Even before he officially becomes the 104th archbishop of Canterbury on November 1, Rowan Williams of Wales is being subjected to harsh criticism from those who are questioning his position on issues of sexual morality.
The conservative evangelical group Reform has asked Williams to resign unless he can affirm 'the received teaching of the church that all its members are to abstain from sexual relations outside holy matrimony' and 'the need for appropriate discipline' for those who disobey, including those who seek ordination. Williams acknowledges that he has ordained an openly gay candidate for the priesthood and questioned whether celibacy should be an absolute requirement for gay and lesbian clergy.
In response, Williams wrote to Reform and said that sexual morality 'should not be a defining issue,' adding that he was prepared to 'state what is the majority teaching of the church, as I am bound to do. But I can't go beyond this and say that I believe what I do not believe. Nor do I want to set a precedent of publicly affirming more than what the canons require in terms of allegiance to the Scriptures, the Articles and the Creeds.'
Williams added that 'my personal views are on record and I have not found reason to change them…Equally, the decision to accept this nomination, not sought by me and not welcome to me, was not taken without reflection and consultation--including consultation with those who broadly believe as you do. The answers were unanimous,' he wrote.
Another evangelical group, the Church Society, warned that Williams was 'leading people astray' with his liberal stance on sexuality issues and several members met with him to ask that he change his views or renounce his appointment. General Secretary David Phillips said, 'We had to tell him that he should not accept the post and it was clear that he is going to so we had to say that we could not accept his authority.' Phillips warned that a schism was possible.
Allegations by some that Williams condoned extra-marital or pre-marital sexual relations were refuted by his office as a misinterpretation that 'directly contradicts what he has written and taught throughout his ministry.' The statement said that the archbishop 'has in the past raised questions about the ethical status of certain same-sex relationships, and this was the point that Reform had raised in their correspondence with him. To read his response as attacking the central points of Christian teaching about sex and marriage is a serious distortion.'
With about 800 members, the Church Society is not a major force in the life of the church, although it does have broad support from the Church of England's Evangelical Council and the Anglican Evangelical Assembly which represent thousands of clergy, according to press reports. Both organizations have supported Reform's call for Williams to renounce his more liberal views.
'The evangelical wing is also coming under mounting pressure to take strong action from like-minded Anglican bishops in Africa and Asia,' according to an article by Jonathan Petre in the Daily Telegraph. Evangelicals in the worldwide Anglican Communion have expressed strong support for the stance by the 1998 Lambeth Conference of bishops that condemned the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians and the blessing of same-gender relationships.