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Rowan Williams in 1988 on homosexuality

Rowan Williams in 1988 on homosexuality

A pamphlet entitled “Speaking Love’s Name; Homosexuality: Some Catholic and Socialist Perspectives” written in 1988 had an introduction from Prof. Rowan Willams. It a name we recognize, but a voice we’ve rarely heard.

His writing refers to a resolution at the 1987 synod of the Church of England in which the traditional teachings of sex being reserved for the state of holy matrimony was reaffirmed.

Here’s the first paragraph and some “pull quotes”:

“”The past year has been a wintry one for the Church of England; a time in which it has often been difficult to believe that it is possible to be an Anglican with integrity. We have shown ourselves to be self-destructive in our inner conflicts, in some very dramatic ways: above all, we have shown a degree of collective neurosis on the subject of sexuality that is really quite astounding in this century and this culture. We have, it seems, been happy to collude with the paranoia of populist homophobia, fuelled by the AIDS epidemic and by myths of gay ‘propaganda’ in schools — fuelled, that is, by tragedy on the one hand and lies on the other. Last November, the General Synod passed a resolution whose force remains ambiguous, declaring the undesirability of gay clergy being allowed to express and experience their sexual identity in the way most people do. Even the most superficial analysis of the debate shows how the Synod was simultaneously cajoled and panicked into this move: well-meaning ‘liberals’, equally afraid of the harshness of the original motion (about which the less said the better) and of getting involved in a genuinely theological debate on sexuality, joined hands with some of the most disturbing elements in the contemporary Church of England, those who are determined to make it an ideologically monolithic body, to produce a vote which has, in practice, delivered much of what the original motion aimed at. This shabby compromise has been held up by bishops as representing the ‘mind’ of the Church, and accorded something like legislative force. Bishops have appealed to it in justifying their actions against gay clergy and ordinands. It is becoming harder all the time for a gay person to be honest in the Church. We have helped to build a climate in which concealment is rewarded — while at the same time conniving with the hysteria of the gutter press, and effectively giving into their hands as victims all those who do not manage successful concealment. And the lowest point has come with the vendetta conducted by the Diocese of London through its legal officers against the parish of St. Botolph’s, Aldgate, and the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.”

[…] But as the New Testament makes plain, to go at the pace of the slowest, to respect the human needs of those whose vision is less clear, is not to compromise on the substantive point of what liberty in Christ means. The Church of England has indeed been giving an uncertain moral lead, just as it has been accused of doing — but the uncertainty has been over the moral and spiritual importance of truthfulness, truth to one’s own nature, truth in relations with other believers. The more we make such truthfulness impossible, the more we quench the Spirit.

[…]The present collection of essays is an attempt to acknowledge the mess we are — in; to express some of the hurt and anger that has been generated (not least among those who feel that their pastors in the Church, especially those in ‘leadership’ positions, have let them down); and to move the necessary theological discussion a little bit further forward. But it will have made its point if it communicates why so many people currently feel ashamed of our Church’s public voice on this issue. Not all of us are fully agreed on the tactics or the theology of where we go next; but we share the sense that our Church has not done well in these matters, and that we are in urgent need of plain speaking and clear thinking, recognising that there is a debate to be conducted (which has already begun long since, if the truth be told) about theology and spirituality, one that is not to be sidetracked either by the trading of texts or by a tactful but finally corrupting liberal discretion.”

More here. Thanks to the folks at Thinking Anglicans for finding this.

If I recall correctly, since I remember Rowan Williams attending the parish where I was a seminarian in New Haven back in 1989, this must have been written just before he was a visiting professor at Yale, and while he was still at Oxford.


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If Rowan Williams ever embraced LGBT liberation it did not last long. Rather than affirming liberation, he says in this 1988 text that gay priests, in order to mature as persons, must submit to their bishops and that the church must find a way to help them deal with their sexuality. The focus, not surprisngly, is clerical, even though the issue at the time was all LGBTs within the Chrurch of England. An institution which for centuries oppressed LGBTs would supposedly repent and prescribe acceptable behavior for gay priests (and nonordained LBGTs?). In principle, it makes sense for all members of the church to be held to the same standards but in a world where discrimination against LGBTs persists, the reality is more complicated. An example in the United States is the Bishop of Long Island, after the passage of the marriage equality bill in New York State this month, saying that all priests in his diocese who have same-sex partners must get married within nine months, disregarding the legal problems this could create for binational couples and those couples who intend to move to states which do not recognize civil marriage equality.

In this early text, Rowan already attacks liberals as too permissive and preaches his dogmatic Anglo-Catholic Socialism, which puts the institution before the individual.

Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.

“As the debate amply shows, ‘liberalism’ is not enough. It is hopelessly inadequate now to think that we can go back to the comfortably discreet situation in which sexual orientation was known and tacitly accepted, but never discussed, let alone affirmed. Such a situation too helps to nourish just that coyness, adolescent naughtiness and irresponsibility which many, gay and straight, I have found so tiresome a feature of the ecclesiastical gay scene: no-one holds you responsible for an adult sexuality, or suggests that you might need to share and reflect as much as anyone else, and there is little help in working out a tough and consistent morality. To argue for the need for gay liberation in the Church is not to commend a policy of letting everyone go their way in a bland situationist paradise, but to ask that this issue become part of the collective and public reflection of the Church, something on which experience can be shared and supportive and challenging patterns evolved.”

Gary Paul Gilbert

Christopher Evans

I still enjoy Dr William’s theological writings, but to be frank, since his becoming ABC, he has been one of the one’s to turn a blind eye to ecclesial viciousness toward lgbt persons and in some cases by his words and actions have given permission to others to do quite worse–I think of his words on Belgian radio some years back, a poor reflection that didn’t once question if he and heterosexuals in the Church might too need conversion and instead used words familiar to every ex-gay ministry to talk about gays and the Church, something Exodus International used immediatley. No amount of great writing undoes such actions, not matter how theologically profound.

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