LOOK NOT TO CANTUAR :  A Friendly Rejoinder to Michael Poon -  by Stephen Noll

LOOK NOT TO CANTUAR - A Friendly Rejoinder to Michael Poon

The Rev. Prof. Stephen Noll is Vice Chancellor of Uganda Christian University in Mukono, Uganda.

It so happened that two articles were posted on the Global South Anglican website  almost simultaneously last month: my address originally titled “The Global Anglican Communion: A Blueprint,” which appeared there as “Crisis in the Anglican Communion”; and Michael Poon’s Farewell to Babel: Rowan Cantuar as Servant of Unity for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Communion.” I am grateful to see that Dr. Poon had a chance to note my piece. So now I wish to make a friendly rejoinder to his article.

Michael Poon and I agree on many things. We agree that the advance of Christianity and Anglicanism in the so-called Global South must be taken into consideration in any ecclesial developments today. We agree that one distinctive contribution of Global South Christianity is to recall the church to “the recognition of the central authority of the Holy Scripture.”

I appreciate Dr. Poon’s perspective on the danger of imposing an Anglican “confessionalism,” especially on the mission field where new churches are being planted. In my essay, I have called for a reassertion of the Thirty-Nine Articles, not because I wish to separate Anglicans from the larger Christian mission, but because I think the root of our historical troubles in the West is the replacement of key teachings of the Protestant Reformers with various Enlightenment forms of skepticism and pantheism. I would be more than happy, in the spirit of Thomas Cranmer, to see an ecumenical and evangelical confession and catechism, say, along the lines of the Lausanne Covenant. But I am not sure that we Anglicans can contribute to that movement until we recover our own roots with confidence.

I find helpful his observations that the “focus” of Anglican unity and identity on the see of Canterbury is of recent mint and that proposals to enhance it are problematic. We do not need an Anglican pope. But finally, I want to agree, at least in theory, that in the Anglican configuration of authorities, the Archbishop of Canterbury might function as a servant of unity within a wider Covenant framework. Dr. Poon’s vision of a Primate of Primates who uses his spiritual role to advise and educate the Communion is admirable. This may indeed represent the hope of the present incumbent of that See, as Dr. Williams hopes to teach the Communion his understanding of the Anglican Way.

Having travelled together thus far, I find myself at a parting of ways with Michael Poon in his expectation that “Rowan Cantuar” will be the uniter of the Communion. First of all, it is unclear whether it is Rowan the man, the theologian, who inspires this trust, or whether it is the office of Cantuar. On the one hand, Dr. Poon speaks of “Canterbury’s role in the world today”; on the other hand, he says: “I recognize Rowan Cantuar as one of the most sensitive theologians that God has gifted us for this hour.” He appears to see a providential linking of the man with the historical hour of need. But must this providence be forever linked to the English Church? What if the man called to the Communion for such a time as this happened to reside in Nigeria or Singapore?

So I must differ on two counts: the present constitution of the office and the man who currently fills it. Firstly, I find it impossible to separate the political character of the See of Canterbury from its spiritual authority. The fact remains that Canterbury is constrained by its Sitz im Leben in the English Establishment, not only in its entanglement with the Government, but even more in its immersion in a secularized European culture. The one Anglican who might earn the instant assent of the majority of the emerging churches of the Anglican Communion as man of the hour is John Stott. John Stott has been a kind of episcopus vagans, an apostle to many, but he was never awarded a see in his own country. The system simply would not allow it. Of course, the Archbishop is welcomed when he visits the various Provinces of the Communion. But it is one thing to be welcomed and another to lead.

In my essay, I have proposed that the role of the office of Archbishop of Canterbury be internationalized. This is a serious proposal, but a little voice tells me: “They’ll never do it.” Before his appointment to Canterbury, Rowan Williams was tagged as a proponent of disestablishment of the Church of England. But, according to one critic: “Upon his appointment to Canterbury, he shoved his disestablishing sympathies into the closet” (Theo Hobson, TimesOnline 15 February 2005). While taking bold positions on certain political issues of the day, the Archbishop has seemed to bow to the ecclesiastical status quo, even doing the needful for Charles and Camilla. I do not count this an exceptional failure on his part: it comes with the territory. If, however, the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot find a way to help the Church of England out of an historical anomaly, it is hard to see how he can work wonders for the whole Communion.

