c. 2007 Religion News Service
NEW ORLEANS _ His admirers describe him as a brilliant theologian with the soul of a poet, but it’s the work of a diplomat _ a church diplomat, no small thing _ that brought the Archbishop of Canterbury here this week.
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams’ 77-million member Anglican Communion is in full-body spasm, seemingly on the verge of tearing itself apart over the sanctification of faithful homosexuality.
For years, the 2.4-million member Episcopal Church _ the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion _ has steadily marched toward consensus that homosexual relationships are not necessarily sinful; that faithful gay men and lesbians may become bishops, and the unions of faithful gay couples should be sanctified.
Leaders of other Anglican churches, especially in Asia and Africa, are furious. Increasingly, they demand that U.S. Episcopalians be partly or fully ejected from the worldwide Anglican Communion of 38 autonomous churches _ and that beleaguered traditionalist Episcopalians be given their own orthodox shepherds inside the dissident church.
Since assuming office in 2003, Williams has tried to moderate the conflict, shuttling around the world and deploying all his powers of persuasion. Allowing a split, he said Friday (Sept. 21), would be “an admission of defeat. … I have to say, God forbid.”
With tensions higher than ever, Williams spent two days behind closed doors talking with about 150 American bishops and a delegation representing overseas primates, or leaders of other Anglican churches.
“He’s trying to keep everybody at the table, and he’s got people on both sides saying that’s not acceptable,” said the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean and president of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. “So he’s trying to keep them in conversation until some new kind of settlement can be worked out _ until the churches can find a new way of being in relationship to each other while letting each church stand for what it stands for.”
Williams, 57, was already a world-class theologian before his appointment to Canterbury _ the holder of two doctorates, author of 14 books, including some poetry, fluent in seven languages.
Anglicans in his native Wales knew him as a quiet scholar with provocative opinions.
He got himself arrested in a 1985 anti-nuke protest at an American airbase in England. Later he denounced the United States attacks on Afghanistan as “morally tainted” and opposed his country’s invasion of Iraq without full United Nations approval.
Williams’ seat in Canterbury makes his office the spiritual center of worldwide Anglicanism. He is head of the Church of England and considered primus inter pares _ the first among equals _ among Anglican primates.
But Williams’ office has none of the ecclesiastical clout of the papacy.
“We have no enforcement system as in the Roman church,” said the Rev. Jim Lemler, director of mission for the Episcopal Church. “He can’t remove a bishop. Our policy is such that the archbishop of Canterbury cannot insert his authority in a national church.”
“He has a kind of jawboning authority, as you’d say in politics,” Hall said.
“He’s spent a lot of time with some of Anglicanism’s angrier members, especially in Africa,” said the Rev. Bill Morris, a retired Episcopal priest and journalist in River Ridge, La. “And he’s tried to call people’s attention to a larger vision, that this is not just a church having fights over sexuality. That tends to get lost in the shuffle.”
Paradoxically, when Williams the peace-seeker rose to his office in 2003, some thought he might be the very man to fracture the Anglican Communion.
In England, Williams was known as a bishop hospitable to ordaining gay clergy and warm to the idea of ordaining women priests. Both were common in the United States, but are still not the practice in England.
On news of Williams elevation, the Rev. Richard Kirker, an Anglican gay rights advocate, declared that “under his leadership, homophobia will be challenged and intolerance rooted out.”
But although Williams has enough power to cast the angrier combatants out of the Anglican Communion, “I think the desire to maintain unity even trumps personal conviction,” Lemler said.
“I think the office has changed him,” Hall said. “Not changed his personal commitments, but it’s a little like becoming a Supreme Court justice. We have justices who turned out to be different on the Supreme Court bench than they were earlier in their careers.”
“He’s a deeply prayerful man does not take responsibility lightly,” said the Rev. Ian Douglas, professor of mission and world Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. “He walks the Way of the Cross in his leadership.
“So in these times if some are looking for certain kind of heavy-handed leadership that could give easy answers, I think we’re blessed to have a man who’s a poet, teacher and theologian. And I can’t think of a better mix of gifts.”
(Bruce Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)
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