Speak Softly …

The archbishop of Canterbury is stuck between the Rock of Ages and a hard place.

Thomas Becket, the medieval archbishop of Canterbury (made famous by Richard Burton’s portrayal of him in a 1964 film), did not brook opposition gracefully. When he returned as archbishop after an involuntary exile in France, Becket promptly excommunicated the bishops who had invaded his turf. This moved King Henry II (Peter O’Toole in the movie) to express to a party of loyal kights * his desire to be rid of this “meddlesome priest”—the knights then staged the original production of Murder in the Cathedral.

When the current archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was confronted with dissension in the Anglican Communion over the ordination of the openly gay Rev. V. Gene Robinson as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, he didn’t excommunicate anyone. Instead, in good Anglican fashion, he appointed a commission. Last week that panel urged the U.S. Episcopal Church to “express its regret” to the rest of the world’s Anglicans for the divisions caused by its promotion of a priest in a same-sex relationship to the ranks of the successors of Jesus’ apostles. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. grudgingly obliged but coupled “regret” over the controversy with a reaffirmation of the role played by homosexuals in the church. Whether or not this calms the situation (which seems unlikely, given the negative reaction of conservatives like the Anglican Primate of All Nigeria, Archbishop Peter Akinola) what the British tabloids call the “gay bishop row” has marginalized an already compromised Archbishop Williams.

A former Oxford don and published poet, Williams was once seen by well-wishers as a potential Anglican “pope.” After all, he is not only an internationally renowned theologian, he is also not English, and he served as primate of the autonomous Anglican Church in Wales before being elevated to Canterbury. This relative independence and freedom from traditional norms, which in these circumstances is quite significant, made it possible for someone like Williams to go miter to miter with John Paul II as a spokesman for the increasingly international Anglican Communion, a network of 38 churches that trace their lineage to the Church of England.

This was not to be, for reasons that have as much to do with the peculiarities of the Anglican Communion as with the baggage the brilliant Williams brought to the job.

If the Church of England is the Conservative Party at prayer, then the Anglican Communion is the former British Empire at prayer. It includes not only the Episcopal Church of the United States, which abruptly renounced its spiritual fealty to the King of England after the American Revolution, but also Anglican churches in Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa.

As archbishop of Canterbury and primate of all England, Rowan Williams is the senior prelate of the Anglican Communion, but he’s no pope. That’s because the Anglican Communion, despite its roots in the Church of England, is such a loose federation of independent churches and, as Williams himself has observed, is “wary of a central executive power.” In 2000, before moving from Wales to Canterbury, Williams, with characteristic donnish diffidence, raised the question of “how far can the Anglican Communion survive without some mechanism of authority more robust than currently exists?” Imposing order on a communion with this much cultural and theological variety is arguably an impossible task for any one man.

Even so, Rowan Williams brought particular vulnerabilities to this task. Even before Tony Blair “recommended” him to Queen Elizabeth for the appointment, a group of evangelical Anglicans had warned Blair in an open letter that Williams “would not have the confidence of the vast majority of Anglicans in the world who are now in the Third World and who as loyal Anglicans take the Holy Scriptures as their supreme authority.” His relatively liberal views on homosexuality were famously offensive to evangelicals, even though they were couched in nuanced language that John Kerry might envy. As it happens, the closest Williams had come to a ringing endorsement of gay rights in the church was this comment: “I am not convinced that a homosexual has to be celibate in every imaginable circumstance.”

But it wasn’t just Williams’ questioning of strictures against homosexuality that made evangelical or “low church” Anglicans nervous. Though committed to what his biographer Rupert Shortt calls “nuanced orthodoxy,” Williams was also seen as too liberal when it came to interpreting Scripture, and it didn’t help that this erudite academic littered his writings with quotations from secular authors. Finally, Williams was identified with the Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism, with its fondness for Romish ritual and “smells and bells.” Some evangelicals believe in the old adage “High church, low morals,” an equation they saw vindicated by Williams’ involvement in Affirming Catholicism, a liberal Anglo-Catholic group that supports the ordination of women and gays. (An off-color joke goes that members of Affirming Catholicism like women at the altar and boys in bed.)

The irony is that, once installed at Canterbury, Williams disappointed his liberal well-wishers at least as much as he irked the conservative evangelicals. The flashpoint was the aborted appointment last summer of the Rev. Jeffrey John as the Bishop of Reading. John, a friend of Williams’, a homosexual, and a leading figure in Affirming Catholicism, withdrew his name from consideration, at Williams’ urging, amid a firestorm of criticism, especially from African Anglicans. The response of liberal Anglicans was, “Et tu, Rowan?” Affirming Catholicism issued a statement saying: “We are profoundly angry that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Oxford have undergone this attack upon their independence, judgment and leadership.” It was after the second “gay bishop row,” the ordination in America of Gene Robinson—along with the adoption by a Canadian Anglican diocese of a blessing ritual for same-sex unions—that Williams appointed the Lambeth Commission that reported last week.

In addition to asking the American Episcopal Church to express regret for the offense caused by the consecration of Gene Robinson, the report urges that American Anglicans declare a moratorium on the ordination of any bishop in a same-sex union “until some new consensus in the Anglican Communion” emerges. It also suggests that bishops who took part in Robinson’s consecration should “consider in all conscience whether they should withdraw themselves from representative functions in the Anglican Communion.”

Less publicity has been given to another recommendation in the report, one that underlines Williams’ difficulties imposing his will on the communion. The report says, “the historic position of the Archbishopric of Canterbury must not be regarded as a figurehead, but as the central focus of both unity and mission within the Communion. This office has a very significant teaching role.” Yet it goes on to undermine that idea by proposing a “Council of Advice to the Archbishop to assist him in discerning when and how it might be appropriate for him to exercise a ministry of unity on behalf of the whole Communion.” Even the headstrong Thomas Becket might have felt constrained by this. It’s hard to believe it will be easier for the consensus-seeking Rowan Williams to stomach. It may turn out that hobbling this man, who for all his “nuancing” is trying to adapt the church to contemporary life, means a loss not just for Anglicans but for “affirming Catholics” in other churches, including the one with the real pope.

Correction, Oct. 25, 2004: The murderers of Thomas Becket were knights, not barons, as Michael McGough originally stated in this article. Return to the corrected sentence.