I became an Anglican around the time that Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury. At first, I was very excited about the new broom. Something about Rowan spoke to a peculiarly English spirituality – half druid, half monk. He was a soft spoken intellectual in an age that abhors thoughtful silence. Rowan’s language was uncompromisingly difficult and ripe with metaphor. Best of all, he was an Anglo-Catholic. I hoped – and I still do – that the English and Roman churches might be reconciled. Aside from institutional oddities (married priests, female clergy) the Anglicans seemed spiritually in “the right place” for reunion.
But it all went horribly wrong. Poor Rowan had an impossible task. Anglicanism is home to a liberal Protestant movement that orientates towards social reform. Unfortunately, it is also home to an alliance of Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals that is more conservative in hue. The conflict isn’t just realized in opposing theologies. The liberals tend to be Western and rich; the traditionalists are found more in developing world congregations and among the poor. While the liberal group is older and smaller, it is institutionally far more powerful. The Christian Left predominates in the universities and conclaves.
The liberal and traditionalist viewpoints were irreconcilable. Rowan responded to the crisis in the only way that an Englishman knows how: he compromised. The result was nine years of confusion. He might say that he wanted women bishops, but he opposed them in the pursuit of unity. One day he would lament the “dim witted” attacks on Christianity and another he would describe crosses as “religious decoration.” He seemed personally open to gay priests, but tried to ram through an arrangement within the Anglican Communion that would keep them from becoming bishops. Intellectually, he was a liberal. Organizationally, he always accommodated traditionalists. In practice, he frustrated both schools of thought and only deepened the divisions within the Communion further.
A lot of people have concluded that his failure was the fault of his personality. To be sure, he is an irremediably and unforgivably boring priest. Often I would hear one of his sermons on the radio and be outraged by its multitude of blasphemies. Only later, when I had the chance to go through a hard copy with a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, would I realize that he was actually talking perfect sense. The man made an art out of muddle.
Yet, there was nothing Rowan could have done to resolve the contradictions of the Anglican Church. Division within the Communion is nothing new: disagreement over theology was at the heart of the English Civil War. But what makes the current struggle impossible to resolve is that it isn’t just about doctrine – it’s about the very purpose of the Anglican Church itself. The liberals think that the Church should be the servant of society. The traditionalists think that society should be the pupil of the Church. Servant or teacher, which is it to be? You can’t be a servant if you spend all your time lecturing your master about his many sins. Nor can you be a teacher if you believe that your pupil already has all the right answers. The Church had to decide what it was and stick to it.
I recall one evening watching a debate on television between a liberal woman “vicar” and a conservative male “priest.” They were arguing over female bishops. The woman vicar said that the Church should adapt to reflect society’s makeup and mores, or else it will become irrelevant and thus a poor servant. The male priest replied that the Church was there to teach eternal truths and that the World of God wasn’t up for consultation and reform. I asked my mother, who was also watching, who she thought won the debate. She replied that she felt the woman vicar was nicer and that my mother would be more likely to go to her if she was seeking comfort. “But,” I asked, “who would you want to marry or bury you?” “The man,” she replied instantly. “He actually sounds and looks like a priest.” The woman vicar had compassion but the male priest had authority.
This existential conflict – between whether to be a servant or a teacher – was physically embodied by Rowan Williams. Ultimately, he failed to satisfy on both counts. He refused to “teach” the public because he didn’t want to drive anyone away. But he also failed to “serve” us because the confusion he created made the Church even more irrelevant. Nothing speaks more to Rowan’s ineffectuality than his parting words: “I think there is a great deal of interest still in the Christian faith.” After nine years of leadership, is that all he has to offer? People are sort of curious about faith? One would hope that they would feel a stronger emotion than “interest” for a religion that thousands have died for, which is the official faith of England, and which is, by Rowan’s own reckoning, The Truth.
I did not stay an Anglican long. I wasn’t raised in it, so I felt little affinity for the endless round of lunches and tombolas. Nor was I impressed with where it was headed. It seemed to offer no resistance to the de-spiritualization of Britain; in many regards it felt like a conspirator.
Of course, there are flourishes of nostalgia. A snatch of Parry, a few lines from the Book of Common Prayer, Remembrance Sunday etc etc. But these are, I fear, relics. Britain is now a post-Christian society. Little St Mary’s isn’t a church – it’s a museum.