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Sunday, November 13, 2005

In defence of Rowan Williams

++Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, occupies one of the least enviable seats in Christendom at this moment. Arguably even the Pope might not want to trade places with him. When ++Williams was chosen as archbishop, the evangelicals in the C of E wore black armbands in protest. Just a few weeks ago, a poster on another blog denied that ++Williams was a Christian because of his speculation regarding the possible legitimacy of same sex relationships.

But the left is no kinder. Most recently, Williams' wise and eloquent responses to a question and answer session in Cairo (to which I linked in the title of this blog post) have incurred the wrath of a blogger named Anglican Scotist. Scotist is one of the more thought-provoking Anglican bloggers (at least in my limited acquaintance), and he is an eloquent and provocative defender of the recent policies of ECUSA. Scotist has repeatedly attacked conservative Episcopalians as right-wingers who have embraced an essentially fundamentalist hermeneutic. He has no use for any appeal to a "plain sense" of Scripture, and he argues that conservative Episcopalians are in fact "liberal individualists." In this latest post, however, Scotist has revealed his own deep commitment to liberal individualism, and even what could be called liberal fundamentalism (not as much of an oxymoron as it might appear).

Williams' central point (in the remarks to which Scotist takes exception) is that his private views as a theologian are not determinative of the Church's position. "The Church," Williams reminds us, "is not Williams' personal political party, or any particular person's." To this Scotist responds that the Church is the party of a particular person, Jesus Christ. Williams' deference to the Church is, Scotist argues, a deference to some other Church than the Church headed by Christ. The Church headed by Christ follows the mind of Christ, and this mind is not subject to the fickle whims of a "super-majority" (Scotist's term for what Williams calls a "consensus").

The problem with this, of course, is that such a Church is reduced in effect to the private judgment of individual Christians. If the individual Christian may know the mind of Christ directly and with certainty, then what becomes of the "epistemic humility" Scotist recently vaunted as a linch-pin of ECUSA's position (see Scotist's blog for Nov. 6)? If the individual Christian does not have certainty, but must act according to her best discernment of the mind of Christ (even if this contradicts the Church's consensus), then this amounts to liberal individualism of the most radical kind. I'm genuinely surprised by this argument coming from Scotist. Given Scotist's track record for brilliant and thought-provoking insights (with most of which I disagree!), he probably has a formidable rebuttal to this objection. But his recent posts seem (from my perspective) to contradict each other in the most direct manner possible.

If one claims to be a Catholic (as I believe Scotist does), and if one claims not to be a liberal individualist, then one surely must allow the community some role in one's decision-making. Yet this is exactly what Williams does, and exactly what Scotist's attack on Williams explicitly excludes. Williams says (rightly) that neither the Church of England, nor the Anglican Communion, nor the Christian Church as a whole today, nor the historic tradition of the Church supports the validity of same-sex (erotic) relationships. Scotist denounces Williams' deference to this combination of authorities as unfaithfulness to Christ. I challenge Scotist to tell me how one arrives at the mind of Christ without any reference to the consensus of the Christian community.

My understanding of Anglicanism--the understanding that drew me to Anglicanism and has kept me precariously Anglicanism in spite of my many misgivings--is that Anglicanism affirms catholicity as the consensus of the entire People of God, ordered visibly according to the historic polity of the Church (i.e., the threefold order of bishops, priests, and deacons) but not vesting authority in any particular institution or organ within the Church. Bishops do not have the authority to invent their own faith. Their responsibility is rather to lead God's people in discerning the mind of Christ on the basis of Scripture, interpreting Scripture through the lens of the Church's traditions but always remaining open to the possibility that Scripture may correct tradition.

This, it seems to me, is exactly the understanding of the Church that lies behind Williams' remarks at Cairo. Scotist speculates that Williams' "church" is led by "bishops" rather than by Christ. This is a particularly risible criticism, because Scotist's real beef with Williams is that Williams refuses to act as if he is the head of the Church. We long for bishops who will act with modesty and humility, and when we get one we revile him! Williams knows that neither he nor any other bishop, nor any caucus of bishops, is the head of the Church. As Scotist affirms, Jesus Christ is the only head of the Church. But Christ speaks to and through the actual, visible, organized, sinful, fallible community of Christians existing throughout space and time. To hear Christ means to hear the Church--not because the Church is infallible and not because it does not need to be challenged by prophetic voices, but because in the end prophetic voices are validated by the wisdom of the entire People of God. As a theologian, Williams has challenged Christians to think more carefully about many issues, including same-sex relationships. But as a bishop, he no longer has the freedom to voice his own views but rather those of the entire body of Anglican believers (with respectful attention to the broader community of believers throughout time and space) engaged in the common task of discerning the mind of Christ.

Scotist's attack on Williams is the cheapest form of fundamentalist polemic. Scotist assumes (like a good fundamentalist) that the mind of Christ can only be known by an individual, and he dismisses the consensus of Christ's Body over against the pristine intuitions of the lonely believer. This is the only way I see to read Scotist's argument. Without such an appeal to radical individualism, he has no case. (I'm sure Scotist will accuse me of caricaturing his position, and indeed I'm being deliberately provocative in reponse to his equally provocative attack on the Archbishop. I hope to draw from him one of his usual eloquent and thought-provoking arguments, and I await such an argument eagerly.)

I don't deny that it is possible for a moral issue to appear to the conscience with such clarity that one can no longer defer even to the consensus of the Church. (I'm dubious that this has been the case as often in the history of the Church as many would claim. The abolition of slavery, for instance, did not contradict anything in the Church's historic teaching as far as I can see, although that teaching had not gone nearly far enough in condemning slavery.) Whether a bishop in such circumstances should press his/her understanding of the issue or should rather step down and resume a purely prophetic role is something I'm in no position to decide. But clearly Williams does not see the legitimacy of sexual relationships between members of the same sex as a matter of such complete moral clarity.

