Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rowan Williams, meet Neville Chamberlain.

Several months ago, I stumbled upon an excellent television series on the History Channel entitled, Hitler's Bodyguard, which chronicled the rise and fall of Adolph Hitler, as seen through the eyes of those who were entrusted with protecting him from the numerous attempts to overthrow or kill him. The episode in this series entitled, "Before the War" makes the point that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain may have been the man most responsible for World War II.

The argument runs like this: If Neville Chamberlain had been clear from the outset that the consequences of Hitler's aggression would be war, the German people would not have supported him to the degree that they did; and politicians and military leaders would have stood a chance of removing him from power while there was still time to preserve the peace. However, by continued appeasement in the face of Hitler's aggression, capped by the misguided trip to Munich from which Chamberlain returned home to England proclaiming that there would be "peace for our time!" the forces in Germany that could have deterred or unseated Hitler were undermined and the resulting war became inevitable.

In the course of Rowan Williams' scholarly pursuits, he would do well to take a closer look at Neville Chamberlain. The history of Chamberlain's engagement with the greatest challenge of his career is remarkably similar to the Archbishop's thorny problem with the American Episcopal Church.

Those with better memories or more resources at their fingertips will probably come up with more examples than I can, but five critical points that have led to the Anglican Communion's present predicament come to mind:

#1. There was the September 2007 meeting of the US House of Bishops in New Orleans at which Rowan Williams was an invited guest. Hopes and speculations were strong in the weeks leading up to that meeting that the Archbishop would make clear, in no uncertain terms, the consequences of the American church's failure to respond to an ultimatum from the other primates of the Anglican Communion to conform to the norms of the rest of the Communion in matters of sexuality. In fact, this visit by Rowan was considered by many to be the Episcopal Church's last chance. Instead, Dr. Williams let the US church completely off the hook.

I reported the outcome of that meeting in my post on Tuesday, September 25, 2007:
Take our fearless leader Rowan Williams, who, this week, faced with an opportunity to save the Anglican Communion decides to "go all wobbly" and start saying that the Dar Es Salaam Communique, issued by the Primates at their meeting in February 2007, didn't really constitute an ultimatum to the American church to get its act together or else. Before leaving New Orleans, last Friday, he described September 30th as simply a date of convenience. The only reason a specific date was chosen, he suggested, was that the primates recognized the September House of Bishops’ meeting as the last official meeting of bishops before the next Lambeth conference and they wanted to have the position of the American church clarified.

Well, let's see what the Communique actually said:
“The Primates request that the answer of the House of Bishops is conveyed to the Primates by the Presiding Bishop by 30th September 2007. If the reassurances requested of the House of Bishops cannot in good conscience be given, the relationship between The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as a whole remains damaged at best, and this has consequences for the full participation of the Church in the life of the Communion.”
#2. Mention of the Dar Es Salaam Communique calls to mind the earlier example of the Archbishop's actions at the Dar Es Salaam meeting itself. This meeting of the Primates of the 38 member churches of the Anglican Communion was the first meeting to be attended by American Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori following her election at the 2006 General Convention of the Episcopal Church--a meeting which only by the barest of technicalities (and some high-handed parliamentary maneuvers) had managed to pass a resolution responding to the moratorium on the consecration of gay bishops requested by the Primates. Instead of taking the opportunity to warn the American and Canadian churches about the consequences of violating Communion norms, the Archbishop used his opening remarks to commend the American church on how well they had done. The other Primates were less impressed and issued the strongly worded Communique I mentioned above; but from that moment on, it looked (and has continued to look) as if the misbehaving American church had a front man in Rowan Williams.

#3. There was the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Communion, which was structured in indaba groups in order to avoid any possibility that the rest of the Communion might address or challenge the American church's path toward the ordination of gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex marriages.

