Rowan Williams: “No problem” with celibate gay bishops

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In an lengthy interview published in the Times this weekend, Rowan Williams reflects on his ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury, his sense of personal failure in failing to support Dr. Jeffrey Johns’ election to the bishopric, and that he believes gay celibate Christians can serve as bishops in the Church of England.


The interview, conducted by Ginny Dougary prior to Pope Benedict’s visit to Great Britain, is wide ranging discussion of many of the current controversies surrounding Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury. There’s conversation about the recent statements of Stephen Hawkins, the Pope’s visit and the creation of the Ordinariate, Bishop Glasspool’s ordination in Los Angeles, the ordination of women bishops in the Church of England (he’s in favor), the “materially heretical” idea that making money is doing God’s work, his personal life and his experience of being in southern Manhattan on Sept. 11th 2001.

The reporting on the interview in the Times says in part on the issue of gay and lesbian inclusion in the Church:

The Archbishop says that from his appointment to Canterbury eight years ago he was “conscious” of the issue of homosexuality as “a wound in the whole ministry”.

Today he also admits that one of the most tortuous periods in his eight years at Lambeth Palace came during the unsuccessful elevation of Jeffrey John to the post of Bishop of Reading.

He confesses that he let down Dr John, who was instead appointed Dean of St Albans.

[…]Dr Williams’s revelations put in peril the unity scheme due to be agreed soon, based around a new covenant that sets out teachings on which all can agree.

Ruth Gledhill blogs on the interview over on the Times website and writes in part regarding the portion of the interview where Williams reports that he’s “pro” women bishops and the reason he’s willing to make more of a plea in that controversy than he is the area of gay and lesbian inclusion. Williams explains it’s because he has issues about a “particular choice of life”:

[Williams:]“Those issues don’t arise where women are concerned [unless, of course, they are gay]. That’s simply about who and what they are. To put it very simply, there’s no problem about a gay person who’s a bishop.” Really? “It’s about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe. So there’s always a question about the personal life of the clergy.”

[Gledhill continues]This is both confusing and rather revolting. Dr John has been knocked back twice because he has a partner, even though they are apparently celibate. First, it is an unappealing idea that the Church makes such unnatural demands on its clergy and, second, how on earth does it expect to monitor the bedtime activity? Perhaps by installing CCTV cameras? I ask him what’s wrong with a gay bishop having a partner. “I think because the scriptural and

traditional approach to this doesn’t give much ground for being positive about it. The Church at the moment doesn’t quite know what to make of it…”

All right, but do you personally wish it could be overcome in some way? Silence, then:

“Pass.” Is it really so difficult for you to say? “We’re in the middle of vastly difficult conversations about it, and I don’t want to put thumbs on scales.”

The Times “Mission Statement” regarding the interview speaks to the Archbishop’s reluctance to speak clearly on the issue of gay and lesbian rights in the Church ends with this “kicker”:

In seeking a settlement within Anglicanism, Dr Williams risks diminishing its prophetic voice. If he were to worry less about politics, he might find the resources to strengthen Anglicanism and find spiritual fulfilment of his own. For with his profound theological insight, Dr Williams is better placed than anyone to, in the words of Matthew’s Gospel, discern the signs of the times.

Secular culture acknowledges the injustice of discrimination against homosexuals. The treatment of Canon Jeffrey John, a chaste homosexual twice rejected as a bishop, offends against a widely held sense of natural justice. In electing homosexual bishops, Anglicanism might suffer defections; but it would affirm its soul.

This is not a call to choose modern mores over biblical authority, for Anglicans have long understood that the interpretation of Scripture lies in the hands of the Church. The Apostle Peter enjoined: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation.”

Interpretation belongs to the tradition of Christendom, in which Dr Williams takes an historic role. He should affirm as a Christian leader and a theologian that discrimination against homosexuals is wrong. In the Church, as in the nation, let justice be done — and the heavens will not fall.

The BBC has coverage of this news here where it is given the headline: “Archbishop Rowan Williams backs gay, celibate bishops”. The Guardian’s coverage is found here.

Anglican Mainstream has already come out objecting to the Archbishop’s statements opening the door to the ordination of gay bishops even as little as he does.

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17 Responses to "Rowan Williams: “No problem” with celibate gay bishops"
  1. a "particular choice of life"

    I am stunned to see this coming from the mouth of someone who is supposed to be educated....

    “I think because the scriptural and traditional approach to this doesn’t give much ground for being positive about it."

    You mean in the same way the scriptural and traditional approaches to divorce don't allow us to permit it?

    Tell me again why any of us are looking to this man for leadership?

    Paige Baker

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  2. "he was “conscious” of the issue of homosexuality as “a wound in the whole ministry..."

    Gay people are issues? wounds? Lord have mercy!

    "he also admits that one of the most tortuous periods in his eight years at Lambeth Palace came during the unsuccessful elevation of Jeffrey John to the post of Bishop of Reading"

    Given his repeated propensity to sacrifice gay folk on the altar of uniformity, I find his remorse disengenuous.

