Instant retrospectives on Rowan Williams’ not-yet-concluded tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury are thick on the ground, but this one by Tom Sutcliffe stands out for its balance, nuance, and ability to compare Williams’ style of leadership to that of his predecessors. Here is a taste:
The consequence of Rowan’s playing by rules that no Archbishop of Canterbury had ever used before and that most church people even never understood has been totally bewildering. On his watch, and quite bizarrely, the country has contentedly embraced both civil partnerships and women priests – an uncontroversial and popular reform, though one that cannot be accepted by an important if numerically small part of the coalition of traditions which forms the established church. Rowan’s decade has seen large numbers of Anglican clergy enter contracts with civil partners. Yet the leader of the whole CofE charade has been seen desperately trying to shut the stable doors long after the horse has bolted. There’s something depressingly wrong-headed about that.
Surely a man who had persuasively concluded that active homosexual relationships might be capable of being free from sin in the Christian sense owed it to the Church, and to the society that Church existed to serve, to contribute his further insights to the development and refinement of the Christian understanding of sexuality. I would not suggest it will be easy to reconcile the “Biblical” view on such matters with the long suppressed sensible insights of Epicurus as relayed by Lucretius in De rerum natura. The purity to which Christian and Islamic fundamentalists hark back fits ill with a liberated understanding of the modern partnership between men and women.
The reason what some regard as “Biblical” teaching on sexuality has to be refined now is that the Church (above all the Roman Catholic church) has been revealed to have such a long and still unresolved history of practising abuse, that traditional teaching about sexuality, whether drawn from the Bible or from Tradition, is widely held to be contemptible. The sexual misdemeanours and hypocrisy of Catholic clergy have rendered any vestige of authority attaching to that teaching tradition completely insupportable. The current Evangelical focus on persecuting or curing homosexuals looks like merely another chapter in the same sad saga of human folly. And none of this obsession with sexuality closely relates to the central Christian message. Nor are there words uttered by Jesus to put into the balance.