The campaign by conservative evangelical groups in the Anglican Church against the appointment of Dr Rowan Williams as the Archbishop-designate of Canterbury began in August when a letter from Dr Williams, written to his fellow Primates on the day that his appointment to Canterbury was announced, was leaked. On 6 August, the diocese of Sydney posted the letter on its website. Since then, the pressure from the more extreme conservative evangelical groups has grown, as the unfolding news reports show.
Dr Williams letter to the Primates – 23 July 2002
In the letter Dr Williams sought to allay the concern of conservative Primates that his own interpretation of the issue of human sexuality would be imposed of the Anglican Communion. Dr Williams emphasised the continuing debate and reflection that were called for by the Lambeth resolution of 1998. The resolution, he said, declared clearly what was the mind of the overwhelming majority in the Communion, and he accepted that any individual diocese or province acting unilaterally to overturn or repudiate the resolution posed “a substantial problem for the sacramental unity of the Communion”. Dr Williams said that his main hope was to try and maintain a mutually respectful climate for such reflection, and warned against the temptation to become “trapped in questions where the politics of our culture sets the agenda”. The letter circulated rapidly through conservative Evangelical channels.
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, the Most Revd Frank Griswold, responds
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, the Most Revd Frank Griswold, circulated the letter to all his fellow bishops. The letter spoke for itself, he said: “If we are a Communion and not simply a loose association of national Churches, then we must take with full seriousness how our actions affect other parts of the Communion. “We may point an accusing finger at globalisation for its economic and political effects on other parts of the world, and decry the unilateralist policies of our government. Are we as the Episcopal Church any less guilty — both on the left and on the right — of exercising a kind of ecclesial globalisation, and behaving in a unilateralist fashion, when we impose our agendas on other parts of the Communion?
Reform, the conservative Evangelical network, welcomed Dr Williams’s words, but sounded a note of caution. A spokesman for Reform, Rod Thomas, said it was encouraging that the new archbishop had stated his determination to put aside personal views when they were matters of controversy, and at odds with mainstream Anglican belief. But, he said, “actions speak louder than words. Whether what he has written to his fellow Primates is something that really will remove the strains in the Communion depends entirely on what he does — whether he is willing, for example, to take action with his fellow Primates on removing the threat to unity that New Westminster presents, and whether his personal actions demonstrate that he is putting his own understandings of human sexuality to one side. “If, for instance, he withdrew from his speaking engagement with the LGCM, that would show he intended to take seriously what is written in that letter.”
ACC Meeting in Hong Kong – 17 September 2002
Speaking at a meeting of the Anglican consultative council in Hong Kong, Dr George Carey warned of the risk of fragmentation in the 70 million-strong worldwide Anglican communion on the issue of homosexuality in the church. Dr Carey said: “My concern is that our communion is being steadily undermined by the decisions of national bishops taking unilateral action… usually in matters to do with sexuality, and, as a result, steadily driving us towards serious fragmentation and the real possibility of two, or more likely many, more distinct Anglican bodies emerging.” He said there was little sign of willingness on the part of some bishops to discourage conscientious clergy from leaving the church over doctrinal disagreements.
George Carey called for adoption of a resolution urging “all dioceses that are considering matters of faith and order that could affect the unity of the (Anglican) Communion to consult widely in their provinces, and beyond, before final decisions are made or action is taken.” He spoke of his concerns about the defrocking of a traditionalist priest in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, moves to allow lay people to preside at communion in Sydney, Australia, and the decision in June by New Westminster diocese in western Canada to bless same-sex unions.
“This erosion of communion through the adoption of ‘local options’ has been going for some 30 years but in my opinion is reaching crisis proportions today,” Carey said. In the Canadian case, Carey said he respects the sincerity of Bishop Michael Ingham, but “I deeply regret that Michael and his synod, and other bishops and dioceses in similar situations in North America seem to be making such decisions without regard to the rest of us,” and contrary to the resolutions of the communion’s Lambeth Conference in 1998.
