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Time Magazine Interview

© Time Magazine (June 18 2007)

Monday 18th June 2007

The Archbishop of Canterbury is on the front cover of the European and African editions of Time Magazine. In a frank account of the challenges facing the Anglican Communion worldwide, Time Magazine outlines Dr Williams' hopes for the future in the run up to the Lambeth Conference.

For his last official act before a three-month sabbatical, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams chose a joyous one. He ordained the Reverend Canon Humphrey Southern as a new bishop. The ceremony took place in London's St. Paul's Cathedral, and the crowd smiled to see Williams, the tousle-headed, professorial leader of the Church of England and titular head of its global offshoot, the Anglican Communion, reveling in his mellifluous baritone as he prayed, sang and performed the rite of ordination. "Will you strive for the visible unity of Christ's Church?" asked Williams. Answered Southern, "By the help of God, I will."

By the help of God, indeed. Almost from the day he took over in 2002, Williams, now 56, has been attempting to prevent a schism among the world's 79 million Anglicans. It has been a horrible task. Within months of his taking the job, a simmering debate on homosexuality exploded into a brutal battle, pitting some of the wealthiest and most liberal of the church's 38 provinces, notably those in North America, against a larger, more socially conservative group concentrated in Africa and Asia and known as the Global South. At the 1998 edition of the Communion's once-a-decade Lambeth Conference, the concluding language called homosexual practice "incompatible with Scripture." But in 2003 the Episcopal Church, the Anglican body in the U.S., made Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, bishop of New Hampshire. Unlike Roman Catholicism, the Communion lacks definitive doctrine to aid decisive solutions. Nor does it have a universal leader such as the Pope — the Archbishop makes no claims to infallibility and cannot dictate to his flock. The years since have featured a series of angry meetings, threats of secession, half-met demands and unmet deadlines. The next full-scale opportunity to negotiate — or fight on — will be at the Lambeth meeting in July 2008: that is, if Williams can keep all parties on board long enough to attend it.

Anglicanism matters, and not just because it is one of the largest Protestant denominations. It matters because, like Roman Catholicism, it is global, uniting varied ethnicities, economic levels and social attitudes in an overarching understanding of faith. But Anglicans have foregone Catholicism's useful authoritarianism, staking their unity on a seemingly more attractive continual conversation, based on mutual respect. The sharp debate over homosexuality threatens that unity, and crystallizes a challenge facing everyone in an uneasy, newly wired world: can the North — rich and imbued with an ethos of individual rights — and the poorer South find a constructive interdependence?

The Archbishop's office is arguably ill-equipped for that challenge. A job sometimes described as "first among equals" now looks more like lion-tamer-minus-whip. Some think Williams should step back and let the rift happen. "No one is up to this, however gifted they may be," says Chris Sugden, executive secretary of the group Anglican Mainstream. Then again, Mainstream is a very conservative group that might prefer an immediate split; and if the Communion disintegrates, it is not Sugden who could be known forever as its last Archbishop of Canterbury. Says Bishop Idris Jones, Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church, "You could say [Williams] is occupying the Christlike position. He is crucified between two extremes and they're pulling him apart."

In the last few weeks, however, Williams has been intriguingly proactive, doling out penalties to a couple of notable thorns on either side of the debate, and possibly finessing a decent attendance for Lambeth 2008. Speaking to Time on a cool May morning, a fire burning in the hearth of his study in Lambeth Palace, his London seat, Williams admitted: "The Communion feels very vulnerable; very vulnerable and very fragile." But he insisted, "I don't think schism is inevitable." He said his task was to "try and maintain as long as possible the space in which people can have constructive disagreements, learn from each other, and try and hold that within an agreed framework of discipline and practice." Yet not everyone will be happy to follow his example. For in his pursuit of unity, Williams effectively banked down his own, rather liberal, views about homosexuality and the church. He may ask no less from the liberal provinces in the Communion.

