Saturday, October 07, 2006

Dinner with Rowan Williams

While at General Convention, I had the good fortune to meet the Rev. Donald Schell, co-rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco. Make sure you check out their liturgy. Donald is also President of APLM (The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission), and was one of the nominees for bishop of California.

Donald recently offered some thoughts regarding Rowan Williams that I found particularly insightful. He has given me permission to reproduce them here:

1. Two weeks ago I was part of a group of a dozen or so people who had the fascinating opportunity of a two hour dinner with Rowan Williams. The conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating. One thing that was quite clear was that Rowan Williams regards Windsor as an invitation to conversation (not the beginning of a law defining who is in and who is out). From his perspective the American church hasn't responded to that invitation.

The conservative spin on that is that the American Church has been defiant or hasn't been "Windsor-compliant." But as I heard it, Williams's understanding of Windsor is quite different from that, not at all laying down a standard of compliance, but trying to define grounds for a committed conversation and inviting us to participate in it. In the way that he is listening Williams hasn't heard the American church taking the opportunity to offer its rationale, coherent arguments from scripture and tradition. To me some of this feels impossible to address - 'The American Church' acts in legislative session, a democratically elected body of bishops, presbyters and deacons, and laity. There are plenty of arguments from scripture, tradition and experience as resolutions move toward defined action, but the convention's resolutions stand in the end by themselves. Our process isn't made to offer a rationale.

Our people do offer good apologia at least sometimes - in what they/we write and say. But are we consistent in offering serious discussion of God and our experience of God...? Sometimes not. Sometimes it's a rhetoric of plain exasperation, not surprisingly. Matthew Shepherd's death, people being spat on scapegoated and marginalized, a transgendered person murdered every month produce exasperation. "How much longer Lord?" is the cry that goes with this experience.

I read some of the conservative blogs on the Camp Allen document. The really rabid folk think their bishops have betrayed them and are trying to keep in conversation with us by this betrayal, they read the document and say their bishops are backing down on a promise to lead them out of ECUSA and into some other relationship to Canterbury or the communion. One of these bloggers cautioned fellow bloggers to beware the statement since Mark MacDonald (who had ordained an out lesbian) had signed it. That may have been a discerning warning insofar as what I hear from Mark is a clear commitment to conversation, and the grace to go talk with 'them' with an open mind and heart.

On the question of moratorium, what I heard from the English clergy and laity (and this is not Rowan, but the group in our meetings before) was that it had become clear to them that the loudest voices from the Global South and from the American AAC etc. were consciously attempting to put conditions on the American Church that the American Church COULD NOT IN CONSCIENCE accept, that their strategy was specifically to pit our church's discernment and considered, conscientious action against a condition for 'unity.' What I heard from these self-described centrist Anglicans in England was a hearty thanks to the American church for being a conscience to England, an acknowledgment that as they move toward ordaining women bishops and the beginnings of honesty about their gay priests and bishops, that it has been the pressure of American action that has made change possible.

2. a little more on this conversation with Rowan.

We were American and UK Anglican/Episcopalians, four of academics from both sides of the Atlantic, Bob Scott and Jamie Callaway from Trinity Wall Street, two third generation Anglo-African clergy-theologian-trainers, born in Central Africa, trained in South Africa and serious participants in the anti-Apartheid movement, both now living and working in the UK, director of clergy formation for the Canterbury Diocese, a layman (former academic) who runs a center at Glastonbury, Phyllis Tickle and her husband and daughter, Megory Anderson (Sacred Dying Foundation) and me. Three of them had known Rowan Williams since he was Lady Margaret Professor of Theology at Oxford. The two Trinity Church people had been with him on 9/11. We'd been meeting for two days before our dinner and spent Saturday afternoon talking and thinking about what conversation from a UK/US open-hearted consensus on schism, Gene Robinson, and Katharine Jefferts Schori would make a difference to Rowan.

It was heartening in this preparation time to hear how STRONGLY the UK clergy supported ECUSA, and how some of them had shifted to that support over the eighteen months or so of our three meetings after seeing so clearly in the conservatives gleeful hostility to Katharine Jefferts Schori that, 'Their intent is to pose impossible conditions on the American church, and you, in conscience can't operate that way.' One of these voices had been a strong supporter of a moratorium a year ago. We went into conversation with Rowan prepared to ask hard questions and really talk.

History (and the quirky English process of selecting bishops and archbishops) have given us a remarkable teacher for Archbishop of Canterbury. He listens well. He thinks deeply in conversation. He keeps his sense of humor. He's got a breadth of Biblical and historical vision in mind when he thinks. He talked about the sixty years it took the church to accept NIcaea.

He is also emphatically NOT a warrior-politicians, which may be another facet of what we want, need, or hope for. In the afternoon session before we met, I heard how exasperated his English clergy and lay friends were at Rowan over pulling the rug out from under Bishop Tom Butler in Southwark when (as they reported it) the threat of American-funded litigation without end pushed Rowan to overturn Butler's disciplining of a priest for bringing in "Church of England South Africa" bishops to do ordinations in Southwark. Church of England South Africa is not Desmond Tutu's Anglican Church South Africa, but a racist group that went schismatic to keep the church white when our Anglican church began taking a strong and very risky justice stand in the apartheid era. (One of our Afro-Anglican participants said that there was a Boer expression, "Beware the Church of the Romans, Beware the Church of the English," after the two Archbishops made a courageous public stand against the miscengenation, announcing from the steps of the Anglican Cathedral in Johannesberg that any RC or CofE clergy person who consented to the documentation required by the state in the marriage law would be deposed. Some bishops are warrior-politicians. In Southwark, Rowan caved to pressure, and we heard how disappointed his friends have been at his handling of crisis and threat from the right (very like the Jeffrey Johns business).

All that said, as dinner began I felt grateful to be part of it and wished our whole church could engage him this way, a few at a time. All the grace of the teacher and good listener was there. We raised our questions and challenges and he listened carefully, worked with us, thought with us. It felt full of hope and promise. And yet, here's the specter of Windsor. I believe Rowan does understand Windsor to be a call for conversation. He doesn't reproach people who put other spins on it. He doesn't stand down Peter Akinola for calling our APLM churches (US/Canada) a cancer. And he seems genuinely puzzled that, as he hears it, the American Church hasn't responded. Is this a failure to comprehend our system? He knows American groups, delegations, voices, and theologians have responded. How do we tell him that (and our legislative actions) are how we talk?
I've got some thoughts of my own, but would rather wait and hear from some of you first.


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