Carey noted that the first Lambeth Conference in 1867 called on all dioceses to submit to “superior synods.” “Of course, the issue is far more than a matter of internal discipline, though it is certainly that,” Carey said. “It affects our mission, and relationships with other churches. Let me say clearly that I believe far too much energy is going into fanning the flames of argument on these matters that divide us taking our attention away from the critical needs of evangelism and mission.”
Press Release issued by Church Society – 3 October 2002
The conservative evangelical group issued a press release entitled ‘The Church Society rejects Archbishop designate.’
They said that in a meeting with three council members of the Church Society, Rowan Williams clarified his views on a number of issues. On the fundamental issue of the truth and authority of the Bible he showed that his understanding is one which evangelical Christians cannot accept. The Archbishop designate was clear that homosexual activity is not always wrong, based on his interpretation of chapter 1 of Paul’s letter to the Romans. He further said that although he recognised that his appointment risked dividing the Anglican Communion, he could not but accept the office. At the conclusion of the meeting the representatives of Church Society urged him not to take up the post, and made it clear that if he did his unscriptural views would compel conservative evangelicals to repudiate his oversight as Archbishop.
Bishop Maurice Sinclair, retired Presiding Bishop of the Southern Cone – 10 October 2002
At a meeting of the Church of England Evangelical Council meeting in the week beginning 10 October, Maurice Sinclair, the former Presiding Bishop of the Southern Cone, circulated a paper calling for evangelicals to seize power from the liberals and warning that the Anglican Communion is on the brink of a division. He said that entrenched disagreements over homosexuality are close to splitting the Church. Bishop Sinclair wrote: “Located in, but no confined to, the United States and Canada, the Churches’ espousal of the gay-lesbian agenda has created an impossible situation for Anglicans who remain loyal to the biblical and historic teaching of the Church on sexual morality.” “It also seems as if gay rights are overtaking the rights of women and blacks.”
Reform and Church Society threaten to act
At the same time, Reform and Church Society raised the prospect of splitting the Church of England, threatening to disown Dr Williams if he becomes Archbishop because of his refusal to endorse traditional Christian teaching that sex outside marriage is wrong. A meeting of the Council of Church Society revealed that it plans to take steps towards direct action against Dr Williams, and will advise clergy on how to respond to his appointment.
The chairman of the Church Society, the Revd George Curry, said the group had not sought a public debate, but had been put under pressure by the media. “We are deeply concerned that the Church of England, and the whole of the Anglican Church, is heading for a massive crisis,” he said. “It has been simmering, and then it bubbled up over the blessing of the same-sex union in the diocese of New Westminster; and we now feel it is going in the same direction here. We are very concerned about the Archbishop’s stand on scripture, salvation and sexuality.”
Leading evangelicals support Dr Williams
In the same week, other leading evangelicals supported Dr Rowan Williams in a letter to the Guardian, Church Times and Church of England Newspaper. Signatories to the letter included Dr Francis Bridger, the Principal of Trinity College, Bristol; the Rt Rev David Atkinson, the Bishop of Thetford; and the Rev Canon Andrew White, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special envoy to the Middle East, the Ven Nick Baines, Archdeacon of Lambeth, the Rev Canon Tim Dakin, General Secretary of the Church Mission Society, and Professor Anthony Thiselton, who was involved in choosing the Archbishop.
They criticise attempts to make any bishop, let alone the future Archbishop of Canterbury, subject himself to extra-canonical tests. Dr Williams, they said, was right “to resist recent attempts to force him to agree to particular forms of words to define Christian ethical teaching”. “The precedent this would set is ecclesiologically and morally unacceptable,” the letter warns. “Secondly, there is something unseemly and, we believe, unbiblical about the tactic of seeking to exert pressure by means of public confrontation rather than by private persuasion.” “We may not always agree with him, but that does not erode the validity of his appointment or the calling God has laid upon him.” The letter concludes by affirming that Rowan Williams has been chosen by God after a prayerful process and urges evangelicals to offer him prayerful support “rather than act in ways that will undermine his tenure of office before it begins”.
