It is the issue that simply will not go away¯at least not in the post-Christian, post-consensus West. It is the issue that breeds a nasty recurring tendency to divide, and divide, and then divide some more. It is the issue to which (seemingly) every General Assembly, every major synod, and every Protestant mainline ecclesiastical convocation leads these days. And, it shows no signs of abating. What’s a poor bishop to do?
Happily, the answer arrives in the March 2009 issue of The Atlantic . In his essay “The Velvet Reformation,” writer Paul Elie, a senior editor with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, wishes to instruct us¯as well as any “listening” church bishop out there. Elie offers a highly sympathetic look at the acute “dilemma” presently facing the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is arguably the second most influential bishop on the planet. This particular dilemma, it should be pointed out, is not the one that arose from Williams’ scandalous comments in a February 2008 address on “Civil and Religious Law in England,” delivered at the Royal Courts of Justice. Therein, it will be remembered, the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to make common cause with Muslim clerics by considering the permissibility of a “softer” form of shari’a law, a concession that, in the words of the esteemed British historian Michael Burleigh, would “wholly undermine the Common Law of England while paving the way to hard’ shari’a law in the future.” Most assuredly, the Archbishop’s remarks created a major “dilemma”¯one which will reverberate for decades to come, given his position as a “bishop” representing Christendom worldwide. But this conundrum, in Elie’s view, is of no major concern and decidedly secondary in nature.
The dilemma that has Elie inordinately exercised is what to do with all those Anglicans worldwide whose pent-up sexuality has been dragging the Anglican communion through tortuous deliberations, convocations, and equivocations. On Elie’s account, with Williams’ accession to the head of the Anglican communion, here finally was (and remains) a man who is “thoughtful,” “brilliant,” “forwarding-looking,” “dispassionate,” “learned”¯in short, “a man for all seasons.” But Williams’ most endearing quality, in Elie’s view, is that he is “open”¯by which Elie means that the Archbishop is privately waiting for the proper time to bestow his blessing on gay and lesbian members of his own communion; that proper time has simply not yet arrived.
In his replacement of the more theologically conservative George Carey in 2003, Williams represented for many the great hope of liberal religion, serving as a necessary counterpart (antidote?) to the theologically conservative and rather ethically rigid John Paul II. And indeed Williams was ushered into Canterbury on a wave of enthusiasm not unlike that which more recently swept Barack Obama into the White House¯a source of great “hope” to those who were seeking “change” in the way that the church did business.
Of course, these days the Anglican Church, the world’s third largest communion after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, is described¯perhaps somewhat promiscuously by one of its own celebrated bishops and media darlings who resides in South Africa¯as a “hugely untidy but very lovable” body. Which is like saying that some debris was spotted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But for the moment, let us grant the euphemism: The Anglican Communion is “untidy.” Surely, it was not an accident that barely having settled in to his archbishopric in 2003, Williams was confronted with the ordination of openly gay bishop Eugene Robinson across the pond. After all, Episcopalians and Anglicans, regardless of their location, pride themselves in their “big tent” approach to communion¯a communion in which there is room literally for everyone, irrespective of creedal convictions. And ever since 2003, the Archbishop has found himself in a position of mediation, like a plumber rushing back and forth in a large house to stop leakage, prevent conflict, and postpone rupture. All of this, Elie concedes in his ode to the beloved Archbishop, places Williams in an impossible position with a Communion that is teetering on the edge of schism. Nevertheless, Williams is said to be “grounded” in the conviction that by waiting, negotiating, and seeking a via media between supposed liberal and conservative “extremes,” he can somehow have it both ways. Therein, of course, lies the “dilemma.”
Not helping matters, however, is Williams’ brief but revealing 1989 address ” The Body’s Grace ” to the “Lesbian and Gay Christian Association” during the time when he was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford. In this address Williams poses the question “Why does sex matter?” With his answer to this question¯a question that was important to the fathers of the church without preoccupying them as it does us postmoderns and many contemporary clergy¯he seems blissfully unaware of the wisdom of church’s fathers themselves regarding holiness, sexual purity, and yes, happiness. Williams’ source of inspiration, alas, is lodged in a four-part work of fiction, under the title of “Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet,” which Williams describes as “full of deep analyses of the tragedies of sexuality,” “sexual disaster,” “pregnancy and an abortion,” and same-sex attraction. Commenting on the illicit sexual relations of two characters in one of the four “drainingly painful” novels, Williams concludes that even where “a frontier has been passed” (illicitly), this “has been and remains grace.” Williams’ enlightened misinterpretation of the creation story, then, proceeds accordingly: Grace is “a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.”
