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The Church of England being what it is, no Archbishop of Canterbury can succeed: but Rowan Williams has failed more disastrously than most

He is supposed to be a theologian: but his actions have been theologically incoherent

By on Monday, 19 March 2012

Dr Williams is likely to be a better Master of Magdalene than he was Archbishop of Canterbury (PA photo)

Dr Williams is likely to be a better Master of Magdalene than he was Archbishop of Canterbury (PA photo)

Rowan Williams’s decision to leave Lambeth Palace and to move at the end of the year (I suspect with enormous relief) into the Master’s lodge at Magdalene, Cambridge, evokes in me two distinct reactions: firstly, well, lucky old him: a prestigious job he can actually do, with no compulsory pastoral work involved, in a very agreeable place indeed, rather than a job in which he has failed disastrously — at least partly because it is one which is absolutely impossible for anyone to pull off successfully; clever old thing to swing it.

My second reaction is that though everyone is being very complimentary about his time at Canterbury — “As a man of great learning and humility,” said David Cameron, “he has guided the church through times of challenge and change. He has sought to unite different communities and offer a profoundly humane sense of moral leadership that was respected by people of all faiths and none” — despite all that, actually he has been a much greater disaster than was actually necessary. He hasn’t “guided” the Church of England at all. He has lurched, with it, from one crisis to another, as often as not making things a lot worse. He is supposed to be a distinguished theologian (a proposition about which there is, to say the least, more than one view) and also a man of integrity: but he has consistently failed to handle crises with any theological coherence (theology, incidentally, is supposed to clarify complex problems, not make them more obscure than they need be); and, as for integrity, instead of remaining true to his beliefs, he has sought to avoid conflict between opposing views in his Church not by attempting to convince those he believes are wrong but by retreating in the face of internal political pressure, sometimes changing direction in mid-stream.

The classic example is one I have written about before: the case of Dr Jeffrey John, the homosexual but (the crucial qualification) celibate Dean of St Alban’s, who was not appointed Bishop of Southwark because of Dr Williams’s veto, and who a year or so before that was not appointed Suffragan (auxiliary) Bishop of Reading, having already accepted it with Dr Williams’s encouragement, only to be told by the archbishop after he had himself been pressured by some very bigoted evangelicals (who didn’t care if Dr John was celibate or not, celibacy not being on their agenda: if he was that way inclined he was in his bones a flagrant sinner) that he must now withdraw his acceptance.

This he did after having been pressured by the same Dr Williams who had previously encouraged him to accept: this was done, according to one insider quoted by the Sunday Times, “with shocking unkindness and bullying over two miserable days. This was not just pusillanimous; it was cruel.” So here we had, as one commentator puts it, “a … woolly-minded, wordy man of inconsistent and incoherent views presiding over a miserably divided church”. The point is that this supposedly distinguished theologian simply didn’t think clearly and theologically: he went with the Anglican anti-theological flow.

As I wrote in this space after the Crown Appointments Commission caved in to pressure from Dr Williams and failed to appoint him, as its members had intended, to Southwark, “one is tempted to see this story as yet another example of a consistent Anglican incapacity to think theologically. The point about Dr John is that he is ‘celibate’: and by that he means that he and his long-term partner are chaste, that they abstain from any kind of sexual act. In other words, his behaviour is entirely consistent with article 2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches that “Homosexual persons are called to chastity” and that “By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom… they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

Not only did Dr John’s appointment to Southwark not take place: the C of E did not even escape being “split from top to bottom” by his non-appointment: the fact is that Anglicanism is intrinsically divided by its theological incoherence; but, partly as a direct result of Rowan Williams’s treatment of Dr John, there is now an increasingly unpleasant edge to its divisions. Dr Williams should have resolved this matter theologically: that would have been the way a theologian of his much vaunted “integrity” should have behaved. He would have needed to keep his nerve: but the fact is that whatever he decided to do, including making the wrong decision and caving in to the baying of the theological Neanderthals, would have needed courage.