    "In seeking a settlement within Anglicanism, Dr Williams risks diminishing its prophetic voice."

    Now, that's rich! News flash to The Times: prophets are equipped with spines.

    Terry Pannell

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  3. "In an lengthy interview published in the Times this weekend, Rowan Williams reflects on his ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury, his sense of personal failure in failing to support Dr. Jeffrey Johns' election to the bishopric, and that he believes gay celibate Christians can serve as bishops in the Church of England."

    If by "failing to support Dr. Jeffrey Johns' election to the bishopric" one means stabbing Dr. John in the back, throwing him from the bus, and then driving the bus over him, then sure, I guess that could be described as "failing to support Dr. Jeffrey Johns' election to the bishopric."

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  4. Of his pontificate, will it be said, as of the marvelous mechanical Olympia in Tales of Hoffmann, "Il etait un automat"?

    My magic glasses broke some time ago. "J'ai des yeux." The Archbishop sees expressing an opinion as a thumb on the scale. Well, we don't need an Archbishop to read a scale, do we? I would rather have a clear negative opinion (like those of his predecessor) than this "I am powerless" statement of "that's the way it is."

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  5. Our secular societies are acknowledging the justice owed to all people, regardless of race, gender etc and increasingly coming to terms with diversity, gender fluidity, sexual orientation etc. Complexities of psychological reality and diversity that allow for more affirmation (and celebration) of our differences and integrities. Old rigidities are called into question, and honesty has to ask 'Where is the grace?' Sex and gender are not one-size fits all.

    If you were a transsexual bishop, would you be allowed to have sex with a man or a woman, or neither, or would you just not be allowed? Sexuality and gender are complex, sometimes fluid, and in the end I think some non-Christians are getting this, and some in the Church are playing catch-up all the time, and some don't even want to catch up because they feel obliged to perpetuate previous views... and then some, thankfully, are prophetic and recognise we are all children of God in need of grace, and diverse expressions of love and fidelity are cause of celebration not marginalisation. I am a transsexual Christian. I am also a person. As it happens I am celibate as I hope to become a nun. But celibacy is a grace for monks and nuns - we don't seek to impose it on priests. But let's just reverse this and say: to the 6 billion people on this planet who are heterosexual, "We respect you, but we are telling you to remain celibate..." Imagine the sorrow, the sadnesses, the loss of tender intimacy, the frustration, the diminution as a result of dogma... it would be a perversion...

    And that is what is being said to gay and lesbian couples, and who's actually being perverse? And where do transgendered people come into this? Should they be celibate too? Or what? Things simply aren't as simple as 'stone them' or 'ostracise them' or 'marginalise them from exercising their gifts'. Things aren't simple at all. But some people want simplicity. But to placate that demand for simplicity and church diplomacy, decent people's lives are diminished. Heterosexual Christians are afforded roles and positions not granted to people who are gay and lesbian. If this was racism, we'd be crying out about prejudice and discrimination. What if someone is bi-? What if someone is divorced? What if someone lives with someone first? What if someone... cares faithfully, looks after, loves tenderly, feels humanly, and, as one part of that humanity and fidelity and commitment, expresses gentle and intimate love, because it's dignified, ennobling, life-enhancing?

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  6. I am also stunned by his inappropriate interpretation of Scripture, which he should know better.

    Also, I am always amazed at those who suggest that LGBTQ people exercise our sexuality in immoral ways, when there are far more letters of the alphabet that could be used to describe the diverse ways in which heterosexual people exercise their sexuality. This is nothing more than another person using bad arguments to suggest that LGBTQ people cannot or should not exercise God's gift of our sexuality in healthy, long term and committed relationships.

    I am glad that the Episcopal Church itself hears the Holy Spirit changing hearts and minds about this kind of awful rhetoric.

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  7. The ++ABC, regretful as he appears in the interview threw Dean Johns under the bus not once, but twice. And as much as he says he does not want to play politics take a look at this passage from the interview:

    "Later, he says, that he finds this whole area so tricky to discuss because any comment he makes is likely to be seized upon by either side and broadcast around the world. One of the problems with Uganda, for instance, is that if he were to cause a schism with its Anglican bishops, life would become even harder for homosexuals there. Well, you can see why he didn’t want the job."

    How could life in Uganda be more difficult for the glbt community? They are their supporters are on the brink of a law that not only exposes gays to the death penalty but their supporters, whose very support could be construed by the law as "aggravated homosexuality".

    This view, plus his betrayal of Dean Johns is simply a self justifying spin. To posit "gay" as a choice is also a political position and he is presumably smart enough to know better.

    This is a devastating interview with respect to his personal integrity. To argue that his job's demands supercedes his personal beliefs and integrity is not all that different from those who sent Jews to the gas chambers because it was part of their job description. I have to say that the international unity of the Anglican Communion is not worth one life taken by bigots in Uganda.

