Monday, November 15, 2010

Lack of Conviction and Passionate Intensity: a Fatal Blend

Previously I wrote about the current Archbishop of Canterbury's style of governance in this post. I drew on an analysis first made by the Rev. Canon Dr. Giles Fraser:
[Dr Williams embodies] what one might call the theology of the peace negotiator or mediator. Simply put, the mediator pursues a theology that refuses to accept that a disagreement can ever reach a point where there is no benefit to be gained from further conversation. . . .

. . . Put a different way, it is a refusal to accept that two seemingly irreconcilable positions are indeed irreconcilable. The mediator is the supreme pragmatist, employing all the philosophical strategies up his or her sleeve to keep opponents round the table, to keep them talking.

The philosophical substructure of this theology of mediatory conversation is Hegelian; indeed, I would want to call it dialectical---though the three thinkers that matter most in this book, Shanks, Rose and Rowan Williams (all Hegelians of sorts), refuse to equate the drivers of Hegel's thought with the crab-like progress of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Instead, Williams perfectly describes the Hegelianism of the mediating peace negotiator when he writes: 'Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. Thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories.'

As it turns out, this 'struggle to conceive of a structural wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories' is a pretty accurate summary of the Archbishop's strategy in dealing with the warring parties of contemporary Anglicanism. Indeed, rarely has there been a more convinced exponent of the theology of the peace negotiator than Rowan Williams. . . .
Another way of describing Dr Williams' approach to dealing with Anglican controversies is set out in the recent book by the Rev. Charles Raven, Shadow Gospel: Rowan Williams and the Anglican Communion Crisis:
Although signs of hope are undoubtedly emerging, a secure future for the Anglican Communion rests on an accurate diagnosis of its present ills. In this account of Rowan Williams' leadership as Archbishop of Canterbury a kind of tragedy unfolds, in which the weight of an historic institution and the resourcefulness of a deeply learned mind are brought to bear in an attempt to sustain the unsustainable - an illusory middle ground between two fundamentally opposed visions of Anglican identity.

The one is confessional and is being articulated with increasing confidence by the leadership of the Global South; the other represents the seduction of the Church by the spirit of the age, as seen in its most developed form in the increasingly apostate behaviour of The Episcopal Church in the United States. This analysis demonstrates that Dr Williams' theology is not only alien to the former, but also powerless to resist the latter and, in practice, the result is a doctrinally incoherent Communion barely held together by a mixture of sentiment and improvisation.

The understanding offered here is that at the heart of these difficulties is a shadow gospel; a theological project which can speak the language of orthodox faith, yet subverts the supremacy of Scripture and the essential nature of Christian truth itself.

This shadow gospel privileges form over substance and under Rowan Williams' leadership the pragmatic ethos of Anglican Communion institutions has sat comfortably with this emphasis upon ecclesiastical process rather than doctrinal content, as exemplified by the Windsor Covenant and the associated listening programme of so called 'indaba'. But these strategies are manifestly failing and it is now time to take seriously the calls emerging from the Global South for what we might call a 'new wineskin' of governance structures which will free Anglicanism to express its true confessional identity and make a fresh start in the re-evangelisation of the West.
What both Dr. Fraser and the Rev. Raven conclude is that the Archbishop's inability to withstand the willful acts in derogation of the Communion taken by ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada -- even following the Windsor Report -- leaves the other members of the Communion with no choice but to act on their own, whether singly or in concert. The inevitable result of this loose style of leadership will be a fragmentation of the Communion, which is becoming more and more evident as the upcoming Primates' Meeting, announced for the end of January 2011 at the Emmaus Conference Center in Dublin, Ireland, draws near. Various reports suggest that there will be more than one "Meeting," in which the groups opposed will not meet together, but separately -- if the GAFCON Primates even agree to meet with the Archbishop at all.

And now, look for a moment at an entirely different style of governance, which could be said to represent the opposite end of the spectrum. I refer to the governance of ECUSA by its Primate, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori. By all accounts, hers is an autocratic style of control: she brooks no insubordination to her decisions, unilaterally decides when it is appropriate to intervene in the internal affairs of dioceses, when to file suits against those who have left the Church, and to whom a diocese may not sell church properties, bends the Canons to suit her objectives and overrules any objections to her interpretations of them, and is soon to assume the mantle of a metropolitan -- General Convention having obligingly conferred upon her those powers while being wholly ignorant and uninformed of what they were doing. (Though I have made inquiries of those who drafted the changes to Title IV, to date not one of them has come forward to defend the intentionality of their expansion of the Presiding Bishop's powers in the face of the Constitution.)

