Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Rowan Road

This link to the Weekly Standard has been sitting in my Inbox for probably a week now which is unfortunate since it analyzes one of the most interesting, and ignored, bit of news out there.

The whole thing is about the alleged impending retirement of Rowan Williams from his post as Archlayman of Canterbury and the fact that nobody gives a crap. But they should. Let's take a look at why:

The archbishop of Canterbury is going to resign next year. At least that’s the story making the rounds of newspapers in London, and the interesting part is not that the 61-year-old Rowan Williams should be willing to give up another decade in the job. Or even, if the Telegraph is right, that the clergy and his fellow bishops are working to push him out.

No, the interesting news about the looming resignation is how little attention anyone appears to be paying to it. The Church of England just doesn’t seem to matter all that much, fading from the world’s stage only slightly more slowly than the British Empire that planted it across the globe.

First, why the hell would Rowan want to stay? So he can continue to be excoriated from just about everybody who is supposed to have "communion" with him? And why wouldn't we expect his fellows to be trying to push him out? He's been a disaster by any reckoning.

Christianity will survive in other forms, of course, both theologically and denominationally. In the long run, the great tragedy of the fading of Canterbury and the looming breakup of the Anglican communion may be the geopolitical consequences—fraying the already weak ties between the global South and Western civilization.

He's right about this. The secular world should be paying attention, but it isn't. This fact is a striking demonstration of how irrelevant the Anglican Communion has made itself. The next bits of the article are basically about the growth of Anglicanism in Africa and how it is much more fervent and traditional there than elsewhere. Moving on to the next part:

Instead, hardly anyone notices when the archbishop of Canterbury is about to be replaced and the unity of Anglicanism is about to be shattered. The job of the archbishop of Canterbury has always been something of a high-wire act, delicately balanced between the Protestant impulses of the church on one side and its Catholic impulses on the other side. And, from time to time, various archbishops have lost their balance (notably when John Henry Newman slipped away to Catholicism in the battles over the Oxford Movement in the 1840s).

This time, unfortunately, it is the wire itself that is breaking. What the archbishop of Canterbury needed to hold together was a church divided between such African heroes of the faith as the retired archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, and such established masters of the Anglican bureaucracy as the primate of the Church of Canada, Fred Hiltz. On issues from the legality of abortion to the installation of female bishops and, especially, church ceremonies for gay marriage and the consecration of openly gay priests, the difference between the conservative African churches and the radical Western churches—between, say, Nicholas Okoh, Anglican primate of Nigeria, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States—is unbridgeable.

Unbridgeable is probably an understatement. Don't think that this gap wasn't in mind when Schori was promoted either. It was a statement that the Anglican Communion would either board the train to Spongville or be destroyed. Just another step in the overall Death March, but an important one nonetheless. Frankly, the author of the piece and others can wax poetic about Tutu all they want, but it seems pretty clear that he left the station a long time ago.

The current archbishop is a cultivated, intelligent man: a published poet and literary figure with theological sophistication and a talent for administration. Rowan Williams never possessed either the international star-power of someone like John Paul II or the intellectual depth of Benedict XVI. Still, he has more or less succeeded in his decade-long attempt to hold Anglicanism together with a kind of quiet, British suasion.

He pursued that end, however, mostly by trying to make himself an utterly neutral figure, beginning his reign as archbishop, for example, by leaving the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, an important British pro-life group. And his Laodicean pose has led him into such inanities as his 2008 call to enact some form of the “unavoidable” sharia law in Great Britain—even while his fellow Anglicans in Nigeria were being attacked by Muslim mobs.

I admit that I almost stopped reading the article here. Rowan is a smart guy, but what's this "talent for administration" business? And he's succeeded in holding Anglicanism together? Really? This is only if you accept the fact that there is any sort of togetherness going on, which ironically, the whole article indicates is absolutely not the case. All of this stuff went on under Rowan's watch. The fact that everyone still uses the same letterhead seems massively inconsequential in comparison.

And this "neutrality" thing. This has contributed to the unravelling of the Anglican Communion more than just about anything else. What the Anglicans needed was a leader. They got Rowan instead, who basically just let the inmates run the asylum. I'm not sure where or when this kind of stance became a virtue.

Pope Benedict’s 2009 offer of a Catholic home for traditionalist Anglicans is reported to have taken Williams by surprise, and he has found no answer to the administrative disaster of new conservative parishes being established in America—parishes that proclaim allegiance to conservative African bishops rather than to their local ordinaries. For that matter, the church-dividing question of gay marriage and an openly homosexual clergy has not been solved during the archbishop’s tenure. It’s only been repressed...

Yeah, but you just told us how awesome he is. How could any of this have happened?

The last full meeting of the Lambeth Conference—the once-a-decade meeting that brings together leaders from all the national churches to discuss and pass denomination-wide legislation—did not go well, back in 2008. African bishops pulled in one direction, holding separate meetings and hinting at schism, while the Western leaders pulled in the other direction, demanding that all churches in the communion embrace their views on human sexuality. That the church kept any unity at all was a tribute to the meliorating work of the of Canterbury. And with Williams no longer at the helm, little will be achieved at the next Lambeth Conference.

Unity? Why does he keep using that word? I do not think it means what he thinks it means. The last Lambeth Conference was the quiet, whimpering death of Henry and Elizabeth's hell-spawned ecclesiastical offspring. It's a zombie now, just unaware that it's dead and shambling around to various familiar places trying to pretend it's alive. It might even show up at Lambeth in a few years to devour the flesh of some more of its traditions. The bottom line is that the Death March is the only life and mission it has left.

The article's best and main point is something that everyone needs to pay attention to, though:

Little, that is, except the schism of Anglicanism. In all likelihood, the forcing of the issue of same-sex marriage will lead the African churches to withdraw from communion with the Western churches—while the churches of Europe and North America will denounce the African churches, choosing allegiance with standard-issue Western liberalism over the orthodox teaching of their own faith.

And thereby the world will lose one more of the old ties that might have bound it together. Freed from their African anchor, the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in America will move even further in a pro-Muslim, anti-Israel direction, providing yet more cover for fashionable liberal anti-Semitism. Let loose from their allegiance to Canterbury, the African churches will quickly move toward forming pan-African denominations that will feel entirely distanced from Europe and America—and will help build the belief the global South owes nothing to the West.

Granted, these aren't the only consequences, and theologically speaking, not even the most significant. However, it is what the secular world should be paying attention to. While Rowan's road comes to an end, the putrescent corpse of Anglicanism staggers along its own path. When it's finally too exhausted to continue, what will be left? Probably a horde of the worst modernist prelates imaginable on the left, with a group of sincerely devout, but wandering and shepherdless, clerics on the right. It's a good bet that Pope Benedict's greatest legacy will be giving these latter souls a boarding ramp to the Barque of Peter. Let's pray they accept.


Anonymous said...

I doubt that many, if any, or the U.S. ongregations who have lined up with the African "mission churches" will ultimately decide to join with the Catholic church. Look at the websites of those churches and listen to the on-line sermon banks. The tendency is toward a kind of Evangelical protestantism with some sacraments thrown in. Many of those churches are moving in a very different direction than Anglo-Catholicism.

Throwback said...

I agree.

I don't see the typical Episcopalian moving to Catholicism. Anybody who does come over will be the rare "High Church" variety that is only seen occasionally these days.

The Global South will be where the real action is, I think.

Jan said...

"The last Lambeth Conference was the quiet, whimpering death of Henry and Elizabeth's hell-spawned ecclesiastical offspring."

Thank you.