Politics managed to truly infuriate me this morning. I have been following events in the Anglican Communion for the last decade and have, more than not, been impressed to see people of conscience trying to do what they thought best. Rowan Williams, in particular, has disappointed and annoyed me in recent months, but I have always given him the benefit of the doubt. He is a man of convictions with a tough job. So I presumed that he was acting thoughtfully in the best manner he knew how. I’m afraid I must revise that opinion.
It seems that Rowan Williams – better known as the Archbishop of Canterbury, primate of the Church of England, and first among equals among all Anglican bishops – has asked Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori – better known as the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, primate of the Anglican province in the USA – not to wear her hat. Simple you say, and not important. Yes and no. The hat in question is a mitre, the sign of a bishop’s authority. Rowan has asked that Katharine not wear her hat when preaching in Southwark Cathedral.
Episcopal News Service
Whatever Rowan was thinking (and I’m having trouble imagining) the message he sent was twofold:
1) he doesn’t accept Katharine’s ordination, either because she’s a woman or because she’s (US) Episcopalian
2) he’s petty
It would be one thing to make an official statement on the matter. It’s another to take out one’s theological frustrations liturgically. That’s punishing the people of Southwark for his annoyance at The Episcopal Church. They won’t care whether she’s mitred or not, but it sure made for an international news story. It’s not official, but it’s a very public snub.
So let us get to the theological meat of the matter. An important point of doctrine is at stake – one that really should not be reduced to head gear. The question revolves around national autonomy for churches. It is neither simple nor unemotional. On the one hand, one can make a strong case that the church should be international. In this way, bishops (and priests and everyone else) are free from catering to national interests. They can speak out against bad state policies and bad civil culture no matter where they are. A man by the name of John Henry Newman argued this quite convincingly in the late 19th century. On the other hand, one can say that every national church should have autonomy. This prevents foreign politics from interfering in local affairs. Americans were terribly concerned that John F. Kennedy would be overly influenced by the Pope when he was elected president. It turns out he wasn’t, but there have been many cases of Papal interference historically, from Cardinals ruling countries to Papal support of revolutions. The church, it seems, risks being compromised either by national politics or by international.
For my own part, I have often wavered on this matter. I see benefits to both sides; it is, however, particularly tricky for Anglicans. You see, our church(es) were founded on the idea of national autonomy. Henry VIII was brilliant and devout, but hardly anyone thinks that his desire for an annulment/divorce was a good reason to break away from Rome. The Anglican tradition cannot rest on a claim to a greater understanding of scripture, a deeper theology, or even a unique revelation. The excuse was a matter of politics (not, incidentally lust – but that’s another blog). The justification was that international secular affairs should not be messing with local religious affairs. The Pope should not be refusing (or granting) dispensations because of international alliances or because he has an army at his doorstep. He should be above that. And, because no one in practice is, we limit the temptation by limiting the size of the church and the power held in the hands of any one person. Anglicanism is based on national autonomy.
And herein lies the rub for Rowan Williams. He can either choose for national autonomy or for an international church, and I would respect either choice. If he chooses national autonomy he has no right to tell the Episcopal Church (USA) or any other Anglican province how, who, or in what manner they can choose bishops. As a man appointed by Parliament, he looks mighty silly claiming authority over an elected American Primate. Archbishop Williams may or may not choose to allow Presiding Bishop Jefferts-Schori to preach in his jurisdiction, but he cannot stand in judgment of her consecration.
If, alternatively, he chooses an international church, he has no right to call himself an Archbishop. John Henry Newman became famous for leaving the Church of England for Rome. The belief in an international church leads one, in the end, to recognize the largest and oldest church (in the West) as the central authority. Rowan Williams only has authority as the Archbishop of Canterbury because he thinks the British Parliament gives him that right. Thus Mr. Williams is free to believe in the international church, but it makes of him a Roman Catholic layman, and not an Archbishop.
Mr. Williams seems to have forgotten that his power as head of the Anglican communion rests squarely on national autonomy. Apparently he has also forgotten that he has a freedom of conscience, for his decisions as head of the communion are utterly at odds with what he published as a theologian (when he was actively and famously pro-gay). I hope he comes to his senses soon. I hope he realizes what it means to be an Anglican. The alternative, for him and for many others, can only be a hierarchical international church that lacks the wealth, history, prestige, complexity, and numbers of the Roman Catholic Church. Our true heritage and our Divine gift has always been national autonomy, theological diversity, and the ability to disagree with one another. Otherwise, we’re just disobedient Romans.