The letter condemned the behaviour of evangelical colleagues as “morally unacceptable” and “unbiblical”. These worries echo reservations made by the Church of England Evangelical Council and Anglican Evangelical Assembly over the public way in which Reform had challenged Archbishop Rowan Williams. The group could win round evangelicals unsure about how to respond to the campaigning tactics of Reform and Church Society, who could find their actions subsequently sidelined as extremist.
The Bishop of Chelmsford and the Revd Angela Tilby offer support
Writing to The Times, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd John Perry, distanced himself from Reform’s view of the Church and sexuality. Dr Williams, he said, was a “humble man of God”, who had his full support. On Radio 4’s Today programme the Revd Angela Tilby, Vice-Principal of Westcott House Theological College said that the attacks by Reform and the Church Society were “a thoroughly aggressive way to behave. It is attempting to force an issue by emotional violence . . . Manipulating to get your way is often preferable to painstaking negotiation.”
Dr Williams’s office issues statement
Dr Williams’s office said, in a statement: “The Archbishop is deeply saddened that Reform and the Church Society have chosen to make this the issue of definition. Matters of sexuality should not have the priority or centrality that Reform and the Church Society have tried to give them.” “The Archbishop cannot withdraw from his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury designate since so many — including Evangelicals — have urged him to take the post. It is also the case, as he has made clear in the past, that the Archbishop believes it to be his duty under God to take up this new appointment.”
St Helen’s Bishopsgate joins the fray –13 October 2002
On Sunday 13 October , the Rev William Taylor, Rector of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, devoted the entire sermon to explaining that the clergy would refuse to accept money from the Church Commissioners, to symbolise that they would not recognise the new Archbishop’s authority. Mr Taylor said: “My reason for doing this was both to distance myself from Dr Williams as we make clear that his teachings are idolatrous; and to give the churchwardens the opportunity not to employ us.
“I am aware that this is really only a local symbolic first step. However, it puts clear symbolic distance between ourselves and an Archbishop whose teaching is not only wrong but also deeply divisive and dangerous to the health, effectiveness and eternal well being of the church.”
A spokesman for the pressure group, Reform, said that a motion at its annual conference the same week was likely “to encourage individual churches to think about what they want to do in the light of the controversy”. “The fact that St Helen’s had done this will make other parishes think about whether there is similar action that they should be taking and whether St Helen’s is a model for them.” If churches do follow the lead of St Helen’s in withholding money from central funds, the Church of England’s already fragile finances could be crippled.
Dr Williams no longer to speak at LGCM Conference
Dr William’s spokesman said that he would not now be speaking at the Lesbian and Gay Conference next year, and revealed that he had resigned from the editorial board of the journal, Theology and Sexuality.
Reform says: ‘We didn’t choose this issue’ – 24 October 2002
At Reform’s annual three-day conference which ended on Friday, Nigel Atkinson, a vicar in Knutsford, argued that “Rowan Williams doesn’t want to make the homosexual issue central but he is making it that way. Why did he have to choose this issue? We’re not initiating this, we’re just responding.” Members of Reform say they are simply trying to make heard the voices of those concerned in their churches.
The conference passed a resolution to the effect that PCCs and other Christian bodies should welcome to their churches only those bishops who maintained a firm line on sex. It stated that bishops should affirm:
* “The received teaching of the Church that all its members are to abstain from sexual relations outside holy (heterosexual) matrimony.”
* The “need for appropriate discipline” — including “public denunciation . . . when there is no repentance”, and “church legal action” where churchgoers had sexual relations outside marriage.
* Only to ordain clergy who would teach and practise abstinence from sex outside marriage.
Reform also called on its trustees to start a ministry fund to support parishes that were at odds with their bishop.
