Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, has issued his much-awaited response to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church: “Communion, Covenant, and our Anglican Future.” Although it’s not as lengthy as Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical, it’s sure to be parsed almost as carefully and debated nearly with the same intensity by Anglicans throughout the world. The letter is worthy of such scrutiny: As he has done so often in the past, Archbishop Williams has given us both a substantively theological read of the present moment and a sound and hopeful way forward for the Anglican Communion.
For those keeping score, the leadership of the Episcopal Church—including the Presiding Bishop, the president of the House of Deputies, and the church’s chief ecumenical officer—had attempted to argue that the actions of their General Convention didn’t go against the repeated requests of the wider Anglican Communion to stop progress on same-sex blessings and partnered gay bishops. Williams was not convinced: “The repeated request for moratoria on the election of partnered gay clergy as bishops and on liturgical recognition of same-sex partnerships has clearly not found universal favor,” he wrote. In short: The communion’s request for moratoria has been answered, and the answer is “No.”
In fact, as Williams argues, to change the received Anglican position on sexual ethics would require a quite sharp re-thinking of biblical teaching, something that even if possible would require a level of consensus among Anglicans and ecumenical partners that simply has not been reached. “In the light of the way in which the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years,” says Williams, “it is clear that a positive answer to this question would have to be based on the most painstaking biblical exegesis and on a wide acceptance of the results within the Communion, with due account taken of the teachings of ecumenical partners also. A major change naturally needs a strong level of consensus and solid theological grounding.” There is therefore no warrant for moving forward on this issue as a province, diocese, or parish.
As a result, Williams contends that “it is hard to see how [a person in a same-sex relationship] can act in the necessarily representative role that the ordained ministry, especially the episcopate, requires. . . . A person living in such a union cannot without serious incongruity have a representative function in a Church whose public teaching is at odds with their lifestyle.” In a similar way, it is difficult to see “whether someone belonging to a local church in which practice has been changed in respect of same-sex unions is able to represent the Communion’s voice and perspective.” Here, the logic of Williams’s argument is that the Episcopal Church’s consecration of Gene Robinson and its expressed openness to further such bishops, as well as its practice of offering same-sex blessings, must affect its ability to serve in representative roles both for and within Anglicanism.
This is so, Williams explains, because of the venerable catholic principle that “what affects the communion of all should be decided by all.” Without the difficult process of consulting the wider body of Christ when a local church seeks either to respond to a new question or to answer an old question in a new way, that church runs the risk of “becoming unrecognizable to other local churches, pressing ahead with changes that render it strange to Christian sisters and brothers across the globe.” The end result is a cacophony of churches all preaching different gospels, with none of them sure anymore if they are indeed proclaiming one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.
This does not mean—as Williams is quick to point out—that everything we do and preach must be precisely the same. On some issues, Anglicans may indeed agree to disagree, and there are no absolutely clear rules for determining when this will be permissible. But it does mean that developments in matters of faith and morals cannot be done independently, without the consultation of both the wider Anglican Communion and our ecumenical partners. “To accept without challenge the priority of local and pastoral factors in the case either of sexuality or of sacramental practice would be to abandon the possibility of a global consensus among the Anglican churches such as would continue to make sense of the shape and content of most of our ecumenical activity,” Williams argues. “It would be to re-conceive the Anglican Communion as essentially a loose federation of local bodies with a cultural history in common, rather than a theologically coherent ‘community of Christian communities’.”
Although this is clearly not how Williams envisions the Anglican Communion, he admits that not all Anglicans agree with him on this point. Some view Anglican fellowship instead “as best expressed in a more federalist and pluralist way,” he concedes. “They would see this as the only appropriate language for a modern or indeed postmodern global fellowship of believers in which levels of diversity are bound to be high and the risks of centralization and authoritarianism are the most worrying.” But although this is the self-understanding of many Episcopalians (such as Bishop Stacy Sauls, who has publicly stated that even the word “federation” is for him a bridge too far), Williams insists that this is not how Anglicanism has commonly understood itself, particularly in recent years with the advent of Lambeth conferences, instruments of unity and governance such as the Anglican Consultative Council, and ecumenical dialogues.
It is precisely this emerging ecclesial reality, he argues, that the Anglican Covenant proposal has sought to secure—namely, “to do justice to that aspect of Anglican history that has resisted mere federation.” Proponents of the covenant, Williams explains, are not out to exclude people or grasp power, but instead simply “seek structures that will express the need for mutual reconcilability, mutual consultation and some shared processes of decision-making. They are emphatically not about centralization but about mutual responsibility.” As such the proposed covenant is the best hope Anglicans have for strengthening the bonds of relationship that tie them together and avoiding the path of local isolation and fragmentation.