Secondly, while Rowan Williams has a fine theological mind, he is ill-equipped to engage the present hour. Some of this lack may be constitutional, the difficulty of being a scholar-bishop, but the main problem, in my view, is convictional. The Anglican Communion is sharply and unevenly divided about the “two sexes one flesh” nature of humanity and about the clarity and authority of biblical texts from Genesis to Revelation on which this understanding is based. Theologically, the Lambeth Conference stands on one side of this divide; Rowan Williams and the North American churches stand on the other.

So what does it mean when the Church of England proceeds to appoint as chief Primate a man who has taken issue with the consensus of the Communion? A comparison with the election of the Bishop of Rome is telling. Would the cardinals have considered choosing a Pope who deviated from Catholic orthodoxy on any point, not to mention the overwhelming Christian consensus on homosexuality? Archbishop Williams has admitted on numerous occasions that his personal understanding of homosexuality is at odds with the historic tradition of the Church but has insisted that as Archbishop he will uphold that tradition until it is changed. Is this admission sufficient to empower him to be a servant to a Communion that is being torn apart by the conflict over sexuality and the issues of biblical authority that accompany it?

I think not. For one thing, his position compromises his “bully pulpit” to teach and persuade Anglicans on this important topic. To my knowledge Rowan Williams has made no comprehensive statement on human sexuality since his 1989 essay “The Body’s Grace” (http://www.iconservatives.org.uk/bodys_grace.htm). Given the nature of the crisis facing us, this silence is deafening. Compare the situation with Benedict XVI, who in the first year of his pontificate has set forth classic Christian teaching on love to a contemporary audience in the Encyclical Deus Caritas Est [“God is Love”]. The simplest explanation for Williams’s failure to do likewise is that he has nothing new or helpful to say.

Furthermore, it is hard to believe that the Archbishop, who expresses strong views on many aspects of modern society, is not being influenced by his personal views in dealing with issues concerning sexuality in England and the wider Communion. It is only natural for a person to do so. Is it really accidental that the Church of England, led by its bishops, has compromised itself on civil partnerships for same-sex couples? Compare the hairsplitting of the English House of Bishops’ pastoral statement with the stance taken by the Roman Church in England and the judgment of Pope Benedict XVI that “it is a grave error to cloud the value and functions of the legitimate family, founded on marriage, attributing to other forms of union improper juridical recognition, of which there does not exist, in reality, any effective social exigency.”

So we return to the crisis of the Anglican Communion. For eight years now, the Primates have been calling the dissidents of the North American churches to abide by the teaching of the Lambeth Conference. Let’s grant that there is no legal authority in Anglicanism to force their compliance. But surely the time was ripe, following Lambeth 1998, for Archbishops Carey and Williams to issue theological statements of classical orthodoxy on behalf of the Communion. No such statements have been forthcoming, and the initiative for teaching and acting in this area has been left to Global South leaders, who are then caricatured as extremists.

It is hard not to conclude that the Archbishop of Canterbury has failed to exercise necessary leadership in this crisis. I for one favour abolishing the precedent of granting Cantuar sole power to determine who’s in and who’s out of the Anglican Communion. But if he does have that prerogative, then it is all the more problematic that he has not forthrightly warned the breakers of Communion teaching that their standing is in jeopardy. Who really knows whether a full or partial invitation to Lambeth 2008 will go out to the North Americans, or none at all? Is this lack of clarity a sign of prudential timing – allowing the Windsor process to run its course – or is it something else? I fear the “something else” will be an attempt to “change the subject and just move on” from difficult issues at Lambeth 2008.

I have recently read two articles that suggest analogies for our present situation in the Communion. The first is from The Economist (21 January 2006, page 33) comparing “hard power” and “soft power” approaches to Iran. While noting the value of combining approaches, the article characterizes true believers in soft power thus:

To those who think like this, the talking can never stop. Some Europeans still say that military action is inconceivable and threats of sanctions are unhelpful. This seems a characteristic European cast of mind. Nothing is ever decided. The European project is never finished. And even if something seems to have been tried and failed, there is always a chance to try – and fail? – again.

This strikes me as characteristic of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion office in dealing with the provocations of the North American churches since Lambeth 1998. Needless to say, there is a steep price to be paid further down the road for a dogmatic policy of appeasement. That price, in my view, will be the dissolution of the Communion.