All Archbishops of Canterbury fail, quite simply because the Church of England isn’t a Church at all, it’s a theme park: you wander about and choose the rides you want to go on. It’s not there to change you but to reflect what you already are. It has no consistent theology; it has a portfolio of theologies, each one inconsistent with the others. We all know that. But Rowan Williams has simply avoided the theological dimension, and used his prestigious position as a platform for whatever philosophical or political musings his restless mind comes up with. One minute he is praising Cameron’s vision of the Big Society: a few weeks later he is attacking it, presumably having forgotten what he previously said. His mind ranges endlessly over the possibilities for our society; nothing will deter him from voicing the most eccentric and potentially divisive views. He has behaved not like a pastor but like an academic. The most notorious example, of course was the World at One interview in which he said that the adoption of Sharia law in this country was, wait for it, “unavoidable”. This is how the BBC website reported the story:

Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4′s World at One that the UK has to “face up to the fact” that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system.

Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion.

For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

He says Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said “there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts – I think that’s a bit of a danger”.

The whole point, of course, is that our entire democracy is built on the fundamental principle that there is one law for everyone, high or low, believer or unbeliever, and that the law protects our liberties as well as constraining and channelling them. There’s no habeas corpus in Sharia law; there’s no right in English law, furthermore, for a man to put away his wife by simply repeating “I divorce you” three times. Williams’s pronouncements on Sharia law were, said the Sunday Times commentator Minette Marrin, “a truly astonishing revelation of his unfitness for his office”. And so they were.

For the Master of Magdalene to have come out with these speculative reflections would have been just fine. But then, of course, there would have been no interview on The World at One. Nobody would have noticed; but then, there would have been no universal condemnation, no nasty media coverage, either. It is surely good, for him as well as for the Church of England, that Dr Williams is off to Cambridge now. He will doubtless cause as much local bemusement and irritation there as I remember him doing in Oxford in the 80s; but outside Cambridge, nobody will ever know.

  • Anonymous

    “Outside Cambridge, nobody will ever know”.

    Ah, but they will, for much as Lord Carey’s utterances are widely reported, so will those of Lord Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury.

  • iz it

    How is having a long term homosexual relationship acceptable according to the CCC?

  • http://twitter.com/LArche_Kent L’Arche Kent

    Rowan Williams is a great caring and inclusive person leading an amazingly diverse church. Shame so many don’t see it and look for ‘strong’ leadership that would only bring destruction.

  • Anonymous

    Dr. Jeffrey John may have been celibate, but was he willing to preach against homosexual sexual relations and call people in homosexual relationships to celibacy in line with the church’s traditional teaching?  This was surely what the evangelicals objected to, not just the fact that Dr. John had homosexual tendencies.

  • Whatever

    In all honesty, is it really any of our business as Catholics to criticise his performance?

  • Marialouisa

     Also, surely by being in an ongoing relationship, he causes a scandal…

  • Phoebe

    Well said L’Arche Kent. The seriousness of the sin of schism, and the ultimate importance of staying in communion, is easily overlooked by many.   

  • Filmo

    I’m saddened by the dismissive tone of this piece. While the writer draws attention to the “increasingly unpleasant edge” that characterizes the divisions in the Anglican church, he overlooks the distinctly unpleasant edge in his own writing. Describing the Church of England as “a theme park” is great rhetorical point scoring, but hardly good Christian witness.

  • Jonathan

    “The point about Dr John is that he is ‘celibate’: and by that he means that he and his long-term partner are chaste”
    I think there are legitimate reasons for this relationship to disqualify someone as a bishop.  Imagine if a senior RC bishop was living with a woman in a long-term, chaste relationship.  It would be considered indecent because it strains the bounds of credulity that they can live like that without falling in to sin.

  • Jonathan

    Regarding the Archbishop’s comments on sharia: wouldn’t you quite like the idea of the state respecting Catholic marriage and applying the Church’s law to your own marriage?  I know that I would.  If I make a solemn promise to stand by my wife until death do us part then I would prefer to be taken seriously and have my vow upheld in the courts.