“Knowing yourself.” Where have we heard that before? But Williams is not merely dodging bullets; rather, he wishes to instruct us, as he did his gay and lesbian audience: “The worst thing we can do with the notion of sexual fidelity . . . is to legalise’ it in such a way that it stands apart from the ventures and dangers of growth and is simply a public bond, enforceable by religious sanctions.” In other words, on Williams’ account, the public good, informed by moral and religious conviction that is rooted in creation and the imago Dei , means nothing, so long as I am “venturing” out into the exhilarating “dangers” of illicit sexual exploration.
Lest we misinterpret Williams, clarification follows: “When we bless sexual unions . . . it is both wicked and useless to hold up the sexuality of the canonically married heterosexual as absolute, exclusive and ideal ” (italics mine). Note the vocabulary here being employed by the leader of the world’s third largest Christian communion¯wicked and useless”¯to describe a timeless norm based on (a) creation, (b) human nature, (c) biology, (d) the Church’s tradition, and (e) scriptural revelation. “Happily,” Williams intones, “there is more to Paul than the (much quoted in this context) first chapter of Romans!” This, mind you, is the future Archbishop of Canterbury speaking.
Compare these rather remarkable musings, and the tomfoolery that goes therewith, to the wisdom of the historic Christian moral tradition. One thinks, for example, of the thoughtful work of Karol Wojtyla (to become John Paul II) on human love, Love and Responsibility , published in 1960 when the present Archbishop of Canterbury was but a mere pup. With great care, Wojtyla describes the unit of truth and charity, exposing the false dichotomy that results from modern attempts to place the two in opposition. Truth will always seek to honor the dignity of the person, given the image of God within. But love will always seek to honor what is truth, since to ignore truth and embrace falsehood is to dishonor both Creator and creature.
Or, we might note the work of John Paul’s successor Benedict XVI, whose views regarding human nature and normative sexuality, based on the imago Dei , came in the form of the pontiff’s end-of-the year (2008) address at the Vatican¯an address described by Elie as “notorious.”
Significantly, Benedict posed a rather intriguing¯and quite necessary¯pastoral question in his April (2008) address to the U.S. bishops who were convened in Washington, D.C., a pastoral question which the Archbishop of Canterbury might well consider himself. In the twenty-first century, how might a bishop best fulfill the call “to make all things new in Christ, our hope”? And how can he lead his people to “an encounter with the living God,” the source of that life-transforming hope of which the Gospel speaks (cf. Spe Salvi , 4)? Perhaps, Benedict concluded, the bishop needs to begin by clearing away some of the barriers to such an encounter. To be holy , not to be sexually “wanted,” as Williams intoned in “The Body’s Grace,” is to be authentically Christian.
Consider the wisdom of this statement: Not “openness” and dialogue, but “clearing away barriers”¯understood as repentance and recognition of Christ’s unconditional lordship¯paves the way for “an encounter with the living God.” Benedict further exhorted the bishops to lead the flock in “participating in the exchange of ideas in the public square, helping to shape cultural attitudes.”
But this “participation,” “exchange” and “shaping” will not be easy, particularly when those who speak in the name of God are themselves confused and wholly absorbed into the cultural fabric themselves. Nevertheless, it must be done.
Someone has observed that when a revolutionary group wishes to wage war on human decency, the first¯and most effective¯strategy is to co-opt language in the service of the cause. Surely, the rhetoric of “compassion” allows activists to capture the moral high ground. It is precisely this sort of verbal sleight-of-hand that George Orwell had in mind as he penned in 1947 a brief but highly important essay titled “Politics and the English Language”: “One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.” “Political language,” he noted, is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Activists are well aware that two obstacles prevent the wider culture from embracing “alternative” sexuality: the presence (or absence) of social stigma and the Church’s moral teaching. A moral state of affairs in which the Church’s leaders assume the same voice as the culture only confirms the truth in Orwell’s observation. When lines become blurred, it becomes necessary to re-state the obvious.
Perhaps we don’t yet fully grasp the depths to which Western societies, competing with one another to see which can jettison its religious and cultural heritage the fastest, will descend in their revolt against nature. What we can say with confidence is that this is the one issue that simply will not go away. Not because of the Church’s “old-style authoritarianism,” as Elie would have the unsuspecting reader believe, but because activists¯both lay and frocked¯simply will not permit it to go away.
J. Daryl Charles is a senior fellow of the Center for Politics and Religion at Union University and author of Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things.