Fall 2012, Vol. 14, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics
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on religion and politics 


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Table of Contents   

From the Editor:
Democrats Find Their Inner None

The Saints Come Marching In

I am a Mormon?

How Mormons and Evangelicals Became Republicans

Rowan Williams Lays Down His Burden

Honey, I’m Shrinking the Church

The Struggle to Keep Hospitals Catholic

“Religious liberty” in Court

The Democrats Dump God

Ayn No Way: Paul Ryan’s Problem

Netanyahu’s Anti-Obama Campaign

Varieties of Dylan’s Religious Experience




Rowan Williams Lays Down His Burden

by Frank Kirkpatrick

It’s hard to tell when a religious entity ends not with a bang but a whimper—especially when the entity barely exists in the first place.

The entity at hand is the Anglican Communion, that vaporous association of national Anglican churches whose bishops have gathered in London once a decade since 1867 at the invitation of the archbishop of Canterbury. The whimper is the apparent failure of the Anglican Covenant, a plan designed to hold the Communion together proposed by Archbishop Rowan Williams after the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) elected a partnered gay bishop in 2003.

The Covenant, which would have created a means of disciplining member churches, has been rejected by one after another of the conservative churches it was meant to placate. In the archbishop’s own domain, it failed to gain the support of a majority of U.K. dioceses.

At its triennial meeting in July, the Episcopal Church declined to take any position on the Covenant.

For Rowan Williams, retiring as archbishop at the end of the year, it has been a humiliating end to an episcopate that was troubled from its beginning.

But should anyone care about the Covenant’s fate?

Certainly the media in the U.S. did not care. Other than the Episcopal News Service, the ECUSA’s house organ, virtually no media outlet in the U.S. has paid attention to the Covenant’s progress since it was first put forward by Williams in 2004.

Outside the U.S., the best coverage was, not surprisingly, provided by Britain’s Church Times, which bills itself as “the world’s greatest Anglican newspaper.”

In March 2011, for example, the newspaper offered a spectrum of opinion on the Covenant from, among others, Norman Doe, the law professor sometimes credited with coming up with the idea; Gregory Cameron, the secretary of the Covenant Design Group; and Marilyn McCord Adams, an American philosopher who strongly opposed the idea.

For junkies wanting to track every twist of the Covenant’s course through the Communion, the best resource was “”—a website that, despite its stated opposition, faithfully provided access to all relevant documents and actions.

By ignoring the ill-fated Covenant, the secular media missed the story of the probable end of the Anglican Communion itself.

As a worldwide religious fellowship, the Communion has its roots in the creation of an independent Episcopal Church in the United States. After the American Revolution, “Anglicans” in the U.S. could no longer swear fealty to England’s national church. Nevertheless, they could not imagine living without some kind of relationship to the Church of England, and especially to the church’s ecclesiastical head, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Communion itself was initially just the collection of national churches, mostly founded in the British colonies as cross followed flag, that claimed historical descent from the Church of England. As colonies became nations in their own right, it was less than clear what exactly the Communion was, since there was never a unifying theology or polity.

This group of churches deliberately refused to establish a hierarchical authority structure, accepting instead what it termed “Instruments” of communion, or unity.

These included a decennial gathering (at the invitation of the archbishop of Canterbury) known as the Lambeth Conference; regular meetings of the heads of each province (usually called Primates, or Presiding Bishops); and a body known as the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC). Priests and laity were directly involved only in the ACC.

None of the instruments was given the power to determine the practice or governing structure of any of the provinces. Nor could they determine doctrine.

Over time the practice of “comprehensiveness” in interpreting theology and applying it to local and historically changing conditions had become the norm. Each member church had its own autonomous structure, power, and governing body.

There had been some episodes in the Communion that tested the power of non-power. The so-called Colenso affair had brought about the first Lambeth Conference in 1867, when the Communion sought to discipline a bishop in Africa for deviating from traditional teaching. But the Conference, while condemning his actions, had no authority to punish or remove him from office.

Since that time, various Lambeth Conferences have struggled with the relation between unity and diversity within the Communion. In 1948, it adopted the word “fellowship” to describe the relationship among the various provinces. Each province was to be recognized as “autonomous in its own sphere, and each in full communion with the Anglican Communion.”

But words cannot forever obscure substantive differences, which by the end of the 20th century had become profound among the members of the Communion.

The flashpoint difference was gay rights in the church.