  • Graham Morgan

    I know that biblical based Christianity is beyond the pale for most Roman Catholics, who prefer to make up teachings as circumstances suit.  But a homosexual Bishop, celibate or not, who actively promotes that lifestyle, against explict biblical teachings (1 Corinthians, Romans, Levicitus, Genesis, etc) is totally unacceptable. Evangelical Protestant Christianity is the only true Christianity, Roman Catholism is total crap.

  • Anonymous

    That was a nice comment about the original Church. “Evangelical Christian” I think you need to ponder on the meaning of both those words.

  • W Oddie

    Is it our business? Yes, because Williams is the head of an established Church. His seniority is second only to that of the Queen. He has a seat in our legislature, and he will soon be given a peerage. What he says and does concerns us all, whether we like it or not.

  • James

    I have to agree with a couple of comments below – being involved in a civil partnership cannot be compatible with Christianity, even if it is a, “chaste,” relationship. Living with a homosexual partner surely is a cause of great scandal?

  • James

    I totally disagree with William Oddie on the acceptability of Johns living in a civil partnership, and you should not take that as definitive Catholic teaching. No Catholic bishop would ever be allowed to live with a male partner.

    As for your closing sentence, it is both theologically and historically illiterate.

  • Anonymous

     Graham, the writer of this article William Oddie does not speak for or correctly represent Roman Catholicism. His advocacy for a homosexual Bishop in the CofE is entirely personal to him but he errs greatly and scandalises faithful Catholics and our faith. It is very regrettable that he continues to use his important public Catholic platform here to express such views but alas this a cross the faithful have to bear with patience and pray for better days. Please do not judge the Catholic Faith by the errors of one stubborn man.

  • Anonymous

    Evangelical protestant christianity is grave error, for it denies the apostolic succession upon which valid celebration of the essential sacraments depends. Protestants live without the mass, without the presence of Our Lord.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t pander to the heretic. The approval of an evangelical is not something you should be seeking. Whatever Dr Oddie’s personal views, he is still a Catholic who believes in the essentials of the faith. The person you are sucking up to does not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/JONATHAN.HAGGER.AKA.MADPRIEST Jonathan Hagger

    Catholic priests have been living in long term relationships with women for hundreds of years and all over the world. In England the women are usually called housekeepers and I’m pretty certain that some of these relationships are chaste, if only the ones where the priest is gay.

  • Anonymous

    Here we go again. William Oddie uses valuable column inch’s to advocate AGAIN for his homosexual friend Jeffrey John to be given the role of Bishop in the CofE. Then attacks the critics who scuppered the deal to appoint him Bishop, labelling them “bigots”. It is quite depressing to the Catholic Faithful and confusing to non Catholics when articles and blogs like this appear in a premier Catholic website. It is no wonder the Faith is dying in this country when the little public space we still have left is filled with such sentiments…..
    “By their fruits shall you know them”. Once again William Oddie leaves a very sour taste :-(

  • Adiutricem

    Dr. Oddie:
    In recognition of your nine-paragraph evisceration of a sitting bishop, I hereby name you an official American. If you create a YouTube version of this article, you can be our president.

  • Anonymous

     If you call reaching out to someone who is correctly and naturally outraged by Mr Oddies apparent advocacy of homosexuality as “sucking up” then i would question your judgement. As i would in labelling him a “heretic”. If he has never known or been given the truth you are wrong to label him a heretic. You don’t know that is the case so you can’t make the judgement on a personal level.
    As for you defence of Mr Oddie, this IS a case of someone who should know better. Im told Tony Blair is a Catholic too but i have yet to see any REAL evidence of it. As the Pope said recently (im paraphrasing), it’s not those outside the faith that do the real damage, it is the fake or failing Catholics inside the Church that are doing the real damage.

  • Chris

    The C of E is going the way of all Europe’s established Protestant churches (see the Nordic Lutheran churches) in that it is rapidly becoming no kind of church at all. Just a social club with vestments

  • Isaac

    Yes, I entirely agree. The only true Christianity was started in Northern Europe in the late middle ages!

