Rowan Williams Lays Down His Burden
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.
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
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
“noanglicancovenant.org”—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
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
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 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
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
Why did the Covenant fail to gain wide
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
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
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
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