The dispute about Rowan

Jubilee Group Miscellaneous Paper, October 2002

Two evangelical organisations, the Church Society and Reform, are very opposed to Rowan Williams and want him to withdraw from becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. The grounds of their objection seem to be his attitude to homosexuality and to the interpretation of the Bible.

The four evangelical theologians who have rightly sprung to Rowan Williams's defence in the columns of The Guardian (8th October) may not be correct in their claim that 'disputes among Christians should be settled in private'. Positions which are stated publicly need to be critiqued and challenged publicly. I suspect Rowan would agree with this. The idea of settling disputes in private smacks more of the Oxbridge old boy network than of the gospel which speaks of things hidden being revealed. In the Church of England, the refusal (and eventually inability) to deal with issues in the public arena, and the preference for cosy fireside chats over sherry, has done immense damage. However, there is an equally serious issue. Terms such as 'orthodox', 'traditional' and 'liberal' are being used meaninglessly.

No Christian theologian is more rooted in Catholic orthodoxy, more traditional in his faith, and more critical of theological and political liberalism than Rowan Williams. It is clear from all his writings. The inability of some 'evangelicals' (I use inverted commas deliberately) not to see this is itself a cause for concern. But so is their claim to orthodoxy and their obsession with a small range of sexual issues.

Orthodoxy is about balance, coherence and the 'proportion of faith' in contrast to heresy which is unbalanced, often literalist and partial. It is bizarre that the issue of homosexuality, on which the scriptures say little and Jesus said nothing at all, should be exalted to central position by these groups. Such lack of balance seems more heretical than orthodox, and suggests a kind of theological pathology. It is, of course, important to realise that these groups are not typical of evangelicals in the Church of England, and many of my evangelical friends are embarrassed to be thought to be associated with them. Nevertheless these groups do reflect a mood in current western Christianity, greatly under the influence of North American fundamentalism and of the consumerist dimension of capitalism. The groups who stand within this mood will find Rowan baffling and threatening.

I first heard of Rowan Williams in 1974. A group of left-wing Anglican priests had met in Bethnal Green, where I was rector, and started a support group. It became the Jubilee Group, a loose network of socialist Christians, mainly within the Anglican catholic tradition. One of our founder members, John Saward, offered to write a manifesto with 'my friend Rowan Williams', then a graduate student at Oxford, whom none of us knew. It was a fascinating document, but rather triumphalist, and we rejected it. But it contained some important material which helps us to understand Rowan's theology and spirituality.

It began with a quotation from the Russian theologian Nikolay Fyodorov, one of the people who had figured in Rowan's doctoral thesis on modern Russian theology: 'Our social programme is the dogma of the Holy Trinity'. It was emphatic that work for justice was rooted in theology.

We are committed to the struggle for justice, liberty and peace, not because of some secondary interest in social theory, but because of the very foundation of the Catholic Faith.....

Because our fathers in the Catholic movement worshipped Christ in the sacrament, they also loved, cared for, and identified with, him in the wretched of the earth....What they said in Victorian and Edwardian England, we must proclaim in our situation today. Our commitment to the struggle of the oppressed must be as passionate as theirs, for, while much has changed over the last hundred years, the poor still starve throughout the Third World and in the streets of our cities.

The manifesto ended:
We must above all revive the prophetical office of the church. Now that we are in the death-throes of late capitalism, which threatens to inflict even greater violence on mankind than it has done before, we must make our stand with the oppressed, with the movement for liberation throughout the world.
I would not want to commit Rowan to the language of that 1974 document, and I have probelms with some of it, but it does really show the heart of the theological focus of the man. And this has not changed.

Some years later, Rowan and I met, and he became a member of the Jubilee Literature Committee. He co-edited, with me, the Jubilee symposium Essays Catholic and Radical in 1983. Jubilee people see him as a humble, kind, gentle and holy person, one who has not changed since becoming a bishop, in that he remains first and foremost a human being and a Christian, and treats every person with the utmost reverence and respect. Margaret Ronchetti, who organised our pilgrimage to Milan some years ago expressed her amazement and delight that Rowan, though now a bishop, was 'just the same' in his friendship and concern for people.

In 1988, the crisis over the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement's presence at St Botolph's, Aldgate, came to a head. The Jubilee Group published Speaking Love's Name, and Rowan's words in the introduction are worth recalling.

It is becoming harder all the time for a gay person to be honest in the Church. We have helped to build a climate in which concealment is rewarded - while at the same time conniving with the hysteria of the gutter press, and effectively giving into their hands as victims those who do not manage successful concealment.
His intervention in the legal action against LGCM was important. He denounced the Diocese of London for operating a deliberate policy to humiliate, and for going to law with their fellow Christians in clear defiance of New Testament teaching. In Speaking Love's Name, he called the Diocese's action a 'vendetta' and saw it as 'the lowest point' of the church's anti-gay polemic.

Rowan is first and foremost a man of prayer. (I recall Geoffrey Fisher's complaint to Macmillan in the early 1960s that Michael Ramsey would be a most unsuitable successor to him as Archbishop of Canterbury because he was 'a mystic, a theologian and a man of prayer'!) Rowan stands very much in the Ramsey tradition. His prayer is the root and source of his theology and is inseparable from his passion for justice. Prayer, theology and justice are all of a piece in his mind and heart. When he becomes Archbishop, he will be the first one for many years who can hold his own in debates with secular intellectuals. (Only William Temple and Michael Ramsey are comparable, and Rowan's intellectual range is way beyond theirs.)

To be Archbishop of Canterbury is not a position that we should wish on anyone, especially one we love. It is vital that we surround and embrace him with prayer, love and support. As we have already seen, the spiritual struggle with principalities and powers will become very focussed and hard. I believe that Rowan's obvious honesty, prayerfulness and holiness of life will be a great threat to many religious people, and may well bring many of the worst aspects of religion to the surface -- ironically something he warned about in Writing in the Dust after his own personal experience of September 11th 2001 in New York. But also one of the worst things that could happen, and Rowan would not welcome it, would be that radical Christians would simply rejoice and applaud him, resisting the attacks from the evangelical right. That would not help. Rowan is committed to debate and critique, and would not want people to view him uncritically. But those who debate with him must be prepared for a level of thinking and spiritual struggle which they may never have encountered before.

I believe the future is exciting and potentially glorious, but we do need to surround Rowan with our prayer.