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Rowan Williams and the decline of religious institutions

Rowan Williams and the decline of religious institutions

In an essay for USA Today, Diana Butler Bass says the dilemmas that Rowan Williams faced as Archbishop of Canterbury are a sign of the times, but not in the way that most people think.

Williams demonstrated how wide the breach has become between spirituality and religion. His tenure proved that religious institutions — as they currently exist — fail when they refuse to engage the new pattern of faith. The gap between spirit and institution is not only problematic for religious organizations. The gap exists in business, where work and craft have been replaced by venture capital and profitability; in politics, where the common good and democracy are crushed by partisanship and corporate money; in education, where critical thought and the humanities are sacrificed to test scores.

The Anglican crisis is not about Williams or even religion. It is about the drive for meaningful connection and community and a better, more just, and more peaceful world as institutions of church, state and economy seem increasingly unresponsive to these desires. It is about the gap between a new spirit and institutions that have lost their way. Only leaders who can bridge this gap and transform their institutions will succeed in this emerging cultural economy.

The archbishop will return to teaching — a good choice. In our times, spiritual renewal is taking place among friends, in conversation, with trust and through mutual learning. A new thing is happening on the streets, in coffee houses, in local faith communities, and in movements of justice and social change. Far from demands of institutional religion, Rowan Williams will find a new kind of faith is being born.

How should religious institutions engage what Bass calls “the new pattern of faith?”


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Hi Barbara. Thanks very much for your insightful comments.

Not sure I’d espouse Fx as an advocacy initiative. But I would like to see more time and attention spent on diversity and inclusion, and on strategies for making those happen, including as they touch on our worship. I am grateful, for example, when I become aware of clergy using gender-neutral language, or language that is open and affirming of all persons, and would welcome a vibrant exchange of ideas in those spaces. So I guess I’d sum up by saying I hope that any Fx-type initiative also includes a social justice component.

Eric Bonetti

barbara snyder

I think that’s already happening, Eric; more women were ordained, for instance, in the CofE than men in 2010, according to this article. I’m fairly sure that it takes this kind of time to get to what we have now, after 40 years: women are about 40% of TEC clergy.

I did search on “gay,” and found one article that cites “areas of mission [that] include a theatre company, alcoholics, drug addicts, sex workers, vulnerable adults in a particular street and young gay people.”

That seems – at least on the surface – good to me, too. Are you thinking there should be more of this? I would agree, and hope things like this will continue to happen. (Don’t forget, though, that – for instance – civil partnerships have existed nationwide in every country in the UK since 2004 – something very unlike what we have here, which is a few states with marriage, but most without even civil unions (and many that forbid even civil unions, by law) – so there isn’t much reason to talk about that particular issue.)

Or are you thinking that Fresh Expressions should be more of an advocacy organization? If so, I think that’s a whole other conversation; my point above was to address Butler Bass’ claim that Rowan Williams wasn’t doing anything in the area of “changing patterns of worship.”

However, I’d agree that Fresh Expressions at the moment seems to be far more Evangelical in character than it is liberal. But then, so is the CofE at this point, I think. It’s actually too bad, because if liberals don’t get involved in the church, and in things like Fresh Expressions, they will lose whatever influence they might have had.

As far as I know, Fresh Expressions is open to anybody who wants to take advantage of it. I don’t think it’s Rowan Williams’ fault that liberals aren’t doing this. Fortunately, AffCath in the UK is starting to talk about it, too.


Hi Barbara. On the issue of women clergy and fresh expressions, my hope would be that one innovation would be strategies to increase ordination of women, who as of 2007 still represent only 18.3% of ordinations. Meeting in new and different locations is great, but gender equality is an issue to which I attach greater important. Similarly, search for the word “gay” on the Fx site and see what you get.

That said, Fx could well be of value here in the US. But I hope that innovative approaches don’t become a substitute for meaningful results.

Eric Bonetti

Jesse Zink

It seems like DBB decided to substitute jargony buzzwords for anything serious.

Can anyone tell me what this sentence means?

“This has changed as regular people confidently assert that spirituality is a grassroots adventure of seeking God, a journey of insight and inspiration involving authenticity and purpose that might or might not happen in a church, synagogue or mosque.”

Look at the buzzwords: grassroots, seeking, insight, inspiration, authenticity, purpose.

Also, I think her history is wrong. There’s lots of work on how medieval (and earlier) Christianities were all about the people and not about the clergy. It’s just that since we have records of the clergy, we remember them best.


barbara snyder

The thing about the coffee houses is quite funny, Andrew….


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