The 1998 Lambeth Conference passed a resolution asserting that the gathered bishops could not “advise legitimizing or blessing same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions.” The resolution was pushed strongly by African and Asian bishops who were beginning to assert their new-found power in a post-colonial Communion.

In 2003, the Episcopal Church in the United States approved the election of Gene Robinson, a gay, partnered man, as bishop of New Hampshire and the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster approved liturgical blessings for same sex relationships.

Immediately, a group of conservative bishops and primates met with Archbishop Rowan Williams and asked him do something about what they considered Communion-busting behavior. Williams proceeded to convene a Lambeth Commission to consider “ways in which communion and understanding could be enhanced where serious differences threatened the life of a diverse worldwide church.” (Calling the Communion a church was inaccurate but telling.)

The result was the 2004 Windsor Report, which recommended ways for the instruments of unity to actually promote unity. One suggestion, strongly encouraged by Williams, was the creation of a “common Anglican Covenant which would make explicit and forceful the loyalty and bonds of affection which govern the relationships between the churches of the Communion.” The tension between “forcing” bonds of affection has haunted the Anglican covenant from that day to this.

Williams created a Covenant design group that delivered the last of three successive drafts in December 2009. At first many conservatives applauded, but in 2010, the conservative body known as the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) turned thumbs down. The Covenant, it declared, was “fatally flawed” because it failed to create disciplinary procedures strong enough to check the actions of the more liberal churches of the Global North.

The fourth section of the draft Covenant provided that a Standing Committee (SC) composed of members from the ACC, the Primates’ Standing Committee, and the Archbishop of Canterbury could be called upon by any member who had signed the Covenant to deal with an issue when there was not a “shared mind.” The SC would then determine what the Covenant obliquely called “those relational consequences” that might result from this lack of agreement on a controversial practice.

The SC would have the power to declare a practice incompatible with the Covenant, though it was not clear what criteria would be used to determine incompatibility. If a church declined to stop doing what the SC decided was incompatible then the SC could recommend to any of the instruments a provisional limitation of participation in, or suspension of membership from, that instrument. Those churches deemed to be offending could thus be relegated to second-tier membership in the Communion.

Why did the Covenant fail to gain wide acceptance?

For some, it was flawed from the outset by the very attempt to centralize authority. For others, it didn’t go far enough in creating a central authority capable of enforcing discipline. Still others objected to its failure to give the laity more authority.

To date, it has won the approval of just seven of the Communion’s 38 provinces: Mexico, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Ireland, South East Asia, the Southern Cone of America, and the West Indies. In Williams’ own province, the Church of England itself, 23 of 44 dioceses voted nay.

While insiders denied it, it is hard to believe that the Covenant’s failure did not contribute to Williams’ decision to resign as archbishop to become Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Barring a miraculous resurrection, the Covenant will go down in Anglican history as the symbol of the well-nigh impossible task Williams was given when he was named to Canterbury.

How could an archbishop with no authority outside his own diocese hold together an unofficial world-wide grouping of autonomous bodies with no agreed-upon creed or principles in the face of all the centrifugal forces pushing the bodies apart? The Covenant might have provided a fig-leaf of unifying authority but it would never have supplanted local autonomy.  

The real story of the Covenant is not how Rowan Williams failed to hold the Communion together but how the churches of the Global South rose up against the religious and cultural values of the Global North to destroy the last vestiges of ecclesiastical colonialism.

Nor did the election of Williams’ successor, Bishop of Durham Justin Welby, occasion much hope in England that Humpty Dumpty could be put back together.

On November 9, under the headline, “Justin Welby is the Alpha male to save the Church of England,” the London Telegraph’s Charles Moore wrote that the “Anglican Communion, at whose head Dr. Welby will find himself, is ungovernable. If he does not recognise this at once, and find a way of stepping aside from executive responsibility over it, he will be dragged down by its squabbles, just like poor Dr. Rowan Williams.”

For his part, on December 3, Williams sent a farewell letter to the Anglican primates acknowledging that the Communion had “endured much suffering and confusion” and stressing the “less formal, more relational ways of connecting” their far-flung communities.

Indeed, one-on-one relationships within the Communion between churches, dioceses, and even local parishes are starting to happen as churches in Connecticut, for example, provide monetary support to churches in Tanzania, bypassing the larger ecclesiastical structures of bishops, archbishops, and hierarchical powers that be.

One could well ask, of course, whether that is the whimper to which the Communion has been reduced? Certainly it is less majestic and has less institutional heft but it may be what enables the Communion to survive. Small, as British economist E. F. Schumacher said, is beautiful.


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