    I disagree on only one minor point: 1 Corinthians and Romans are epistles of straw, not Biblical books. The Roman Catholics added them to the Bible. Oh and also this stuff about “Whose sins you forgiven shall be forgiven” was totally made up by them. In the original manuscript it said “You have no authority to forgive anyone’s sins.”. And also this clap trap about “Any one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery”. What Jesus really said was “If you’re tired of your wife feel free to move on, especially if you happen to be the king of England!”.
    I’m just curious, there are about 1 billon Roman Catholics; how would you know that “most” of them “prefer to make up teachings as circumstances suit”? How many of these 1 billion people have you met?

  • Athelstane

    William Oddie is surely right that Jeffrey Johns was treated quite shabbily by the erratic Rowan Williams.  

    But that doesn’t mean that the right decision was to consecrate him as a bishop. As others here have pointed out, the difficulty was not just about his sex life (or lack thereof), but what kind of witness and teaching he would exemplify as a bishop. 

  • Bonaventure

    Whether or not a priest or bishop lives a chaste life is only part of the equation. If he teaches others that homosexual acts are acceptable, and that same-sex partnerships should be recognised as true sacramental marriages (as Dr John has said), it is hardly “bigotry” if Evangelical Anglicans strenuously oppose his preferment. The same is true regarding the appointment of an Archbishop.

  • Alban

    Having read once more Mr Oddie’s shameful and hateful words castigating Rowan Williams and the CofE. I am inclined to abandon my membership of the Catholic Church, burn its catechism, return to the Holy Bible as my catechism and concentrate on Almighty God. And to all those who have followed Mr Oddie like a lost sheep, remember, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” and that should include Archbishop Rowan Williams and all members of the Anglican Church whatever their theological imperfections.

  • Anonymous

    What a heinous accusation. The enormous majority of priests are celibate and to suggest otherwise is simply slanderous.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LotucusOP

    Scandal is a grave offense. Cohabitation, even between a chaste man and
    woman, is gravely condemned by the church for this very reason.

    I would just like to add my voice to those who have already commented this
    because Dr. Oddie has written about this topic before and it seems the
    sin of scandal in this case is not something which troubles him much.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LotucusOP

     I’d much rather see the state butt out of the whole marriage business to be honest.

  • a lutheran pastor

    For the sake of fairness, make mention of the Mission Province!

  • Isaac

    While you’re at it why not burn the Bible as well and become an atheist?

    Are you telling us that you are going to pick your religion on the basis Mr Oddie’s words? (What a contrast to “concentrating on Almighty God”!)And maybe, just maybe, “Love your neighbour as yourself” should include all members of the Catholic Church whatever their theological imperfections?

  • Anonymous

    To be fair, I think Dr Oddie is commenting on Anglicanism’s failure to abide by its own, rather than the Church’s, standards on the subject. If Anglicanism has taken a theological view that it is fine for clergy to be gay and even in gay relationships as long as they are celibate, then it is illogical and untheological to fail to abide by that when it comes to appointing bishops. It’s not a position the Church takes, but the point is that if Anglicanism is going to set this standard why then does it not adhere to it? It’s because, as Dr Oddie has suggested, Williams allowed himself to be pressured by evangelicals who believe that simply being gay is scandal enough – and that is certainly not a Catholic position. As for the sin of scandal – we’re not talking about a Catholic cleric. He doesn’t give scandal, in Anglican terms, given the standard Anglicanism has itself set.

  • Anonymous

    To be fair, I think Dr Oddie is commenting on Anglicanism’s failure to abide by its own, rather than the Church’s, standards on the subject. If Anglicanism has taken a theological view that it is fine for clergy to be gay and even in gay relationships as long as they are celibate, then it is illogical and untheological to fail to abide by that when it comes to appointing bishops. It’s not a position the Church takes, but the point is that if Anglicanism is going to set this standard why then does it not adhere to it? It’s because, as Dr Oddie has suggested, Williams allowed himself to be pressured by evangelicals who believe that simply being gay is scandal enough – and that is certainly not a Catholic position. As for the sin of scandal – we’re not talking about a Catholic cleric. He doesn’t give scandal, in Anglican terms, given the standard Anglicanism has itself set.