Back in 2002, Rowan Williams was something of a prodigy. At 52, he became the youngest Archbishop of Canterbury in 200 years. "And," wrote one observer, "perhaps the cleverest," a man who had quickly established himself as one of Anglicanism's most gifted preachers and probably its pre-eminent theologian. He was a self-professed "hairy lefty," a Christian socialist arrested in a 1985 protest at a U.S. air base in England, who now criticizes the Iraq war. And he once also had a controversial stance on the theology of sexuality. In 1989 he delivered a lecture to Britain's Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in which he stated: "If we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm." He continued: "The absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and nonscriptural theory." As Archbishop of Wales he admitted knowingly ordaining at least one noncelibate gay man. When he moved with his wife and two children to Lambeth Palace in 2002, the Herald newspaper of Glasgow enthused, "What will endear him to the people ... is that he has the courage of his convictions, however unpopular they may be."

But his convictions turned out to be complex, and not everybody was endeared. Until July 2003, Williams seemed prepared to make Canon Jeffrey John, an openly gay man in a committed, celibate relationship, a bishop. But after a tremendous outcry on the right, Williams held a six-hour meeting with John, who withdrew his candidacy. Williams had already called an emergency meeting of the Anglican leadership over the U.S. Episcopal Church's election of Gene Robinson, also gay and in a committed relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire. The months that followed set a pattern. The Americans consecrated Robinson. Williams, facing conservative demands that they leave the Communion, endorsed milder requests such as a promise, for now, to make no more gay bishops and bless no more gay marriages. The Episcopalians made ambiguous gestures of compliance, but in 2006 elected as their presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who had supported Robinson's elevation. Today Williams calls Robinson's election — absent any prior general decision allowing the ordination of people in same-sex relationships — "bizarre and puzzling." "His heart is where it's always been," says Welsh Archbishop Barry Morgan, a good friend. "His natural sympathies and theological understanding are on the side of those who are gay." And yet Williams insists that churches should not outpace the Communion's consensus.

Many old allies, Williams admits, saw his shift on gays as a "betrayal." One British gay-rights activist snapped: "I hope he likes his newfound friends." But in fact, he has few on the right. "He's a very courteous man," says Morgan. "Sometimes the nuanced way in which he says things is lost on people." Certainly it is lost on archconservative Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who has said that God regards homosexuality as the equivalent of humans having sex with various animals, and who has commented, "We don't have to go through Canterbury to get to Jesus." He also set up his own Anglican body in the U.S. — the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (cana) — flouting Communion rules about stealing other bishops' sheep. Last February, when top Anglican archbishops gathered in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Akinola extracted major concessions despite initial deft handling by Williams. The gathering attached a strict deadline — Sept. 30 — to the usual cease-and-desist demands on the Americans, and added one more: that they arrange with the Communion for a "primatial vicar" to provide religious leadership for disgruntled conservatives, an idea the U.S. Episcopalians rejected almost instantly. Williams' reputation sank further.

Last spring was a nadir. Williams was widely reported as feeling isolated and depressed. Just before Easter, retired bishop Richard Harries described a meeting of the Church of England's House of Bishops at which Williams "simply shared what was on his heart for more than an hour ... and one tough-minded bishop ... was reduced to tears." An unnamed former bishop earlier had offered the press an image of an endless via dolorosa: "He's just carrying the cross, hoping things will change."

"I think it's a rather dramatic picture painted there," Williams told Time. "Making decisions that will lose you friends, compromise people's perception of your integrity — that's very hard. On the other hand, that is only part of the reality. First and foremost, I'm a priest and a bishop."

Up close, Williams is yet more benignly rumpled than at a distance. White hair springs out in every direction; wild black eyebrows seem to try to unseat his spectacles. Sitting next to a reporter, he affects the solicitous slump of a tutor assisting a student. His answers, however, are precise and confident. And indeed, he has some reason to be satisfied. One of his few direct powers is to determine who gets invited to the Lambeth conference. Many expected him to wait until after the Episcopalians' September deadline, and then — if they proved noncompliant — disinvite the entire American contingent. Instead, he announced in May that, for now, he was excluding just two people: Robinson alone of the Episcopalians; and Martyn Minns, the bishop of Akinola's U.S. church. If either attended Lambeth, he said, the conference would risk being just about them.