The Presiding Bishop's response to the remarks by informed observers that the powers conferred upon her are unconstitutional is all too typical: she simply ignores them. She does not claim to agree or to disagree; she simply will not engage in a dialogue, except to refer all queries to her Chancellor. No one else in authority in the Church will dare to speak until she has spoken. The result is a stalemate, and starting next July, no bishop or diocese can be comfortable about their status.

Let the Presiding Bishop begin to exercise metropolitical powers next July, however, and I predict a fracture of the Episcopal Church (USA) -- in much the same way that the fracture in the Communion is occurring. The fracture is being caused by unilateral assertions of authority for which there is no consensus that the assertions are justified. ECUSA is thus far on its own in conferring episcopal orders upon individuals living openly in relationships which are outside of the Church's traditional sacrament of marriage, and both ECUSA and the ACoC are alone in their move to provide liturgical blessings for such relationships.

In just the same manner, the Presiding Bishop will be acting on her own in assuming the mantle of a metropolitan, with absolute authority over her fellow bishops. The Canons purporting to confer such powers are a nullity, because they contravene the powers given to the Presiding Bishop by the Constitution. They thus cannot be the source of any such claimed powers; the Presiding Bishop, if she so acts, will simply have assumed them by force of her will.

But the end result of her style of governance will be for ECUSA what the result of Canterbury's style of governance will be for the Anglican Communion -- and perhaps even for the Church of England as well, where somewhat different fractures are at work. Too little direction is the equivalent of too forceful direction: a Church cannot be led or directed in either fashion.

The Pope is absolute in the powers conferred upon him on paper, by the Canons of Catholic Church, but he is constrained in reality by the magisterium -- by all that has preceded him, and by the need to remain true to the course that has thus been set. The Orthodox Church is used to two millennia of metropolitical rule, but with no primus at its head. But the Episcopal Church has absolutely no tradition of metropolitan authority, and nor does the Anglican Communion.

Instead, what has held those two bodies together over the past years is a commonly derived sense of mission and purpose. They operate through careful deliberation and laboriously attained consensus; when some of their members declare an end to deliberations and assume to act unilaterally against the previous consensus, the shock waves ripple through an organization unable to withstand them, and the fractures begin.

The only proper response to such unilaterally generated shock waves is to hold to the consensus theretofore achieved. The leadership demanded is one of being steady at the helm, not of abandoning the tiller altogether, nor yet of commanding dissenters to walk the plank. That leadership, unfortunately, is as absent from the halls of ECUSA as it is from the See of Canterbury.

Indeed, the two styles of leadership on show tend to bring out the worst in each other. Canterbury's refusal to apply meaningful sanctions to ECUSA's conduct is taken by Bishop Jefferts Schori as a vindication of that conduct, and only strengthens her resolve to brook no dissent at home. She insists on her prerogatives of continuing to take part in the Communion as a whole, even as she denies to all other Churches in the Communion those same prerogatives in her own Church. She belittles the lawful statutes of the Church of England which forbid her from wearing her miter while presiding as its guest at a Holy Eucharist, but she insists that the statutes of ECUSA require that she depose Bishop Henry Scriven of Oxford before he may return to England, and pronounce sentence that he be "deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority conferred in ordination." Faced with such obstinate contumely, Dr. Williams cannot even issue any statement defending his own prelate in response. Thus the one style of governance exacerbates the other, and the whole Communion is poorer as a consequence.

It is difficult to foretell just how the Communion and the Episcopal Church will fracture, and when, but that they will each fracture under their current respective leaders is a certainty, because neither of those leaders is acting so as to maintain the consensus previously achieved. The picture is looking more and more like that painted by William Butler Yeats, in his 1919 poem, The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


  1. A love of English gentility and civility in the mode of "Christian Correctness" has effectively castrated the polemics and politics needed to kill the liberal leaven infecting TEc and the Anglican Communion.

    You need a Churchill, not a Chamberlain when confronting this sort of enemy.

    ABC Rowan is like a Chamberlain. Not the right leader for the task.

  2. I shudder to say this, but maybe what is needed is a Lincoln...shudder...

  3. I agree, Mr. Haley. Both styles of leadership are not what the communion needs at this time. We need more leaders like Lawrence+ who is willing to stand for the faith once delivered, fight against the false gospel AND to make relationships with the Anglicans around the world to proclaim the Gospel.