  • Anonymous

    Well no indeed. The issue is more Anglicanism’s inconsistency, its making these decisions for political not theological reasons, rather than actually any argument that John should have been in fact appointed.

  • Anonymous

    “to advocate AGAIN for his homosexual friend Jeffrey John to be given the role of Bishop in the CofE”

    I don’t think that is what is he doing. I think what he is doing is merely excoriating Anglicanism’s vacillation and its failure to adhere to the standards it has itself laid out.

  • Anonymous

    In Catholic terms, yes of course. But in Anglican terms, given that they allow clergy to live in such partnerships as long as they are chaste, then no. This is the confusion here. Anglicanism won’t abide by its own standards. Of course in Catholic terms this gives scandal – but we’re not talking about a Catholic cleric.

  • Anonymous

    Dr Oddie is certainly not advocating homosexuality. He is talking about Anglican inconsistency.

  • Anonymous

    We’re not talking about a Catholic bishop. That’s the whole point.

  • Anonymous

    ++Canterbury most certainly is a very brilliant theologian — but disastrously hampered in both his thinking and his honest efforts by his membership in an objectively schismatic and heretical CoE.

    He would be superbly brilliant if only he were a Catholic !!!

  • Nyankslawrence

    Hey,don`t mix things.Mr.Williams Oddie`s analysis is very crucial and right.
    For sure the Anglican church is lucking a lot.There is no way hhow you can bring modernity in the church just to make people happy.The problem with the Anglican church,it wants to appease people that`s why they bring in Homosexuals acts of which they claim to be knowing the Bible more than the rest,hence the Bible condones all those acts (Homosexuals)
    The Anglican church it self is divided and i don`t know how many sects under her so far.
    Therefore,the Anglican church has a very big problem.

  • Nyankslawrence

    Imagine second to the Queen,how do you expect to perform under Queen.Is Queen legible to head the church for sure?

  • EndTimes101

     nytor, who died and made you William Oddies spokesperson? He is a big boy, he can reply for himself. It is oddie indeed that you feel the need a go around and reply to every person on this blog speaking/defending/advocating for William Oddie. There are many good reasons so many people posting here find the nature and content of his article disturbing….

  • Corey F

     Good question.  I do find her terribly hard to read sometimes…

  • Corey F.

    Perhaps it’s not great “Christian witness,” but it’s not incorrect.  As Mr Oddie notes, the C of E is not a church, and rightfully so.  It’s an ecclesial community without valid orders or sacraments, not to put too fine a point on it.  And if you’re at all familiar with the state of Anglican “theology,” the theme park metaphor sums it up rather nicely.  The ones who could muster anything approaching theological coherence have already jumped ship for the Ordinariate, anyway.

  • EndTimes101

     Instead of attempting to speak for William Oddie why don’t you speak for yourself and explain your own comments. You have ignored my reply to your own comments in your odd(ie) eagerness to defend the indefensible…..

  • Corey F.

     Good.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  The Anglican “Church” as you term it is no Church at all; it is bereft of valid orders or sacraments.  It is a product of schism and actively teaches heresy.  The Anglicans deserve Christian charity, certainly, but that does not place them beyond reproach or critique for their own recalcitrant waywardness and denial of the Faith.  We have the duty to reprove heresy, not to encourage or condone it.  Maybe you should read your Catechism before you burn it…

  • EndTimes101

     To be fair, it is not really your place nytor to tell us what William Oddie was REALLY trying to say….

  • Anonymous

    Does he though? That occurred to me too, but I don’t know… does he call it a romantic relationship, “life parter” or just a close friend? As long as they are celebate it seems cruel to deny him that.

  • Anonymous

    My dog is caring and inclusive..