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