The second article is by Richard John Neuhaus in First Things (February 2006) and is titled “The Truce of 2005?” Neuhaus claims that Pope Paul VI decided in 1968 to allow a “truce” over the Encyclical Humanae Vitae, which truce tacitly allowed Catholic teachers and laity to dissent from and violate the Church’s teaching on birth control without fear of reprisal. This “Truce of 1968,” Neuhaus argues, led to the general breakdown of discipline in the American Catholic Church and in particular to the tolerance of homosexuality in its seminaries, which in turn accounted for a major portion of the sexual abuse scandals against young boys. Neuhaus raises the question whether Pope Benedict XVI will similarly go soft on those Roman Catholics who publicly dissent from the Vatican “instruction” on homosexuality and the priesthood.

Is this not, analogously, what has happened in the Episcopal Church over the past thirty years? The Church’s “official” teaching on marriage and sexuality has been openly flaunted by so-called prophets since the mid-1970s. Now for the past eight years we have seen the same thing happen at the Communion level, with the Episcopal Church thumbing its institutional nose at the Lambeth Conference and the Primates.

That was why I warned in my recent address that if the Primates in 2006 or 2007 and the Lambeth Conference in 2008 sidestep the discipline of the Episcopal Church, it will be the effective end of the Communion. There is much greater danger at this time from following blindly the existing formal structures than from trying to set up alternate semi-formal structures.

Michael Poon thinks the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Rowan Williams in particular, is a servant of God for this moment in our history. I just don’t see it. There is, the Preacher says, a time for everything. Sometimes a servant leader will hold his peace; at other times he will “jaw, jaw.” Yet at other times, he will take upon him the mantle of Moses, the servant of the Lord, and read the riot act to the idolaters. The Anglican Communion is threatened by a revolt of a libertine cult. I am more inclined to look for the servanthood needed for our time coming out of the crucible of central Nigeria than out of central London. 27 February 2006

17 Responses. Comments closed for this entry.

  1. mccabe Says:

    “The Anglican Communion is threatened by a revolt of libertine idolaters. I am more inclined to look for the servanthood needed for our time coming out of the crucible of central Nigeria than out of central London.”

    Perhaps we should trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us all in the end. Perhaps we should trust Christ Jeus to lead us using the clay in his hand to make us new again. In Christ there is no Nigerian or Londoner.

  2. Gillian Says:

    Could you please write about the Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola’s support for the proposed ban on ‘“registration” or publicizing of organizations which promote either same-sex marriage or same-sex “amorous relationships”’ which will result in the jailing of people who do such behaviours?

    How does this affect other Anglican churches’ support for his leadership?

    Thank you.

  3. John Says:


    It’s all well and good as far as it goes to exhort us to “trust the Holy Spirit” over what the Communion should do about renegade Christologies and “homobishes”.  But as the hymn says, we are to “trust and OBEY” (emphasis added). 

    The book of Esther tells of when the Jews faced extermination in Persia.  Mordecai warned Esther that if she failed to take a stand, Israel would be delivered via another quarter, but she would perish, and how did she know but that she had ascended the throne for such a time as this (Esther 4:10-14)?

    The Holy Spirit does not “need” anyone to guide the Communion.  But ABC Williams’ mark in church history - and, more importantly, his crown of righteousness in heaven - will be affected, for better or ill, over whether he takes a public stand for obedience to the clear words of Scripture on homosexuality.

    John, Presbyterian friend of faithful Anglicans

  4. Gillian Says:

    There is no “clear word of Scripture on homosexuality” as John the Presbyterian would have us believe.  There are 6 isolated passages, mostly referring to rape or temple prostitution, not one referring to loving, committed relationships.

    But the message of the Bible as a whole, and especially of Jesus’ teaching, is of LOVE - of a radical inclusive love.  Jesus ate with the outcasts and made them his friends.  His parables taught that they were closer to the kingdom of God than were the religious leaders of his day.  (see for just one example the Good Samaritan parable).

    Let me leave you with one passage to ponder:  “All who love are born of God and know God.”  (1 John 4:7)  Please note that it doesn’t say only heterosexuals.  Since our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters love too, they are quite clearly born of God and know God.  We should therefore accept them as full members of the Anglican Communion.

    Gillian, a devout Anglican

  5. mccabe Says:


    I am a lifetime Anglo-Catholic member of ECUSA I have a firm belief that the fire of Pentecost is as alive today as it was at the founding of the church.

    The tension between people of the book and people guided by the Holy Spirit has been true since the founding of the church. The people in favor of the book put Christ Jesus to death for his loving kindness toward the sinner and his preaching of the glory of God’s Kingdom. Those anointed with the Pentecostal Fire of the Holy Spirit gave birth to the church.

  6. John Says:

    Gillian and McCabe:

    1) Gillian:

    And how many biblical commands against child molesting do you find?  Not even one “isolated passage”, and certainly not six.  So by your logic, is child molesting okay?

