The March issue of The Atlantic magazine has a lengthy article by Paul Elie called “The Velvet Reformation.” It’s partly a profile of Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, and partly a stock-taking of the state of gay lib in the Anglican Communion.
The piece is characteristic of Elie in the extensiveness of the background reading and in the inaccuracy of its meticulously earnest judgments. The author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own—a biography of Catholic authors Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy— Elie has a notable ability for amassing vital personal information about an individual, and then getting him wrong.
Consider this passage: “[Williams] called himself a socialist but applied to Christ’s College, Cambridge, with a plan to study theology. It was 1968, and he was 18.”
Why the word “but”? A conventionally unimaginative undergrad reading theology in 1968 would predictably have called himself a socialist. There are no “buts” about it. Failing to see conformism for what it is, Elie goes on to find courage in the archbishop’s political dithering and shrewdness in his reversals and equivocations. With respect to the winds of 1968, a profitable contrast could be drawn with the character of Joseph Ratzinger, a principled non conformist.
Elie frames the challenge facing Williams and the Anglican Communion in terms of “anti-gay” versus “gayfriendly” parties, tacitly assuming the rightness of the latter. Recounting a tour of Canterbury cathedral he preciously concludes: “I rubbed the foot of the metal carapace of a bishop from the Tudor era, and as I did so I wondered how many of the dead bishops in the place were gay bishops.” Dependable hands Tim Radcliffe and Giles Fraser are enlisted in support of the thesis that Williams’ heart is on the side of openness. And the great temporizer himself is interviewed at some length.
“They [questions having to do with homosexuality] are not going to go away, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are,” Williams said. “But my question as archbishop of Canterbury is: How do we address this as a church, not just a group of local religious enthusiasts here and there?”
Williams’ position is disingenuous in implying that the Church has not addressed the question. She has addressed it, and has definitively answered it. Sodomy is an open question not among churchmen qua churchmen but among the fashion-conscious professoriate, and it is in his role of academic rather than archbishop that Williams seeks a vocabulary of sexual accommodation. The striking characteristic of (First-World) Anglican bishops is their “faculty meeting” approach to Christian doctrine. None of them pretends that a layman might make a real-world decision as a consequence of what he might say. None pretends to speak with authority greater than his most enlightened lay associate. None pretends that the “mind of Christ” on an issue is something knowable, immutable, and distinct from the conflict of bias, fashion, and political self-interest that generates new theologies in every age.
Anything but leadership
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the contrarian atheist Christopher Hitchens has keener insight into Rowan Williams than does Paul Elie. Two years ago in a Vanity Fair column Hitchens recounted a fortuitous meeting in a Georgetown bistro:
I lean over. “My Lord Archbishop? It’s Christopher Hitchens.” “Good gracious,” he responds, gesturing at his guest—“we were just discussing your book.”
The archbishop’s church is about to undergo a schism. More than 10 conservative congregations in Virginia have seceded, along with some African bishops, to protest the ordination of a gay bishop in New England. I ask him how it’s going. “Well”—he lowers his voice—“I’m rather trying to keep my head down.” Well, why, in that case, I want to reply, did you seek a job that supposedly involves moral leadership? But I let it go. What do I care what some Bronze Age text says about homosexuality?
Hitchens has answered his own question. Moral leadership is the last thing Williams wants to provide. The game is to keep things as blurry as possible while the tide of secular sentiment carries society as a whole to the place your biographers want it to be. Of course it requires no little bureaucratic canniness to maintain the illusion of goodfaith “searching” while sabotaging the chances of closure. But does anyone seriously believe another decade of blue-ribbon committees will convince Archbishop Williams that the Bronze Age text had it right after all?
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