A small thought about Rowan Williams

The first conversation I ever had with him, he seemed nostalgic for the Orthodox church. He was, as a young man, attracted to Catholicism. Now he believes in the Anglican Communion: he has told the synod that he cannot give up this belief. What all these things have in common is a negative. He doesn’t believe in the Church of England. He doesn’t believe that a _national_ Christianity is possible or right.

Some years ago, I made a joke about how, at the end of a century when intellectuals had sold their souls to every conceivable totalitarian ideology, he was the first to sell his to the Anglican Consultative Council. But I think we misunderstand his Christianity if we don’t see that it requires some kind of supranational body to make sense. American, liberal Christianity doesn’t. At least, for them, the USA _is_ a supranational body. This is at the root of +RW’s policy towards them.

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15 Responses to A small thought about Rowan Williams

  1. Mrs Tilton says:

    _He doesn’t believe in the Church of England. He doesn’t believe that a national Christianity is possible or right._

    Could that be because England is not his nation?

    Fellow I knew, Anglican priest, used to tell me that the prime qualification to be A of C was being “so English you couldn’t see straight”. He’d have been all aghast at Rowan, my old friend would, if he hadn’t poped years ago. My old friend, that is; SFAIK Rowan has thus far successfully resisted the allures of the scarlet woman.

  2. Mrs Tilton says:

    PS – why does your comments box turn the word “doesn apostrophe t” into what looks like the name of a dwarf king from Tolkien?

  3. acb says:

    Because you pasted it out of somewhere that didn’t use html entities. I have a python scriptette — applied even before your secon comment reached me — that will fix all that. But I can’t work out how to run it automatically on incoming comments.

  4. Rupert says:

    I haven’t had much contact with American episcopals, but when I was last in SF I went to Grace Cathedral for communion one Sunday. While the general bent of the place was clearly not at one with the Global South, there was also a clear and heartfelt sense of belonging to the worldwide Anglican communion (the murals starring Runcie were a bit of a giveaway). Quite moving it was, so far from home, and the Elgar during the organ voluntary was almost illicitly manipulative.


  5. jim says:

    My impression is the ECUSA is not of one mind on this question. There’s a body of opinion which says if the rest of the Anglican Communion won’t follow the ECUSA lead, so much the worse for the rest of the Anglican Communion; there’s a different group which sees itself as the ideological/theological center of Christendom, which seeks for as great an intercommunion as possible and weeps over the Methodist split.

  6. H. E. Baber says:

    In spite of ECUSA’s structure, most Episcopalians see their churches on the congregational “gathered church” model–not as parts of a national church, much less an international “Communion” but as the local church that best suits their tastes. “Cradle Episcopalians” are a minority and Episcopalians are only about 1% of the population. Lots of Americans regard “denomination” as relatively unimportant and “church shop”–a term they unabashedly use–to find the local church they find most congenial. Lots land in what happens to be an Episcopal Church.

    Relatively few Episcopalians, I believe, care about membership in the Anglican Communion per se. Conservatives want out of ECUSA because liberals are in the ascendancy and are putting pressure on them and because they don’t want to kick in bucks to the diocese for programs they don’t support. They affiliate with Anglican dioceses in Africa in order to remain within the Anglican Communion to bolster their case for retaining church property. Liberals don’t want ECUSA kicked out of the Anglican Communion or demoted to 2nd class status because it would strengthen conservatives’ case.

    Sorry to be cynical, and embarrassed to confirm the view that Americans are obsessed with money and litigation, but this is the bottom line.

  7. rupert says:

    Thinking about this further, isn’t it a matter of church dogma? Anglicanism inherited its catholicity from Rome, and is shot through with the idea that it is a universal church – something underlined by the subsequent spread of Empire. Or is it that the ‘church shoppers’ are blandly disinterested on details of theology and history in general, and see their chosen church as primarily a social device? Are the Romans exempt from this pick’n’mix piety?

    As in so much American, the more I learn, the more I think I’ve a better understanding of the surface of Mars.

  8. H. E. Baber says:

    Most are blandly uninterested in theology and history. In the old days, and still in some places, there was heavy, embarrassing Anglophilia but no real interest in the idea of a universal church. As most see it, there are just lots of Protestant churches of different flavors and one of the flavors is Episcopalian–don’t be fooled by the high-churchiness of American Anglicanism.

    The RC church, representing I think about 35% of the population is a different animal because it’s heavily ethnic, part of the package for most who identify as Hispanic or belong to “white-ethnic” groups whose great-grandparents came to the US from southern and eastern Europe 100 years ago. For a big chunk of the population it’s a default and a cultural thing, sort of like the CofE (I’m thinking of my late father-in-law: a life-long “freethinker,” but baptized, married and buried CofE who made sure to have my husband “done” as an infant).

    Welcome to Mars.

  9. Robert Nowell says:

    It’s odd how comparatively few Archbishops of Canterbury have had what might be termed an Anglican background. Runcie’s family background was Presbyterian, Michael Ramsey’s Congregationalist; Cosmo Lang was brought up a Presbyterian; Randall Davidson’s parents were Presbyterians; Archbibald Tait was again of Presbyterian upbringing. And that takes us back into the 19th century. To what extent does the Church of England depend on a continual infusion of new blood into its leadership?