But Reform members are not unaware of how they are perceived. In a Plenary Session to vote on a party line, one young member urged that the conference make its resolution wider than the homosexual issue. “Why do we have to be seen as gay-bashers?” Because the issue of homosexual practice is of primary importance came back the answer. On the same level as the Reformation, according to David Holloway, the vicar of Jesmond,
Rod Thomas, Reform’s press officer said Reform, which claims 3000 individual members, had been in communication with Dr Williams, in “a careful expression of views”. But the Archbishop did not see things Reform’s way. “He did not see why he should have to sign anything that he was not canonically obliged to sign,” Mr Thomas said. Reform was not going to leave the Church of England, Mr Thomas maintained. “We are not going to take our toys and go and play in someone else’s house. We are not going to split the Church.” Instead, he expected to see parishes taking “irregular, but not unlawful, action”. “You can’t refuse a bishop’s authority, but you can make it very clear that he is unwelcome when he arrives — and that only a few people would be there to meet him,” he said.
David Phillips, General Secretary of the Church Society, who also attended the Reform conference, circulated written details of his private meeting with Dr Williams. “While this may seem like the Church washing its dirty linen in public, we are very conscious that when someone teaches error in public, it is not enough to rebuke them in private,” he said. Mr Phillips said that Dr Williams was “prepared to condone sexual immorality”, and separated the revelation of God from the Bible. “We believe it to be entirely incompatible with Anglican doctrine,” said Mr Phillips.
Bishops should publicly denounce churchgoers who have sex outside marriage, said Reform. But the conference stopped short of repeating its earlier call to Dr Williams not to take up his appointment.
Latimer Trust questions Dr Williams’ orthodoxy – 24 October 2002, Church of England Newspaper
The Latimer Trust has published “The Theology of Rowan Williams” by Dr Garry Williams which challenges the view that homosexuality is the only subject on which Dr Williams is unorthodox, is due to be sent to all bishops in the Church of England, all Primates, all General Synod members, and members of the Church Society and Reform. It concludes that the next Archbishop of Canterbury does not believe in the truth of Scripture and is likely to make waves amongst the conservative African and Asian Primates.
Dr Garry Williams says that he objects in the next Archbishop’s writings to:
• the view that the cross and resurrection speak of meaning which itself needs constantly to be broken and remade;
• his finding in Christian communities the “validation” of who Jesus is and what orthodoxy can be;
• his view that meaning consists of a correspondence to the life of the Christian community rather than as an objective reference.
• the end of the goal of seeking to conform to the mind of God and instead be in a process of continual revision;
• refusal to attempt to take a God’s-eye view.
Focusing on sexual ethics, Dr Garry Williams says that homosexual practice “serves as an instance of the consequences of human rebellion against God and as an example of the judgement of God manifested in the present age — an epitome of human rebellion against God. For a senior presbyter of the Church to defend such an epitome of sin is to place himself in conflict with the gospel.”
In the study, Gary Williams suggests that the Archbishop’s scorn shown towards the writers of scripture reveals his dismissal of its capacity to provide answers. He quotes passages from Rowan Williams’s book Open to Judgment: “Perhaps as we read the Revelation of John, we should let its ugly and diseased elements speak to us in this way. The very disorder, the madness and vengefulness, of certain passages can help us to hear more clearly the depth and authority of others.”
A former student of Rowan Williams at Oxford and now a lecturer at Oak Hill College in Church History and Doctrine, Garry Williams commented: “Rowan Williams shouldn’t be Archbishop when his thinking is out of line with Scripture. He has too low a view of it and doesn’t believe that it provides answers to Christians.” As one example, he quotes the incoming Archbishop’s description of God as a nine-year-old spastic child: “This is the solitude of truth, the solitude, finally, of God: God as a spastic child who can communicate nothing but his presence and his inarticulate wanting.” Dr Garry Williams said that he hopes that his study will encourage bishops and Primates to put pressure on Archbishop Williams to reconsider taking the job.
Third Province Movement criticizes Dr Williams – 18 October 2002
Margaret Brown, of the Third Province Movement, said on Friday 18 October that the majority of its 2000 supporters would be opposed to having Dr Williams as Archbishop, because he had not “come clean” over marriage in church for divorcees, and sexual relations between single people and between homosexuals.