    And can you say with sincerity these are “isolated passages”?:

    “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is abomination” (Lev. 18:22).  “Homosexuals…shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.  And such WERE some of you…” (1 Cor. 6:11).

    And note, these have nothing to do with “rape” or “temple prostitution”.

    And do you really think “loving, committed” homosexual relationships were not discovered until the 20th century?  Do you think Paul was unaware of Greek armies that were built on homosexual partners fighting side by side?  Never having had a gay partner to go into combat with, I can’t say for sure, but it sure sounds like a pretty “loving, committed” relationship to me grin

    Trust an Apostle to know what he’s talking about.  Men exchanged idolatry for true worship (Rom. 1:23), so “God gave them over to “dishonorable passions.  Their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise…receiving in themselves the due punishment for their error” (1:26-27). 

    Is there a fitter punishment than for the one being punished to act out his crime?  The idolater exchanged the truth about God for a lie, so God gave him over to exchange unnatural relations for natural - and, unless he repents, he will invent a whole skein of lies to justify his punishment, and try to foist them on a gullible ECUSA. 

    And don’t try to fool anyone by appeals to “love”.  Biblical love is not based on affectionate feelings, but is contingent on obedience.  And if you truly love homosexuals, you will warn them that their behavior will have horrible eternal consequences unless they break free of their lifestyle.

    2) McCabe:

    The distinction between “people of the book” vs. “people of the Spirit” is artificial.  If you are a “lifelong Anglo-Catholic”, surely you know the apostles were both! grin

    I have met some carismatics (I reluctantly call them “people of the Spirit” because ALL Christians are of the Spirit) who were good testimonies to Christ.  But I’ve also met my share who were frankly nutty as fruitcakes - just as great hindrances to the cause of Christ than the worst wannabe “people of the book” (again, to use your artificial distinction) Bible-banging fundamentalists.

    John, Presbyterian friend of faithful Anglicans

  7. Johnny Says:

    If you have some doubts on the interpretation of the Biblical passages on homosexuality, download this pdf article by Dr Robert Gagnon, the author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice:

    http://www.westernsem.edu/wtseminary/assets/Gagnon Aut05.pdf

    It is a well-researched article. Worth a honest reading and assessment.

  8. mccabe Says:


    My brother in Christ, if you were to search this site you would see that I have no fondness for the cult of the books. Christ Jesus was love in action.  Christ Jesus was a rule breaker that was put to death by rule worshipers. Christ Jesus wrote no rules for his servants. We are told that Christ Jesus commanded us ‘To love one another as I have loved you”. Christ Jesus gave us oral traditon alone to guide our faith in him. It is in our actions of love that we serve Christ Jesus; it is not in believing in our man made tradition of ‘faith’ in a written book. The book never claims to be the divine Word of God, that title is reserved for Christ Jesus himself. Christ Jesus is not ink on a page of book written after the fact by persons with their own agendas.

    I have even less tolerance for Jewish Law passed off as neo-christian thought.

  9. Johnny Says:

    Hi Mccabe

    You have interesting views of the Bible and church tradition. My Hindu and Buddhist friends also shares the same views.

  10. John Says:


    To speak of love without truth, or truth without love, is like getting on a plane and being greeted by the flight attendant: “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.  Would you like to fly on the right wing today, or the left wing?”

    Or as Pope Benedict XVI said, “Love without truth is blind, and truth without love is vain”.

    You wrote:

    “The book never claims to be the divine Word of God…” 

    Oh?  “All Scripture is inspired (theopneustos, God-breathed) of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), to cite but one passage.  The prophetic writings claim multiple times “Thus says the Lord”.

    I see it pointless to discuss these matters with you if you can’t bring factual accuracy to bear on your argument.


  11. mccabe Says:


    I read the same Bible that you do and see ‘the truth’ differently then you. Do you really believe that God has to cool off in the evening by walking in a garden. Do you really believe that the genocide of the Canaanites was a godly action that we should use as a model today to rationalize ethnic cleansing? Do you think that Lot offering his daughters up for gang rape is acceptable moral practice? Do you believe it is a god given truth that a daughter is the property of her father? Do you really believe that a father should murder his children if they displease him? Do you believe that the innocent children of Job should have died to make a point in a heavenly debate on the dominion of God? After God had ‘hardened the heart of Pharaoh’, did Pharaoh have ‘free will’? Should Pharaoh have been punished by God because God himself had ‘hardened his heart’ against doing the ‘right’ thing? Was Pharaoh actually an ‘inspired’ agent of God? Since Pharaoh’s heart and actions were ‘inspired’ by God himself, shouldn’t we honor Pharaoh as a ‘saint’?

