Notes from underground

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Speaking the truth to power: two Anglican archbishops

A few days ago the synod of the Church of England failed to approve a measure that would allow women to become bishops, and that has led to a lot of comment in the blogosphere, on social networks, and no doubt elsewhere.

Like Antioch Abouna, I have no wish to comment on the internal affairs of another Christian body. What the Church of England decides about who to have as its bishops does not affect me. Sixty years ago Anglican ecclesiology was perhaps a bit closer to Orthodox ecclesiology than it is now. Back then, at least some Anglicans believed that apostolic succession was important; it strongly affected their relationship with the African Orthodox Church and the Order of Ethiopia, for example. Now, I think hardly any Anglicans regard apostolic succession as important, and the model for episcopacy is perhaps more akin to that of a branch manager of a supermarket chain, and the criteria for selection are probably similar — can they perform the management task adequately? Of course the analogy is not complete; a supermarket manager is not expected to be pastor pastorum to the other members of staff, and I believe there is still that expectation of Anglican bishops. As Antioch Abouna has noted, the discussion has been almost entirely in secular tems, and based on secular criteria. So it is up to Anglicans to decide on the criteria for the selection of their bishops in accordance with their current understanding of what bishops are. It is not for Orthodox, who have a different understanding of bishops, to approve or disapprove of whatever they decide.

But an Orthodox Facebook friend also commented “Orthodox Christians who delight in knocking Anglicans (esp. Rowan Williams) very distasteful. Don’t they have anything better to do?” and cited this post Women Bishops and an Archbishop Agonistes | Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy:

Well, it seems that the lame duck Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has decided to take his episcopal duty of admonition with some seriousness this week…

Now there may be a cultural difference here. It is possible that the term “lame duck” is inoffensive or neutral to people in the USA, because of their political system, but to people outside the USA it sounds very offensive indeed, and quite uncalled-for.

But, personal insults aside, what Archbishop Rowan Williams said (as opposed to what he is) does seem to be worth commenting on. Church of England in crisis: Archbishop of Canterbury attacks members for voting against women bishops – The Independent:

Speaking in the aftermath of that decision this morning, Dr Williams said the church risked being seen as “willfully blind” to the demands from wider British society that it must do away with institutional and theological sexism.

“We have, to put it very bluntly, a lot of explaining to do,” he told the General Synod. “Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday, whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society. Worse than that, it seems as if we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society.”

He added: ”We have some explaining to do, we have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.“

Perhaps he was speaking as the leader of the Established Church, and believes that the church needs to shape its own priorities according to the trends, priorities and demands of that society.

But if so, I think that reflects the dangers of Establishment. And I cannot help comparing it to another Anglican archbishop, facing a synod, at another place, another time.

The archbishop was Bill Burnett, then the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, and the occasion was the 1979 meeting of the provincial synod of the Church of the Province of South Africa (now known as the Anglican Church of Southern Africa).

There was a rather dull motion being debated, proposed by a Canon Albertyn of Cape Town, asking that the synod set up a commission to look into and report on all the permits the church was required to apply for in terms of the then-current apartheid legislation. Bill Burnett intervened from the chair, and said that in his position as Archbishop he was often called on to apply for permits for various things, and he disliked doing so. He did it because he thought it was expected of him as part of his role, and that it was expected of him to try to preserve the church as an institution, but that it was a role he disliked, and he disliked having to apply for permits, and was prepared not to do so, if that was what synod wanted. He warned that it could mean the end of the church as an institution. Its property could be confiscated by the government, and worse, but he was prepared to do that if it was what synod wanted. “Is that what you want?” he asked.

There was dead silence.

The moment passed, and the synod went back to its ordinary dull business (you can read more about that here Trapped in apartheid – South African churches | Notes from underground.)

But there you have two Anglican archbishops, more than thirty years apart. One is saying that the church must conform to the demands of the wider society, and the other announcing that he was prepared to resist the demands of society, no matter what it cost.

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9 thoughts on “Speaking the truth to power: two Anglican archbishops

  1. “Lame duck” is not an insult. It refers to an office holder who is shortly leaving his office, with his replacement having been chosen.

    • No, it is not necessarily an insult in the US, which is why I said there could be a cultural difference. My dictionary gives, for lame duck, 1. a person or thing that is disabled or ineffectual; 2. a speculator who cannot discharge his obligations; 3. a company with a large workforce and high prestige that is unable to meet foreign competion; and 4. (US) an elected official or body of officials remaining in office between the election and the inauguration of a successor.

      Meaning 4. is clearly maked “US”, and I suspect that most non-US readers would immediately think of meaning 1.

      • I really don’t know what most non-US readers might immediately think. Some research yields that “lame duck” is used in the manner I intended it outside the US.

        Why dwell on the allegedly insulting character of the phrase when 1) you suspect that it was not intended that way, anyway and 2) you could actually ask the author (me!) whether it was actually intended that way?

        In any event, I can tell you that my use of the term was by no means designed to insult Dr. Williams. I was criticizing him, of course, but I don’t see much point in merely insulting someone, and I think my writing generally bears that approach out.

  2. Perhaps unfair to highlight the lack of biblical debate on the recent Synod as they weren’t looking at the biblical basis for women bishops. That job was done a while ago and the CofE as a body has no corporate objection to women bishops. This recent debate was over protection for those within the CofE that refused to recognise the validity of such orders.

    What I find interesting is the willingness of the secular politicians to feel they have a right to interfere with the workings of the CofE. Perhaps they do and it’s perhaps the pitfall of an established church.

  3. As I indicated on FB, Archbishop Williams’ thought does not lend itself to easy media soundbites and so, although I was myself disturbed at reading what he said, I would argue that you are reading too much into his comments, particularly in contrasting him to Bill Burnett. He is clearly on record elsewhere in resisting the idea that the Church should capitulate to social expectations. To see him as toeing the line of the state, or of secular society, is only possible if people haven’t read his actual work (I think, for example, of some of his essays in Open to Judgement) and rely for their image of him on either the media or his detractors.

    • Macrina, yes, see my comment to Chris above. But what he is reported as having said is precisely the kind of thing that the media like to latch on to, and there is a kind of general feeling, fostered by the media, that the church should go along with the Zeitgeist. It is disturbing and disappointing.

      In another post I commented about a synod of Greeke Orthodox bishops in America saying “OXI” to Golden Dawn in Greece, but it’s relatively easy for them, to do that from several thousand miles away; the number of bishops in Greece who have spoken out seems far smaller. So admonishing people to go with the flow is disturbing.

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