frgavin on October 23rd, 2010

Charles Raven writes:

The website of travel company ‘Escape to India’ (in which this column has no financial or other interest!) boasts ‘Visit India and we can offer you the reassurance that you CAN turn your Indian dream into reality.’ It may be that the beleaguered Archbishop of Canterbury is wishing he had sought their advice.

He might reasonably have hoped that his extended visit to India would be an opportunity to restore some credibility to his much diminished office. However, the illusory quality of the image Dr Williams is trying to project has been painfully exposed by high profile exits to the Ordinariate in England and statements by leading Global South Primates at the third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in South Africa to the effect that it is ‘game over’ for the Lambeth leadership.

Like many dreams, Dr Williams’ owes much more to wish fulfilment than fact. Just as the Rt Revd John Broadhurst was announcing his resignation to join the Ordinariate because of the Church of England’s ‘fascist’ and ‘vicious’ treatment of those opposed in conscience to the consecration of women as bishops, and as St Peter’s Folkstone, a church in the diocese of Canterbury itself, hit the headlines by seeking to make the same move as a whole congregation, Rowan Williams appealed again to the discredited ‘listening process’.

In his sermon at All Saints Cathedral, Nagpur for the 40th Anniversary Celebration Service of the Church of North India he claimed that ‘As we stop listening to one another, we stop listening to Christ. And whether this happens in the name of nationality or tradition or pride of achievement or purity of teaching, the effect is the same tragedy’. The reasoning behind this starts well enough. Returning to the listening’ theme of his address to the CAPA bishops assembled together at Entebbe in August he says ‘In St John’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a very simple account of what unity means for his followers. There is one flock because the sheep all recognise one voice – the voice of the Good Shepherd. So if there is not one flock, we must assume that the sheep are not listening to the same voice – that they are in part listening, as Jesus says earlier in the same passage, to the voices of strangers’.

However, it does not necessarily then follow that ‘When the Church of God begins to come together, it is a sign that we have stopped listening to strangers and have begun to turn to the one we most deeply recognise as the one who alone can bring us in to the presence of the true God’. Perhaps, but it may also be a sign that a particular visible and institutional Church is coming together around a deceptive voice and those who feel compelled to break fellowship hear within its leadership the voices of strangers.

The reason that such a possibility doesn’t seem to register with Dr Williams lies with the way in which in his thinking the voice of the Good Shepherd is bound up much more with the fluidity of what emerges from the Christian community than with the propositions of Scripture. That voice, he says, is ‘defined and controlled by the Word expressed in Scripture and the Creeds’, but that is a carefully constructed phrase; historic Anglicanism has never seen the Word as simply ‘expressed in Scripture’ – in other words, as something which lies behind it and needs to be extracted. Rather, Scripture is itself, in the words of Article XX, ‘God’s Word written’.

Moreover, by ‘defined and controlled’ Rowan Williams does not mean a confessional discipline built on biblical propositions, but a process of conversation and questioning which he calls the ‘grammar of obedience’. As I have sought to show in my recent book ‘Shadow Gospel’, this approach deploys basic Christian concepts, like the Trinity and is tethered, albeit loosely, to the central historical facts of the incarnation, yet its boundaries are so elastic that the voice of the Good Shepherd becomes lost in a cacophony of other voices conditioned by the ambient culture of the secular West.

Although cultural captivity is something the Archbishop recognises in principle, his understanding of Scripture means that it can go unrecognised, or at least unresolved, in practice. No doubt this explains the oddity that in this sermon he recognises the courage of the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930’s which managed to resist the voice of ‘strangers’ in the ideology of radical exclusion expressed in Nazi racism, yet he entertains on the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion two representatives of TEC, Bishop Ian Douglas and Canon Janet Trisk, whose ideology of radical inclusion establishes the voice of a ‘stranger’ at the heart of the Communion’s formal system of governance.

For the Global South Primates, the failure to exercise anything but the most token sanctions against TEC and its friends has brought them to exactly the opposite of Dr Williams’ conviction. For them, this is a situation in which the danger is not so much that ‘as we stop listening to one another, we stop listening to Christ’ as, to paraphrase, ‘ we now have to stop the ‘Lambeth listening’ in order to listen to Christ’. In a searching interview with David Virtue at the Lausanne Congress, Archbishop Henry Orombi could not have been more plain. In his view the Archbishop of Canterbury has ‘constantly played hide and seek’ and he affirmed ‘We will no longer play that game. It is over.’ In practical terms he said this means that ‘No orthodox primate will go to Ireland. Unless Rowan Williams uninvites the US and Canadian Primates, you can count us out.’

And logically it follows that an alternative should be provided, as he had observed earlier ‘We are providing collective leadership for orthodox believers. Such a move is seen as difficult, but a shift has taken place. In due time delivery of a baby takes prolonged labour pains but a baby will be born healthy and well. The Archbishop of Canterbury comes and goes every several years. The Church of Christ stays.”

Undeterred, the Anglican Communion’s official news service yesterday published a press release yesterday entitled ‘Archbishop Rowan Williams: “Despite challenges, Anglican Communion life is strong.”’ So the dream, at least, survives, but before writing off this improbable claim as simply a public relations exercise, it is worth noting that in an interview for the Hindu from which this quote was taken, the Archbishop explains that while ‘the institutions of the Communion struggle’ there is closer collaboration on development issues including ‘the emergence of an Anglican health network across the globe’.

Here we see a new tactic first evident at Lambeth 2008. The conference abandoned any attempt to tackle the specific moral and doctrinal difficulties facing the Communion, but the assembled bishops were prevailed upon to march through central London to the Houses of Parliament in support of the Millennium Development Goals. So we can expect to see increasing energy going into an attempt to develop a Lambeth based Anglican development agency as a covert fifth instrument of unity which serves to justify the continued existence of the other instruments while sidestepping ‘troublesome’ doctrinal issues and of course providing a financial incentive to bolster traditional ‘bonds of affection’.

This not fanciful. In his sermon at All Saints Cathedral Nagpur, Dr Williams equates the needs of the poor with the voice of the Good Shepherd when he says ‘If there are things that we can best do together, what a nonsensical response it would be to say, ‘No, we must wait until we are agreed about all our practices and our doctrines. When we respond together to the needs of the poor and excluded, we find ourselves drawn closer to each other; we have recognised the one voice of the true Shepherd’.

But this is an invitation to care for the poor as a displacement activity rather than grapple with the real issues of our identity which have shredded the fabric of the Anglican Communion. Until that fact is acknowledged, both the Anglican Covenant and now Anglican development work, vital as it is, become a game if in the wrong hands. Having declared one game over, the Global South are hardly likely to play this new one. They know that it is only the gospel which can bring truly holistic transformation to societies and we should be thankful for their courage and determination not to be distracted from that task by strangers.

Charles Raven

21st October 2010

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