It was, of course, a gamble. Akinola threatened to pull his country's 90-some bishops out of Lambeth. Robinson said he hoped that the U.S. church as a whole (with its 111 dioceses) would "respond" to his exclusion. But the act of self-assertion seems to have energized Williams. As his hearth logs crackled, it became clear that he saw himself, the U.S. Episcopalians and Akinola as facing the same broad challenge: in the absence of bright guidelines, to subsume their more extreme philosophical impulses to the preservation of Anglicanism's unique assets. As for their real differences, Williams cited a theology he says springs from the Apostle Paul's reference to the church as the "body of Christ": God intends that people in one church "have something to learn even from the people we most dislike or instinctively mistrust. 'Here they are. In an ideal world, no doubt I'd have chosen differently, but it wasn't up to me.'"

So although he says he's "not recanting" his old arguments about homosexuality, his new job demands that he express "where the consensus of our Church is," rather than press for change. Even though Williams himself doesn't see sexuality as of "first-order" theological importance, he believes so many Christians do that pro-gay measures must be preceded by a broad shift in consensus. He portrays the U.S. church as having failed at this — and Robinson's election as perhaps dangerously myopic. Williams reports complaints from Egyptian Christians that their churches are being denounced — or, he hints, threatened — by Muslim clergy because of same-sex relationships, even though the local Christians themselves have never accepted their validity. Williams would like to see a "covenant" or set of core Anglican principles. U.S. Episcopalians have criticized this as a move aimed at forcing liberal churches into Roman-style lockstep, and he acknowledged it could eventually isolate the American church's current stance on homosexuality. "I don't want to accelerate departure, God forbid," he says, adding that he hopes both the Episcopalians and others could benefit if their positions changed.

The Archbishop is weary of being pushed around. The pusher-in-chief, of course, especially since the founding of cana, has been Akinola. "I've said to him privately and publicly I don't think that [cana] was an appropriate response," says Williams. He is also bothered by the unwavering support by Akinola's church of a proposed Nigerian law, now lapsed, that would have assigned a five-year jail term not only to open homosexuals, but to those who supported them. Williams says he is "very unhappy" about the situation, "and I've written to the Archbishop about it."

The Anglican parties have talked fairly little, thus far, about the collateral damage if the Communion does dissolve — but it would be real. Valuable links between rich and poor nations would be broken, and people would suffer while northern cash is seeking new conduits to southern need. There will be expensive litigation. That is not to say that the principles of gay rights or biblical fidelity may not be worth the possible costs. But Williams cautions: "There are no clean breaks. It's not as if [the Communion would] just snap apart like a dry biscuit."

Two weeks after Williams' offsetting penalties on Robinson and Minns, it looks as though his gamble may have paid off. Although Ugandan Archbishop Henry Orombi said he would join Akinola's boycott of the Lambeth conference, Archbishop Drexel Gomez of the West Indies, an influential Global South leader, told Time his contingent will attend. Liberal Washington bishop John Chane said that he will probably skip the conference out of loyalty to Robinson, but "I think the American church will be well represented ... [and] I think it's important. I don't see a walkout."

This should please the Archbishop, who is now engaged in a little light recreation, working on a book about Fyodor Dostoevsky at Georgetown University in Washington. He will emerge from his studies slightly before the Communion's next likely crisis: the Americans' September deadline on the Dar es Salaam "recommendations." Whatever happens then, Williams will probably keep plugging along. He is "hopeful," he told Time, but not "absolutely confident" that the whole structure of Anglicanism can be kept together. And if it should fall apart around his shoulders, leaving him standing in the rubble of his calling? Would he be able to sustain the blow? "Well, yes," Williams said, and then took a long pause. "Yes. Because I trust my God and I believe that whatever mistakes I make and whatever disasters may occur, there is always grace."

© Time Magazine 2007

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