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  8. I find the ABC's reasoning specious and, creepily reminiscent of "it was expedient that one man should die for the people" in Jn. 18:4. Does Jeffrey John "feel upon his shuddering cheek/the kiss of Caiaphas"?

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  9. Further to my comment above, although the situation in our Communion is heart-rending, and I believe that people with minority orientations are being betrayed and let down, and ignominiously 'made different' when they have the same grace, the same gifts, the same right to respect as human beings...

    ...nevertheless...

    I will speak up for Rowan Williams. I believe in him. I believe in his integrity. He has done for my understanding of vocation, in his writings, then probably anyone else. I recognise his deep and real spirituality, his acute observations on Spanish mystics like Teresa de Avila, the spiritual reality of his own being and journey with God. I have also been deeply impressed by interviews I have watched, by his thoughtfulness, his human integrity, and authenticity.

    His position, too, is invidious. He, also, is experiencing the Way of the Cross in all this.

    In the end, there either are or are not principles and points of justice where we have to take a stand. The dignity, and full authenticity and gifting of gay and lesbian Christians is one such point of unnegotiable principle.

    Rowan is to me, so admirable, so decent, so sincere, so given to God... that I respect the integrity with which he is trying to hold diverging Church traditions together. I 'get' he feels he must, regardless of the opprobrium heaped on him.

    Personally, I don't think this can be resolved - I don't think the divergence can be stopped, or minorities acknowledged for *their* integrity and full identity as Christians - except if Christians of all views fly to Christ, find their unity in Christ alone, and say "We are diverse, but we are one in Christ."

    The sadness to me about this scenario is that I believe the very group that Rowan is trying to placate - a group who are more conservative than he is himself - are the ones who won't accept this diversity of integrities, and will continue to pull away until they can have their own interpretations, and demand them from others.

    So I just wanted to affirm Rowan Williams. I am a transsexual Christian. I would probably face opprobrium in some countries in Anglican churches. But I am also responding the call to Carmelite spirituality, and I recognise so much his own faithful sensitivity to that, and I know he is my brother in Christ, and I am his sister, and I love him.

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  10. I welcome all of Susannah's comments. It is good to find a transsexual voice of faith on here.

    But if Rowan Williams thinks he's doing GLBTs in Uganda (or anywhere else) one bit of good by failing to condemn the Gay-hating bishops and politicians, he's sorely mistaken.

    He harms the people he professes to love and the Church he allegedly leads. By their fruits ye shall know them.

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  11. I ask him what’s wrong with a gay bishop having a partner. “I think because the scriptural and traditional approach to this doesn’t give much ground for being positive about it. The Church at the moment doesn’t quite know what to make of it...”

    Even digitally, I'm revolted at the waste of ELECTRONS to print this. The notion that there's a "scriptural" commentary, negative, re "a gay bishop having a partner" is LAUGHABLE. [And no "traditional" commentary past 20 years, so that's an oxymoron, too.]

    The ONLY good news from this: that he's retiring ahead of time. Alleluia!

    JC Fisher

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  12. Susannah, your comment is so wonderfully compassionate and forgiving that I am loathe to register my dissent. However, I must. With respect to Jeffrey John, Williams was prepared to consecrate his old friend, and caved only after pressure began to mount. More fundamentally, if Williams had treated TEC and the Church of Canada equally with Nigeria, the Southern Cone, et al., I might be more receptive to your defense of Abp. williams. But instead their violations of the so-called Windsor moratoria are not pursued by Williams, while our consecration of Bp. Glasspool after 6 years of compliance? An act of war. This double standard is unjust, at the expense of our GLBT brothers and sisters, and I don't believe a righteous result can stem from injustice, and sacrificing others for the institutional interests of the Church.

    I admire your largeness of heart, but cannot agree with you.

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  13. Susannah, Rowan no doubt has many sterling qualities and has written many an inspiring word. As an Archbishop of Canterbury, however, he has been an unmitigated disaster. He could not have done more harm to the Communion had it set out to do so. (Did he set out to do so? Hard to tell.) The man has the strategic insight of a walnut. It would be kind to call him a political incompetent. (And there is no virtue in that when one’s job, though in the realm of the church, is fundamentally political.) The interview makes it clear that we should accord him no moral and surely no political authority. It is time to get on with the post-Anglican Communions.

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  14. I agree with the archbishop. If we would have went with this route, there wouldn't be so much discord in the Anglican Communion.

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  15. The Archbishop says he has no problem with celibate gay bishops. What he has trouble with is one who lives under the same roof with a person of the same sex. What does that mean? That he doesn't trust his friend, or that he doesn't like the optics?

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  16. My "particular choice of life" is to stop caring about what this "great theologian" thinks, says, and/or does.

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  17. Jesus said, "I leave you a New Commandment: Thou shalt not have discord in the Anglican Communion!"

    Interesting Bible translation you have there, Richard J. O_o

    JC Fisher

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