Rowan Williams is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury. For all his faults he is one the world’s great intellectuals. Can the Church of England sustain its establishment status without him?
Archbishop Williams’s departure has drawn a lot of comment. I’ve seen references in Twitter and such to some very negative views, but I must admit I haven’t given these much time. I have read one of his books (Lost Icons, published in 2000); rereading the review of this book I wrote at the time reminds me of just how profound and disturbing (in a positive sense) I found it. His language is over intellectual; he seems to idolise a past that never existed – but he poses challenging questions that modern agnostic liberals like me that I have no ready answers to. He makes most commentators on religious and spiritual subjects seem utterly superficial – and I have feeling that if I was left alone in a room with him my comfortable agnosticism would end up in tatters and I would be going to my local (CofE) church the next Sunday. I know of no other person that could have that power. I have total respect for everything he says, even though I disagree with much of it, especially when it comes to politics.
As for his stewardship of the Church of England and the Anglian Communion, I don’t have much to say. In spite of my tendency to lecture practising Christians on their own faith, I feel completely out of my depth when commenting on the ins and outs of Church affairs. This post which I picked up via Twitter has the ring of truth though.
But though Church politics are not something I am part of, they do impact on general politics, of which I am. And the Church of England has a special role, as it is an established part of the state. This is much discussed, and generally thought to be a positive. Apart from adding a decorous component to official ceremonies, it forms a link to the country’s past heritage. Much good can come of ambiguity. But it is under threat for two reasons.
The first is because the Church could fragment into a number of pieces, none of which is able to sustain its state role. Tensions abound over the status of women and gays. I find it impossible to understand why, of all the issues that the Church has to deal with, these are the ones that threaten schism. Can’t they just agree to differ, as they do with so much else? But it is clearly a big problem.
And the second, related, threat is that the Church is losing its moral authority over the general, agnostic populace. Most people in this country describe themselves as Christian at some level, and have customarily looked to the Church for moral leadership. This is what prevents the Church’s establishment status from being just a sham. But the population’s general sense of moral values has been changing. So far the Church of England has skilfully adapted its own practices (on divorce, contraception and women priests, for example) to stay within touching distance. On occasions it has even led the change from the front – such as on racism and inclusion. But with the growing acceptance of gays in civil society, the Church has mostly lost the plot, not helped by its need to stay in touch with values of the flourishing African church.
Churches must be led by their spiritual calling, and not by the fashions of the society they inhabit. But to preserve the Church’s special status as part of the political establishment it has to stay within a broad moral consensus. If the Church, or strong elements of it, persist in teaching things that we, the rest of society consider to be morally wrong then it is up to us to exclude them from that special status.