"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Tuesday, September 28, 2004 Former Newark Bishop John Spong had some harsh words for the Archbishop of Canterbury recently:
His actions have revealed a fatal character flaw.
He has no courage, no backbone and no ability to lead.
Seldom have I watched a quicker collapse of potential.
It was an abdication of leadership so dramatic as to be breathtaking.
He is now destined to be a long-serving but ineffective and empty
man who has been revealed to be incapable of carrying the
responsibility placed upon him.
Leaders have only one opportunity to make a first impression. Rowan Williams has failed that test miserably."
I couldn't disagree more with Bishop Spong's characterization of the Archbishop of Canterbury. More than that, I think it is quite harmful to the work of reconciliation that is the whole church's mission.
There isn't one of us who can begin to imagine the scope of Archbishop Williams' call. Just as an American president is called to be president of the whole country, not just the liberals or conservatives who elected him, the ABC is called to be primate of the whole communion. The office of bishop exists in large part to represent and uphold the unity of the church. For Bishop Smith, Bishop Spong and Archbishop Williams, this is their sacred charge that they have taken sacred vows to uphold.
Many on the conservative side were highly skeptical of Rowan Williams' ability to fulfill this call when he "assumed the throne" because of his published writings expressing liberal views on homosexuality. There were assumptions that he would immediately side with liberals whenever these issues came up.
It appears that Bishop Spong expected this too ... and is upset that his expectations were not met.
But Bishop Spong makes some assumptions as to why these expectations were not met ... assumptions I challenge. Bishop Spong writes "His actions have revealed a fatal character flaw. He has no courage, no backbone and no ability to lead." I believe Bishop Spong is deeply upset because Archbishop Williams is not acting in accordance with his (Bishop Spong's) beliefs. He sees it as an act of cowardice because he knows that they are beliefs that Archbishop Williams shares.
Bishop Spong fails to allow for the possibility -- which I view to be the case -- that instead of shrinking back, that the Archbishop of Canterbury is stepping forward in the sacrificial model of Christ to set aside his own deeply-held convictions and beliefs in order to most fully live out his sacred charge to preserve the unity of the church. And in doing so he is actually exhibiting the very qualities Bishop Spong accuses him of lacking -- courage, backbone and ability to lead.
Let's delve into that further. Our ultimate goal as a church is to reconcile the world and each other to God in Christ. That is a process that involves conversion. As our own Presiding Bishop is fond of pointing out (and rightly), conversion and conversation come from the same root and are intimately related. True conversation can lead to conversion. And conversion can't happen unless all parties concerned don't allow for the possibility of having their deeply-held beliefs challenged and even changed through conversation.
If Archbishop Williams had come down firmly on the side of we in America who consented to Bishop Robinson's election, he would have immediately created a line in the sand and the provinces of the communion would have had no choice but to line up on either side of it. This differs from the choice presented at General Convention. The Bishops who voted for Bishop Robinson's consent in the House of Bishops had no such choice. You cannot table a resolution on consent. Bishop Smith and others had to make a choice and voted their conscience in doing so. Whether we agree with it or not, whether we view it as the work of the Holy Spirit or the spirit of division, that choice has put the unity of the church in peril at least for the moment. It is the Archbishop of Canterbury's job to choose how he will respond to this situation.
Archbishop Williams has a choice. He has a choice between his personal beliefs and the vows he took to safeguard the unity of the church. I believe he is making the choice that he feels best fulfills the call he has been given as Archbishop of Canterbury. A sacrificial call to put beliefs that I am led to believe he holds dear aside for what he believes is the greater good of the church.
Bishop Spong and others have and will continue to cry that the kind of leadership that is needed is "prophetic leadership." Of course, they may be right. There are certainly cases in our church's history when people have taken heroic and unpopular stands on issues and have changed the church and the world because of them. Those first bishops who ordained women in Philadelphia and Washington come to mind.
But there is much romance to the notion of prophetic leadership. There's something that feels good about it in ways that are not about responding to call but about feeding our own self-righteousness. That isn't to say there isn't a time and a place for it, but that it isn't EVERY time and EVERY place.
There is much at stake here. We live in an increasingly globally connected world and the problems we face increasingly require us to act together. As we experience the richness of each other's cultures, we become increasingly aware of our deep need for each other on so many levels. As Desmond Tutu rightly says, "we can only be human together." In a world such as this, communion isn't just a nice idea or a history desirous of being preserved, it is nothing less than our best shot at effectively being the body of Christ on a planet screaming out for it.
That means our Communion is a gift to be treasured and honored -- and if it should be sacrificed it should be as an absolute last resort and only after doing everything possible to save it. That is what I believe Archbishop Williams is trying to do. I cannot think of a more difficult job in the church right now, and I believe he is doing it with patience and grace and a sacrificial heart that we should applaud, support and continue to pray for rather than condemn.
Is it worth holding a middle ground on this issue, no matter how much it might mean to us? I believe it is. Frankly, there are issues far greater out there -- issues of global economic and social injustice, issues so systemic and ingrained that we need the varied gifts that God has given all of us to muddle and ultimately break through them. We can make good arguments that the struggle over full inclusion of GBLT Christians is a part of that struggle ... but at best it is only a part. And no matter how much we may care about this part, we must recognize that.
One more thing. We may not like it ... but we need to respect that those who disagree with us on matters of scriptural interpretation on these and other issues are not ignorant hate-mongers (at least no more than we are!). There are people on all sides of these and other questions who have come to their opinions through a great deal of prayer, conversation and study. And, by the way, even though we have come to difference conclusions we need to acknowledge that they do have a valid argument! We cannot escape that all references to homosexuality in scripture are prohibitive. We need to struggle mightily with that and not dismiss that if our own arguments are to have validity. We may disagree vehemently with the way they interpret those passages, but that interpretation is a historically legitimate school of scriptural interpretation not something they came up with over a couple gin-and-tonics trying to figure out how to "get us."
We need to honor their attempts at faithfulness even as we need to expect them to honor our attempt. Anything else is un-baptismal. When we are called to seek and serve Christ in all persons loving our neighbor as ourselves, we must realize that begins first by us gazing into the eyes of folks like Kendall Harmon and Paul Walter and Bob Duncan and the Archbishops of Nigeria and Uganda and you fill in the rest of the blanks. As our former bishop was wont to say, "Jesus is in all people, just sometimes he is in deep disguise." So it may be with them ... and so it may be with us. Our salvation lies in all of us continuing the quest to seek and serve him.
EGR resources and connects the church to embrace what one person, one congregation, one diocese and one church can do to make this mission of global reconciliation happen.
Want to find out more ... check our our website at www.e4gr.org.
"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."