So, farewell, Rowan Williams. Actually he still has nine months left as Archbishop of Canterbury, apart from the England manager’s job, the most poisoned chalice of all. But now he’s announced his departure, he’s on borrowed time.
In Britain we marvel at the excesses of American Christianity and pat ourselves on the back that it couldn’t happen here. But the position of Williams was such that his role was to paper over the cracks. We expect intolerant ravings from the Catholics and the Muslims but the good old CofE is supposed to be above all that, and in the minds of many is supposed to reflect both our spiritual (whatever that is) and our national identity. This wasn’t Henry VIII’s initial purpose, to be sure.
It’s said that religion is the handmaiden of the powerful (as well as the handmaiden of the oppressed) and this is fair comment, but religion also has its own agendas. One of those is to claim power for itself, and religious leaders often enough attempt to set themselves up as arbiters of what we should be thinking and doing. Given half a chance, they’ll dictate your very thoughts. We see this clearly enough with the likes of Ratzinger, but it also applies to a lot of the CofE. The Bishop of Oxford (not the one from The God Delusion) has only this week called for a big expansion of Anglican schools in order to counter the effects of “militant secularism”, whatever that is. Obviously the not-so-good Bishop has a bit of learning to do, and not only because he expects the rest of us to pay for his fiendish plans for recruiting centres. He should be pleased that the secularism we have allows him house room for his drivel.
But that shows what at least part of the CofE actually represents. In truth it’s a disjointed coalition, and the main issue of contention surrounds the relevance of the Church for the 21st Century. It’s clear from recent polls and from declining church attendance that the established church is very much a minor player these days. That doesn’t mean that it can’t recover, obviously, but the signs are not encouraging.
The vexed question of the best way to react to this increasing irrelevance is what in the end did for Rowan Williams. Some in the church opted to continue what it did best and follow secular morality, ordaining women and in the case of New Hampshire, conferring the title of Bishop on an openly gay (and not celibate) man. Others, especially in the General Synod, are reacting strongly to these developments. Add to this the openly homophobic African churches, who now constitute a majority of Anglicans and the difficulty of the the position of the Archbishop can be seen clearly.
For in 2012, to be concerned with banal arguments about the rights of homosexuals, shows just how irrelevant the church has become, and how difficult it will be for it to hold itself together, post-Williams. Inevitably, as someone who’s prime purpose was to hold the congregation together, he was bound to fail. No doubt the church will continue under another failed compromiser or be led by a member of one faction or another, and therefore feel the pressure to take things to their logical conclusion – Ratzinger has already cheekily declared that he’s lying in wait. Either way, things don’t look good for the CofE.
In a way that’s a shame because if he was nothing else the often unintelligible Williams had the best of intents. His tragedy (or his good fortune) was that he was no politician. Although I have little time for the Church of England I will miss him.