  10. jim says:

    I was thinking more in terms of the activists: those that were aware the synod was going on. Dr. Baber is right up to a point. The American white middle class is very mobile and when one moves to a new location, one looks for a church to join. If we think of a religion as a bundle of truth claims, ritual behaviour, moral teachings and community, Americans tend to value community above truth claims and both above ritual behaviour. So the primary requirement is a community they feel comfortable in. They would join a Catholic church if Catholic parish priests didn’t insist on inquiring about their belief in Catholicism’s truth claims. But it’s not quite true there are no cradle Episcopalians. The Black Episcopalians I’ve known were.

  11. H. E. Baber says:

    If mainline church-going Americans value “community” it may be because that’s what mainline Protestant churches in the US have been saying they should value for the past few decades.

    There’s a history here going back to the ecumenical movement, represented by COCU, which flourished during the ’50s and ’60s which was supposed to unite the major mainline Protestant denominations in the US, including ECUSA. This motivated mainline denominations to paper over doctrinal differences, soft-pedal truth claims, and try to achieve some uniformity in worship. In the ’60s the churches were also responding to growing secularism–I think Altizer and Hamilton _The Death of God_ was published in 1966. Mainline churches started seeing a decline in membership, in particular, older baby boomers entering late adolescence and dropping out, and suffered a loss of nerve. There was a lot of talk about how “Modern Secular Man” just couldn’t believe this stuff, which was yet another reason to soft-pedal truth claims.

    Finally, at the same time–remember, the ’60s–there was there was activist pitch, God as the “work partner” in _The Secular City_. College chaplains were doing draft counseling, ministers were marching in demonstrations. There was a sentiment that church services were a waste of time, which could be better spent at a political meeting or in a soup kitchen. There was popular literature representing the ideal church–Malcolm Boyd’s “underground church”–as a “community” which met in someone’s basement rec room for the breaking of someone’s home-baked whole wheat and to plan the following week’s schedule of political activities.

    So, truth claims were bad because they subverted ecumenical projects, and weren’t believable by “Modern Secular Man” anyway, and “ritual behavior” was bad because it wasted time, which could be spent improving society. What was the church for–well, “community.” That is what the church would provide. So church-goers self-selected: they were those who were there for “community.”

    Anyway jim, it’s mainline Protestants, not all Americans, who are indifferent to religious truth claims. Fundamentalists are very keen on truth claims, and the penalties for not buying them.

  12. Rupert says:

    There’s a lot to unpack here. I’m coming to it from the context of growing up in the vicarage of a West Country parish during the 70s and 80s, where the church was still well-attended, we had the seemingly eternal rhythm of 8, 10 and 6:30 communion, Matins and Evensong modulated by the liturgical calendar, prayerbook seasoned by the ASB and monthly Family Service, and churchwardens whose family names could be found on the 17th century gravestones outside.

    It seemed all of a whole and natural, and it’s only really now that I can recognise elements of much of the above discussion at work within. The thorny matter of truth was dealt with by affirmation with mutual understanding that there was much left to the individual and God to decide between them; the Church was very big, very old and very wise, and that wisdom extended to leaving well alone.

    One can see how and why this evolved, and how it was maintained by having a mysterious and impotent cadre of bishops. It might have been episcopal in name, but only inasmuch as the moon, Earth and the Sun were part of the solar system. We felt the presence of the diocese and Lambeth at a distance, but there really wasn’t much urge to send off a rocket to make contact (and likewise, the aliens may have turned up from time to time in their protective suits and peculiar life support equipment, but apart from a stilted exchange of mutually incomprehensible funny noises these were matters of curiosity only).

    So now I wake up and find the planets at war, and although the reasons given appear to be cogent with familiar matters, the reality – I hesitate to use the singular – is almost entirely different. The big problem for me, and I wonder how much this is more generally applicable, is that it is far harder to understand that which appears known but is the product of enormously different processes. This may help explain Robert Nowell’s observation above that the ABs of C tend to come from outside; you need an outsider’s perspective to better understand and operate within the Church.

  13. Rupert says:

    (Apologies for lack of formatting – for reasons I don’t understand, I can’t persuade the editor to recognise line or para breaks here, using Firefox or IE. Also, attempts to post or preview after doing an initial preview end up in 404. Mysterious ways…)


  14. As an atheist who was brought up C of E (and then C of J in the P of the WI), I find the whole debate rather fascinating. It seems to me that the issue of homosexuality has been brought to the fore by an alliance of American fundies (none of whom are Episcopalians) and African representatives of what is essentially Victorian Anglicanism.

    There is a regrettable tendency for Americans to see the rest of the world as an appendix to the US.

    On ‘church shopping’, I’d want to add that this includes not just Protestants but also divorced Catholics, who will try to find a church (frequently the Methodist church) that will include them.

  15. h. E. Baber says:

    No–it isn’t non-Anglican fundamentalists or the American agenda of world domination that’s driving this thing, but the internal dynamics of ECUSA, within the context of domestic culture wars. Homosexuality is a symbolic issue and gay men and women are being trashed in this process. Things are undergoing melt-down and we don’t know what to make of it.

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