#4. More recently, there was the May 2009 meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in Jamaica, in which it looked to all the world as though the ACC would finalize and release the long awaited and much discussed Anglican Communion Covenant--a document which member churches (and even dioceses) could sign, attesting to their commitment to follow the norms of the Communion in the interpretation of scriptural teaching regarding marriage and sexuality.

Previous efforts by the Archbishop of Canterbury to front for the American church pale in comparison to the show in Jamaica. There Rowan Williams single-handedly derailed the release of the Covenant and its provision of consequences for member churches that did not subscribe to the Covenant or follow the understanding contained in it. As I wrote in a post entitled, "PERFIDY!" the Archbishop's actions were a betrayal of everyone who had trusted in the Covenant process to bring order to our fractured Communion.

#5. Finally, we come to this present moment: the Episcopal Church's General Convention in Anaheim, California, at which Rowan Williams spoke. As the Telegraph reports,
[T]he Archbishop of Canterbury flew to this year's gathering in Anaheim, California, and said in a sermon: "Along with many in the Communion, I hope and pray that there won't be decisions in the coming days that will push us further apart."

Although I am proudly of British ancestry myself, I have to admit that there must be a strain of something in the British temperament that has the ability to combine understatement, optimism, naïveté, and foolishness into one humongous character flaw. Because, as with Neville Chamberlain, Dr. Williams must have flown home thinking (or at least hoping) his words had been sufficient and that he had achieved "peace for our time."

But, as subsequent news bears out, he couldn't have been more wrong. On Sunday, the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies, made up of clergy and lay members, effectively voted in favor of overturning the moratorium on homosexual bishops (Resolution D025) by a 2-1 margin. The following day, the House of Bishops concurred with an amendment, and the House of Deputies quickly responded with their own concurrence to the final version.

But the news doesn't end there. On Wednesday evening, the bishops approved Resolution C056, which moves the Episcopal Church toward the development of rites for same-sex marriages and provides:
"[t]hat bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church..."
In other words, bishops in states where same-sex marriages are legal may allow their clergy to perform those marriages. This resolution will go to the House of Deputies tomorrow, where (barring an earthquake that causes California to sink into the ocean) passage is certain. Media outlets worldwide are predicting that this will permanently shatter the Communion.

So what should Rowan Williams do? There are some who, throughout the series of events I have mentioned above, have said he should resign. That would be a nihilistic and (dare I say?) typically European response. It is the path Chamberlain took. The Archbishop could take that path, or he can find the leadership necessary to take strong and definitive action by perhaps recalling the Prime Minister who took Chamberlain's disaster and (at great cost) confronted evil and brought his people through. Rowan Williams, meet Winston Churchill.


Mark said...

A good summary of ++Rowan's enabling and appeasing.

BTW, I was studying in Oxford during Rowan's 2007 New Orleans visit. His conduct so angered me, I stopped taking communion in England (later deciding to take communion only at Pusey House).

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Excellent commentary, Dean Munday!

And an apt historical parallel between Chamberlain and ABC Rowan too.

Viator said...

Dean Mundy:
Good piece, but a question about your interpretation of the 4th resolve in CO56: “That bishops, particularly those in dioceses within civil jurisdictions where same-gender marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships are legal, may provide generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this Church . . . .”

That certainly seems to give all bishops permission to permit pastoral responses (i.e. permit same sex blessings), not just bishops in the six states where civil law allows some sort of same sex union. It gives not just 6 bishops authorization to proceed if they choose, but all bishops. Do you not read it that way?

Furthermore, the 4th resolve refers to same-gender marriages and it will certainly be interpreted as authorizing a bishop to permit same sex marriages as a pastoral response.

With all thanks for the great work Nashotah House and you do.

Larry Gipson

Robert S. Munday said...

Yes, Viator (Dr. Gipson), you are correct. While the resolution is aimed at bishops, "particularly" in dioceses within states where same sex marriages are legal, it can apply to all bishops.

Jerry Kramer said...

Excellent. The only bright spot for me . . . and perhaps even a smile . . . in the past several days.