I don’t think God has written anyone off and therefore neither should I. (I suppose this attitude betrays my total rejection of an understanding of “predestination” as being humanly capable of discernment; the object of discernment is not one’s final salvation, but how one is called to relate to another so that both people are drawn into the heart of God, with all the judgment and discipline that such a movement implies.)

    So I think it’s vitally important to engage the ABC’s question now, because to fail to do so is to betray a hardness of heart toward our enemies that does not accord with the radically challenging demands of the Gospel. This does not mean that one must withhold judgment on issues of faith and morals. But it does mean that those judgments must not stand in the way of our engagement with each other, else we fail to proclaim the Gospel and–worse yet–feel justified in our reasons for doing so. Just because someone rejects what we have to offer does not let us off the hook (or cross) of being called to offer it. Rowan is calling us to abandon our hard-heartedness, not our convictions. When our convictions lead to hard-heartedness, they become idolatrous rather than keeping us in the faith once delivered to the Saints.

    I don’t know whether anything I’ve written is at all compelling, but I am nonetheless grateful to you for drawing out the necessary corrections to what I tried in my imperfect way to express in my original comment, and am happy that this encounter has challenged me to open my heart and mind to the rigor of what God in Christ wills for us. Whether I’ve gotten that right remains to be seen, I suppose…And in that endeavor, I humbly beg your prayers.

    Nathan+

  9. Dr. Harding wrote, “If TEC would allow something very close to the pastoral scheme recommended by Dar Es Salaam that would be a step on their part and using that mechanism would be a step on the part of traditionalists.”

    I find this response only half-satisfying, for it is based on a condition that the other side must first fulfill. This does not seem to me to be taking the initiative. Whether or not TEC does anything, what generous initiative can traditionalists take that would be in the spirit of Dr. Williams’ challenge? And of course I’m expecting that any initiative would not compromise the integrity of traditionalist convictions, but would move away from holding them in a hard-hearted way, as my reply to Fr. Johnnston indicates.

    Many thanks,

    NH+

  10. Thank you, Nathan+, for a thoughtful conversation. Sorry to be so slow to respond. A busy week. Brief responses here, point by point:

    1) Insofar as your point goes, I agree 100%. I’m no less dismayed with the tone and sometimes content of the rhetoric on the conserving side than with what I perceive among progressives. As you’ve probably experienced, this can make life on the ground for us pastors more challenging–especially if you’re in a parish with sympathies on both sides of the debate, as I am. But the sort of willingness to listen which you’re describing is appropriate among all Christians–indeed, among all faiths. It needn’t be accompanied by false claims of unity between mutually exclusive belief sets.

    2) Relationship is indeed, as you say, a polyvalent term. Following your lead, we can probably describe the current unpleasantness as a debate, not over whether to remain in relationship or not, but over how radically the relationship needs to be altered in order to be honest among ourselves. Can we be honest and admit that there are mutually exclusive ethics, for example, which have not, will not, and cannot meet in the middle–that one can’t tolerate the intolerable and be intolerable toward the tolerant while occupying the same space? As for my use of the word “scandalize,” I had NT resonances in mind. There are ways in which we can cause offense to each other in the Church. These need to be resolved (e.g., Mt 18:15-20) or in some cases merit diligent oversight or even discipline (e.g., Rom 16:17, 18). Discipline in the Body of Christ, I believe, does not originate with Jesus’ followers, but with Jesus himself. Jesus certainly draws boundaries and considers certain things out of bounds. It may be no accident that Jesus speaks of cutting off offending members so soon before his discourse on Church discipline in Mt 18. Suppose I’m imagining things or this is merely a trick of redaction. It’s still a fact that Jesus is represented as, yes, always offering relationship, as you say, but on occasion doing so in ways he knows will cause offense (Mt 11:6; Jn 6:61-66) and wherein he condemns and says “Woe!” (Mt 23:13 ff). This *was* “speaking the truth in love,” but I don’t think this is what we usually mean by that phrase! Another thing which does offend (scandalizo) Jesus, however much he loves the person, is humanizing overmuch the significance of his passion and resurrection (Mt 16:21-23). So Jesus does have boundaries and is offended by error, both in his incarnate presence, as we’ve already seen, and of course as the Son of Man in judgment (Mt 13:41). In short, he loves unconditionally, but he doesn’t accept unconditionally–as we learn from the scribes and Pharisees and the rich young ruler.

    3) All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And as you say, we can’t “write anyone off.” But what should we mean by that? You and I can’t write anyone off for eternity. But it wasn’t just the followers of Jesus who exercised judgment and discipline within the ekklesia–within Christ’s new assembly of God’s chosen; Jesus did so as well. The picture I get from the NT is that in his circle, and in the early Church, there was such a thing as writing someone off for the time being, under the circumstances. The point of discipline was discipling, but it was nonetheless an exercise in judgment. Jesus could instruct disciples, “Let them alone” (Mt 15:14) or envision situations where they’d best shake the dust off their feet and move on. To put it crudely, the NT teaches of damnable people in the Church and outside the Church. The line between those who are counted as disciples and those who are to be treated “as Gentiles and tax collectors” seems a fine one, but is apparently significant.

    Paul+

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