Why Canterbury matters

You do have to go through Lambeth to remain Anglican
November 30, 2006

Four years ago, when it was becoming clear that Rowan Williams would be the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, I quoted his hope, from an address at Uganda Christian University, “not to impose a view from America or Britain or anywhere else on any other province, but to see if we can go on talking with each other, reading the Bible together with each other, to see what we can learn.”

Then I added this sentence, which now sounds so flip and patronizing that it makes me cringe: “None of us should rule out that Williams would grow in office, or that such growth could take him in redemptive directions.”

Four years later, I must say that Archbishop Williams has been good to his word. He has repeatedly emphasized that Lambeth Resolution 1.10 (1998), which “cannot advise the legitimizing or blessing of same-sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same-gender unions,” still represents the consensus of Anglican thinking. Those repeated affirmations have brought him scorn from the left.

Likewise, his repeated emphasis that the archbishop of Canterbury cannot unilaterally impose polity on any Anglican province, including the Episcopal Church, has brought him scorn from the right.

I do not recall hearing much serious talk among conservatives, before the 74th General Convention in 2003, doubting the importance of being in communion with the archbishop of Canterbury. When I first heard Archbishop Peter Akinola’s remark, “We do not have to go through Canterbury to get to Jesus,” I considered it an amusing but exciting challenge to Western hegemony.

Since reading Allen Guelzo’s For the Union of Evangelical Christendom: The Irony of the Reformed Episcopalians, I’m no longer so readily amused or excited by challenges to Canterbury. Something in Guelzo’s book about the Reformed Episcopal Church’s early history of infighting and fragmentation helped remind me that Anglicans simply do not do schism well.

I will not dwell on my fellow conservatives’ valid points that rejecting Christianity’s historic teaching (whether on human sexuality or on a creedal matter) is itself an act of schism, and that Anglicanism itself exists because of a schism from Roman Catholicism.

Some of my fellow conservatives talk about Archbishop Williams as if one more meeting, usually of the primates, will force him to cast his lot either with the Global South or with the Episcopal Church. Some conservatives talk, with what seems to be utter seriousness, about their vision for an Anglicanism that does not depend on being in communion with the archbishop of Canterbury.

I can think of only one thing to call this: crazy talk. Churches do, of course, declare themselves Anglican and in the same breath declare their independence from the archbishop of Canterbury. As the editors of Anglicans Online have pointed out, there is no copyright on the word Anglican.

But honest Anglicans who are serious about catholic order will recognize that a Canterbury-free Anglicanism carries the same ecclesial credibility as the late Marcel Lefebvre’s decades-long insistence that he, not the bishop of Rome, represented true Catholicism. How many legions has the pope? Quite enough to make Lefebvrites look like buffoonish upstarts.

As Episcopalians’ arguments with one another grow more pointed and angry, I sense a fairly widespread denial that Archbishop Williams intends to oversee an Anglican Communion that still includes the Episcopal Church, the Church of Nigeria, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Church of Uganda — you get the picture. Both sides will continue wishing that he would slap the other side upside the head. Both sides will keep wishing that one radical action too many will bring sudden clarity to a debate that only grows messier with each passing month.

I have a feeling that Archbishop Williams will remain the coolest head of the Anglican Communion in the months and years ahead. With the other three Instruments of Unity (the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates Meeting and the Lambeth Conference), he will affirm the mind of the communion and work to keep its body from blowing itself into a thousand pieces. He will continue to befuddle his critics. The archbishop will abide.

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