Rowan Williams: Challenging us to Listen

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Centre Director Canon Dr Angus Ritchie reflects on the news that Archbishop Rowan is standing down:

Many people in the Church of England long for ‘stronger leadership’.  On closer examination, this usually turns out to be ‘strong leadership in the direction I already wanted to travel’.  We only want our leadership to be ‘prophetic’ and ‘challenging’ when someone else is going to be discomfited.

The real and paradoxical strength of Rowan Williams’ leadership is that he has discomfited us all.  For leadership was not driven by a desire to force the church in his direction of choice.  Rather, he has sought to help different voices and views – in the Church of England and in the wider Anglican Communion – to listen to each other with humility, honesty and love.

Most people might be tempted to trim their views to achieve promotion – and then, once they had secured a powerful position, to use it as the ‘bully pulpit’ from which to advance their owm opinions.  It is a measure of the man we are losing as head of the Anglican Communion that he did the exact opposite.

Rowan’s views on human sexuality were made clear in his essay ‘The Body’s Grace’ – a lecture given to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.  This was a refreshingly honest piece of writing which was hardly designed to maximise his chances of ecclesiastical promotion. Once Archbishop, he saw his role as one of helping the church in working out, with love and maturity, how to live with disagreement.  Not even Rowan’s most ardent defenders would claim he performed this task perfectly.   However, one of his great gifts to Anglican Communion was to help it recognise the central question.  The distinctive vocation of Anglicanism – its distinctive gift to the wider Church and world – is to bear witness to Jesus Christ through the affirmation of the central truths of the faith (on which Rowan is strikingly orthodox) and to negotiate diverse views on a range of other issues with grace, integrity and wisdom.  Rowan challenged us to consider whether we wanted to continue doing that, or to fragment into little enclaves of ‘right-minded’ purity.

The Anglican Communion needs to recognise that it is both possible (i) to affirm sexually active gay relationships without being a ‘heretic’ and (ii) to believe sexual intercourse should only take place within heterosexual marriage without being a ‘bigot’   Rowan has sought has to remind us both that there is an orthodox case for what is often mistakenly called the ‘liberal’ view of gay relationships – and  that to remind us that ‘inclusivity’ can sometimes be a cloak for permissiveness and a lack of seriousness about the Christian call to repentance and transformation.  To speak truth to all the warring factions in this debate has been a hugely difficult task.  We should be thankful for the patience and dignity with which he has sought to carry it out.

In our sadness at Rowan’s decision to stand down, there is something here we all need to mourn – and to repent of at real depth.  Despite his best efforts, we have not managed to move beyond name-calling and parody.  This failure of charity has been very harmful to our wider mission.  Each side is convinced that its victory will enable the church to have a more credible, honest witness.  In fact, the greatest damage to our witness has been the lack of love with which we have spoken to each other, and to the wider culture.

This damage comes at a time when the wider society shows signs of real hunger for the Gospel.  At his best, Rowan was able to speak into that hunger.  Just after his appointment, there was significant and sympathetic coverage of the questions he was asking of our culture – about its shallowness, its focus on materialism over relationships, the disturbing signs of failure in the formation and care of each new generation.  More recently, his engagements with Philip Pullman, A.C. Grayling and Richard Dawkins have given the lie to the notion Christianity has been ‘intellectually disproved’.  Like Pope Benedict, our Archbishop gives the lie to the notion faith must involve the abandonment of reason.

On the day Rowan’s resignation was announced, the Gospel set for the Eucharist was Mark 12.28-34.  In it, Jesus’ tells the scribes that ‘there is no commandment greater’ than that to love God and neighbour.  It is a salutary reading for us all.  For Rowan’s leadership reminds us that loving is a difficult task.  It love is not a matter of being easily inclusive. The love which Jesus embodies presents a challenge to every section of the church and of society.   We should pray not only for a worthy successor to our Archbishop of Canterbury, but for a willingness to hear that challenge for ourselves.


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