    Let’s stand up and proclaim these wonderful Biblical ‘truths’ as the foundation of our faith. Turn off your air conditioner and walk in the garden, that’s what the Father has to do to stay cool in the evening. Thanks be to God (green power). Ethnic cleansing is approved since God ordered genocide against the Canaanites! Thanks be to God! Daughters are property of the father and can be offered up for gang rape or murdered if daddy wants it that way. Thanks be to God! Innocent children may be murdered if it helps resolve a ‘heavenly’ debate on godly dominion. Thanks be to God! Punish the agent of God for doing the work of the Father. Thanks be to God! After all, it has to be ‘true’ it is in the Bible.

  12. Johnny Says:

    Wow. That’s how you read and understand your Scriptures. It’s that bad for you huh? I detect a confuse soul. I think you better sort out your own faith crisis before trying to sort out the Communion’s.


  13. mccabe Says:


    Shocking isn’t it! That’s the Old Testament Bible for you. Read it as you will and weep at the barbaric ‘truths’ found in it. How else should reasonable people read these stories without shuddering in horror? Every one of my examples is based on Old Testament Biblical writings. If you do not know these stories (or the laws) then why do you think the Old Testament has to be followed as a moral guide to Christian faith and practice? Why do you want to cherry pick the rules you like from the Old Testament and ignore the savage practices of the Hebrews?  My faith puts no reliance on such barbaric thinking. I don’t need to sacrific a dove to clean my sin away. I don’t need to eat Kosher food to obey my God.

    I am most certainly not confused about my faith in Christ Jesus and his love for us all. I do not need to ‘sort’ out my faith. I believe that the Holy Spirit brings us to new understandings of how God’s love extends to all people over time. I totally reject Old Testament Law as binding on Gentiles as proclaimed by the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem described in the Acts of the Apostles. Why do you want us to renounce the decree of that Council by making us follow Old Testament Laws?

  14. John Says:

    McCabe and Johnny,

    Re your three missives (12-14):

    Straw man!  Straw man!  and Straw man!

    McCabe, I won’t argue with your Marcionism, which unsuccessfully severed the Old Testament from the New.  That heresy was effectively rebuked by your Anglo-Catholic antecedents 1500 years ago.  If you won’t listen to the Church you won’t listen to me.

    And why your non sequitur references to the Old Testament?  If you’ll notice, all but one of my Scripture citations were from the New Testament. 

    And Johnny, I am anything but “confused”.  You’re not “confused” when you have a thorough knowledge of the Bible, both Testaments, have trained yourself to seek to interpret each passage in its context AND in light of the entire Scripture, and know when you need the exegetical help of those whom God has especially called to teach it.

    I’m signing off this thread. 


    John, Presbyterian friend of **faithful** Anglicans

  15. Johnny Says:


    My posting at #12 was a response at Mccabe

    I completely agree with your statements:

    “You’re not “confused” when you have a thorough knowledge of the Bible, both Testaments, have trained yourself to seek to interpret each passage in its context AND in light of the entire Scripture, and know when you need the exegetical help of those whom God has especially called to teach it.”

    Precisely. Amen. When one is trained to handle Scripture in a mature way, and not read everything outside of it’s context, one don’t need to resort to the Mcabe’s type of theology.

  16. mccabe Says:

    I am not pretending to be a theologian. However, I am a highly trained critical reader. My degree(s) work has trained me to look at the text carefully for thematic content and imagery.

    I do have a serious problem with the concept that only the ‘trained’ professional christian can read and understand the Bible. That seems to be a very un-Protestant point of view to me. What would Luther say about that concept?

  17. Rafe Says:


    You remind me of Luther’s encounter with the Stubner and Cellarius at Wittenburg:

    “Do you likewise prove your apostleship by miracles?” “We will do so,” answered the prophets.  “The God whom I serve will know how to bridle your gods.” rejoined Luther.  Stubner now fixed his eyes upon the Reformer, and said, in a solemn tone, “Martin Luther, hear me while I declare what is passing at this moment in your soul.  You are beginning to see that my doctrine is true.”

        Luther was silent for a moment, and then said, “The Lord rebuke thee, Satan.”

    The prophets, losing all self-control, shouted in a rage, “The Spirit! the Spirit!”  Luther answered, with cool contempt, “I slap your spirit on the mouth.”