No one, Williams emphasizes, will be forced into this, and no one who chooses a different path need fear being “cast into the outer darkness.” Relationships of affinity and partnership in mission will no doubt continue in any case. But those who decline the opportunity to walk together with other Anglicans in mutual responsibility and discernment, electing instead to place a higher value on local and provincial autonomy, will have chosen a path that will inevitably lead to a degree of differentiation from their covenanted Anglican brothers and sisters. This is to be regretted, but such is a path that can be chosen in good faith and need not lead to acrimony. Williams strongly urges that such decisions be made peaceably and with respect for the conscience of all, particularly those who seek to covenant with the larger Communion but find themselves within provinces that choose not to. The treatment of such Anglicans—and here, Williams has both the Communion Partners within the Episcopal Church and others elsewhere in mind—is, he asserts, an “important” question that requires a “clear answer.”
Notably, Williams still expresses his “strong hope that all the provinces will respond favorably to the invitation to Covenant” with each other, even while acknowledging that the Episcopal Church had not kept to the moratoria the larger Communion had requested of them. This may lead some to wonder: Is there here a hint of Pollyanna, or perhaps Charlie Brown falling for Lucy’s football one more time? But there is much more going on here. The covenant has simply not been placed before the Communion in its final form, and it is not for him to say what the future decision of any province will be. That said, of course, the context for Williams’s reflections should not be missed—it is precisely following the actions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church that he saw fit to lay out, once again, his understanding of the two paths that lie ahead for Anglicans to choose, one covenanted and one federated.
Clearly, it is his read of the present moment that the Episcopal Church, in its actions this summer, has moved further down the federated path. And it is his hope for the future that as many Anglicans as possible, both within the Episcopal Church and around the globe, will move ever further toward the covenanted reality that holds such great promise. This, quite plainly, will have to do with both respecting the threefold moratoria (border crossing, same-sex blessings, and partnered gay bishops) as well as with signaling clear support—at the provincial, diocesan, and parish level—for the Ridley-Cambridge draft of the Anglican covenant. While the all-important Section 4 of the draft covenant, which deals with relational structure and discipline, is now being looked at again after the Anglican Consultative Council—thanks largely to Episcopal Church delegates—forced its delay, the entire logic of Williams’s letter points toward its adoption in full without change. And the more dioceses and parishes that show their support, the likelier that will be.
Actions, as Williams concludes, are “bound to have consequences.” But while Williams’s letter strongly points to the need for consequences following the actions of the actions of General Convention, there is now further need for Williams to show that his words have consequences. Whether rightly or wrongly, too many Anglicans around the world view Williams as inclined too much toward talk, unwilling to take action when action is called for. As such, there are too many Anglicans who will perhaps not be convinced by the weight of his words alone. At present, two members of the Joint Standing Committee—which will make the crucial decision, at the end of this year, whether or not to pass along the final draft of the Anglican covenant to the provinces for ratification—are members also of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori and Dr. Ian Douglas of the Episcopal Divinity School. It may be both right and prudent to ask them to step down—for if the Episcopal Church has decided not to abide by Communion decisions, then what right have they to make decisions for the Communion? Their participation will only deepen Communion-wide distrust of international Anglican bodies, and by taking action Williams will help renew the trust of many in his own office.
What, after all of this, is the future for ordinary faithful Anglicans in the United States, whether in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) or the Episcopal Church? The strong implication of Williams’s argument is that for both groups, the best and brightest future is with the Anglican Covenant. Both ACNA itself and the Communion Partners within the Episcopal Church have expressed their desire to sign on to the covenant, and while difficulties no doubt exist in both situations there is no reason to think that forward progress cannot be made by both parties. Where more serious difficulty exists, at present, is with those elements within ACNA that do not share an interest in the proposed covenant, as well as those places within the Episcopal Church that do not have the oversight of a Communion Partners bishop. Those who do have one or the other, however, can and should be confident in their ability to work from where they are for the good future of the covenanted Anglican Communion.
In my recent article, “Brave New Church,” I expressed a lack of confidence in the direction of the Episcopal Church’s leadership. But I do have confidence in the Communion Partners dioceses, both in where we stand and in where we're going. In my case, that means the diocese of Dallas, where I'm just now finishing up a summer internship, and my home diocese of North Dakota, where I'm a candidate for holy orders. I have good friends in ACNA too, many of whom recognize just as I do the need to work for the common covenanted future of the Anglican Communion.
We recognize that now is not the time for animosity and division; now is the time to work for the good of the entire Communion, wherever we may stand on the issues. That, I think, is where Rowan Williams is pointing us, and it’s my hope and belief that he’ll be in our corner as we work together for the Anglican future.
Jordan Hylden, a former junior fellow at First Things, is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School.