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Lessons from Cantuar

Lessons from Cantuar

by George Clifford

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ announcement that he would step down from his post at the end of 2012 pleased me and heightened my respect for him.

Archbishop Williams, in spite of commendable effort, has ineffectually led both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Unfortunately, results not efforts count. Notably, his attempt to preserve the Anglican Communion through creating an “Anglican Covenant” as a fifth instrument of unity has failed and the Church of England has rejected his proposal for ordaining women as bishops.

Some Anglicans, most of whom oppose ordaining non-celibate gays and blessing same-sex relationships, believe that the proposed Covenant will exert insufficient restraint on proponents of those practices. Other Anglicans, generally supportive of ordaining non-celibate gays and blessing same-sex relationships, believe that the proposed Covenant radically breaks with the Anglican Communion’s historic emphases of unity centered on communion with Canterbury and provincial independence. Reconciliation between those divergent views has proved impossible. Archbishop Williams probably finds the Church of England’s almost certain rejection of the Covenant especially painful.

Similarly, the Church of England has rejected the proposal put forward by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York that, while authorizing consecration of women as bishops, would have made generous provision for alternative episcopal oversight of dissenters, i.e., provision for male bishops for congregations and male clergy who object. A solid majority within the Church of England believe that the time has come to move forward with respect to authorizing the consecration of a woman as a bishop and that further accommodation of male prejudice against women clergy is unacceptable.

Leadership in the Anglican Communion and the Church of England, like in the Episcopal Church, is not primarily a function of a leader’s formal authority. The Archbishop of Canterbury has very little ecclesial authority over the Anglican Communion. He decides which bishops to invite to the Lambeth Conference. He chairs some meetings and makes a handful of appointments. Most dramatically, he could terminate the communion that exists between himself and a province, a step that is virtually unimaginable. Canonically and legally, the Archbishop has more authority within the Church of England, but even there civil law, canon law, General Synod, and a host of other factors circumscribe the Archbishop’s authority.

Instead, leadership in both the Anglican Communion and the Church of England is primarily a matter of persuading people to voluntarily follow the Archbishop’s lead. To lead, the Archbishop must rely on his personal charisma, recognized expertise to which others willingly defer, moral or spiritual stature that others find compelling, or ability to connect people and organizations creatively and effectively.

The Anglican Communion and the Church of England are at crucial junctures. The Communion’s deep and irreconcilable divisions will inevitably change its size, composition, and perhaps even structure, probably within the next decade. The real question is not if but when the Church of England will consecrate its first female bishop. In addition to quarreling over the ordination of women, the Church of England has steadily declining attendance at worship, significant financial problems, and, from within and without the Church, intermittent calls for disestablishment.

In sum, both the Anglican Communion and the Church of England, at a time such as this, need an Archbishop whose vision, charisma, and leadership can bring unity in the midst of diversity and a renewed, reenergized focus on mission. Archbishop Williams, by all accounts a wise and deeply spiritual Christian, recognizes that he is not that leader. His insight and courageous decision to step aside have increased my respect for him.

Archbishop Williams’ decision prompted some self-examination. His choice is the latest and highest profile example of clergy stepping aside from leadership posts within the Church. Bishops Tom Wright (formerly of Durham) and Neil Alexander (Atlanta) have both chosen to return to academia. Many more bishops and priests have chosen to retire early rather than to continue serving. Calling a leader, especially within the Episcopal Church, is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. What is it about us, as Anglicans, that causes our leaders to exit?

First, we value our individuality and independence more than we value communion and mutual interdependence. Communion does not connote approval or even agreement. I feel strongly about fully including everyone in the life of the Church regardless of gender or gender orientation. However, these issues are not litmus tests of Christian identity. Nor is someone who disagrees with me on these issues less of a Christian than I am (how does one even measure such a thing?).

Second, like our polarized politicians, we define ourselves by our positions and conflicts rather than by our mutual love and respect. Growth is impossible without change; change always entails conflict. The grain of sand irritates the oyster, initiating the process that can transform the grain into a pearl. Yet a grain of a toxic substance or effluents in the water can kill the oyster. Tragically, our conflict too often has become toxic rather than transforming us into pearls of great value.

Third, too many Anglicans confuse authority and leadership. Episcopalians rightly resist ceding too much authority to bishops, especially bishops not accountable to the Church. Yet without good leadership, the Church flounders and people perish.

No wonder, in a gentle and tacit indictment of many Anglicans, Archbishop Williams warns that the next Archbishop of Canterbury must have “the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros.”

We Episcopalians can profit from that warning. Like the Church of England, our worship attendance and financial resources are declining. These declines – though exacerbated by our individualism, animosity in conflict, and wariness of leaders – more fundamentally reflect the Church’s struggles with modernism, secularism, and other external forces.

Thankfully, our Presiding Bishop, Bishops, and rectors/vicars have “bully pulpits” from which to guide and to mobilize the Church. Our Church desperately needs godly and effective leadership. Our polity means that we have no reason to fear strong leaders. Participation is voluntary. If people do not want to follow, they can vote with their feet, their purses, or through the Church’s formal decision-making processes. Those of us who choose to remain will do well to emphasize unity in the midst of diversity, practice mutual love and respect in conflict, and applaud good leadership. Otherwise, good leaders will continue to abandon their posts prematurely for other ministries and the Church’s problems will only worsen.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.


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TJ Hudson

Not a big deal, but it’s Cantuar, not Cantaur. It’s an abbreviation of “archiepiscopus cantuarensis.” The ABC is allowed to refer to himself as Cantuar, the way a Duke can style himself “Cambridge.”


Thanks Tom. ~Ed.

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