This brings us to Scotist's specific criticism of Williams' remarks about same-sex relationships. Williams distinguishes implicitly between respect for gay people (which is a self-evident moral duty of the first importance) and approval of sexual relationships between members of the same sex (which he regards as something not yet supported by the consensus of the Church). Scotist denies that such a separation is possible:
What kind of viscious abstraction conceives a human person apart from the love of that person, that designs to separate person and character? Can this be done with the divine persons without violence? How can we abstract the homosexual from the love in which that homosexual lives his or her life? Yet this is what Williams would have us do in consigning their love to mere sin while prescinding from demeaning them--the person left over after the sinful love is removed is somehow pristine and whole.
Scotist's position is incomprehensible unless he rejects entirely the Augustinian tradition that fallen human beings are characterized by distorted loves of various kinds. We are called to love and respect all human beings, gay or straight, without necessarily approving of all the forms in which they express love. Most of all, we are called to do this to ourselves. The crying shame and scandal of "conservative," heterosexual Christians today is our lack of self-examination concerning the many ways in which our own loves are disordered and distorted. And yes, of course traditional Christian teaching places a far larger burden on gays (i.e., persons who for whatever reason experience exclusively same-sex attraction) than on most others, at least with regard to sexual desire. This is something that we must not treat glibly, but must reconsider constantly and prayerfully. It is possible (in my view) that the traditional teaching is wrong in this respect. Certainly many aspects of Christian sexual teaching throughout the centuries have been mistaken (though again, I would say that the extent of this is often exaggerated; indeed, the Augustinian teaching of the taint placed by original sin on all sexual desire may have something to say to "conservative" Christians today who blithely assume that heterosexual desire between a husband and wife is entirely innocent). But the case must be made theologically. Unfortunately it cannot simply be reduced to the self-evident moral necessity of treating all persons with respect. This begs the question of whether same-sex desire is morally neutral (and hence ontologically good) or itself a distortion of sexual love as God intended it. Scotist's blanket claim that one cannot distinguish between a person and the way the person loves is simply indefensible. We do this all the time. Furthermore, Scotist also fails (or rather refuses) to distinguish between love and the sexual expression of love. Only the sexual expression is controversial. Love between men or between women is certainly not sinful in itself, and arguably one of the problems in this entire controversy is that same-sex friendship is no longer considered (by many) a form of love.

The obvious question to ask is whether I, as a heterosexual, would be willing to make these distinctions with regard to my own sexuality. Obviously, I don't think that this is in fact necessary. I think that my sexual desires are disordered in many ways, but I don't think that the fact that they are primarily ordered toward the opposite sex is one of those ways. So an affirmative answer that is purely hypothetical will not carry much conviction in the face of the actual experience of gay people. But for what it's worth, I can certainly give an affirmative answer to that question. When I read early Christian texts that condemn all sexual activity as in some way sinful, or even the relatively pro-marriage Augustine who regards all sexual desire as sinful, I disagree with these texts, but I do not think that they demean me as a person. I could imagine growing up under the influence of such texts and believing my sexuality to be fundamentally sinful. (Indeed, while I was always taught in principle that sex was a good creation of God, the practical teachings I received about sexuality growing up tended to convey the opposite impression--so to some extent this is not an imaginary exercise for me!) I would agree that such an experience is/would be damaging in many ways. But I certainly do not think that those who inculcate such a view fail to respect human beings as persons. Rather, they fail to understand the implications of human personhood correctly. (I would say the same of those who reject women's ordination but are not explicitly and directly misogynistic.) Again, it may be that Christians have traditionally failed to understand correctly the implications of human personhood for same-sex relationships. The speculations of theologians and the lived experience of gay people may yet teach us better. But if that is so, we must be taught how to integrate this new insight into what we already know in Christ about human personhood. We must be taught how the legitimacy of same-sex relationships flows from the essential givens of orthodox Christianity rather than conflicting with them.

In my view, this is what has happened/is happening with regards to women's ordination (though I must confess that there too there is hardly an "overwhelming consensus" among Christians today that the new understanding is correct). And of course there are many other issues on which the Church's position has developed or even changed significantly. In this process, the Church needs prophets who are willing to be condemned as heretics in order to lead us to a fuller understanding of the truth. But we also need bishops--that is to say, we need shepherds who keep us from following every tempting bypath suggested by the cultural norms of our particular place and time. Bishops are not, either individually or collectively, the head(s) of the Church. They do not need to lead every new trend. They do not need to be the guides into a bold new future. They exist as visible, personal links among local churches united by Christ but separated in space and time. Their task is to keep us faithful to the faith once delivered to the saints. Williams understands this; Scotist does not (or rather refuses to understand it).

I believe that it is something close to a miracle that a figure of Williams' wisdom and (as far as I can tell) holiness sits in the seat of Augustine of Canterbury during the present crisis. Williams has made and will make many mistakes. But his fundamental humility with regards to his own office is not one of them. On the contrary, it is what we desperately need (and so often sadly lack) in a bishop of the Catholic Church. Williams is condemned as a timeserving "politician" precisely because he refuses to be one. He offends everyone because he refuses to serve any party but Christ's. And thus, it is fitting (in an ironic sort of way) that Scotist should accuse him of failing to serve the Church whose head is Christ. If the Church as a whole does, some day, come to a new understanding of the legitimacy of same-sex relationships, the principled moderation of Williams will be one of the major factors in that change. He points the way toward a liberalism that does not simply put the stamp on the spirit of the age, and an orthodoxy that does not accept blindly the cultural assumptions of other ages. Somewhere in this radical balance, I believe, lies the true mind of Christ, and we the people of God must seek it together.