Rowan Williams, Decision-making and Bonhoeffer

18/11/2007 17:27

A comment piece by Andrew Brown on the travails of the Anglican Communion and Rowan Williams in particular refers to his address to the last Lambeth Conference (although I think a better analysis of the Archbishop’s position which also cites this paper is, I think, that of Marshall Montgomery on his blog back in August last year).

It is a piece worth reading in full and, thankfully, is online at the ACO site as part of the background papers to the Lambeth Commission -

Address at Lambeth Plenary on making moral decisions - July 22, 1998 - Prof. Rowan Williams Bishop of Monmouth, Wales

The report at the time stated

In an address that prompted rousing applause and a standing ovation from participants, Bishop Rowan Williams (Monmouth, Wales) offered a concluding focus on how the Church could make moral decisions. He reminded his colleagues that making decisions is not as simple as “being faced with a series of clear alternatives, as if we were standing in front of the supermarket shelf". Decisions, instead, are “coloured” by the sort of decision-maker. “The choice is not made by a will operating in the abstract, but by someone who is used to thinking and imagining in a certain way.” He referred to the writing of Welsh philosopher Rush Rhees and British Catholic theologian and moralist Herbert McCabe and summarised their points by stating “[it is] not that ethics is a matter of the individual’s likes or dislikes...On the contrary, it is a difficult discovering of something about yourself, a discovering of what has already shaped the person you are and is moulding you in this or that direction.”

The address is also available on the site of the Anglican Theological Review in which it appeared in Spring 1999 along with an interesting piece by my ACI colleague, Philip Turner, entitled "The "communion" of Anglicans after Lambeth ’98: A comment on the nature of communion and the state of the Church"

A version of it also appears in Robin Gill’s Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics from which I’ve used parts of it in teaching ethics to ordinands.

The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics (Cambridge Companions to Religion)

The Archbishop returned to some of these themes from Bonhoeffer in his Speech at the Opening of the International Bonhoeffer Conference in February 2006 and a sermon in his honour at the same time. In the former he said

‘Is church union and fellowship in the Word and Sacrament created by the Holy Spirit, or is it the union of all well-disposed, honourable, pious Christians whether their observances be German Christian, that of the church committees or that of the Confessing Church? Is church union founded only on the truth of the Gospel or on a love uncontrolled by the question of truth?’ (The Way to Freedom, 112) This is how Bonhoeffer phrases the challenge in 1936, in a paper in which he argues that the whole idea of ‘confession’, taking a stand for truth at the cost of visible unity, needs to be revisited by the Protestant churches in the context of a new threat to Christian integrity. The notion of a status confessionis in the Reformation era is precisely about letting the Church be judged by Scripture, about the Church’s radical readiness for self-criticism; thus the historic confessions cannot just be turned into timeless deposits of truth independent of the Scriptures to which they point. And the Scriptures in a new situation may demand of us a new determination of the Church’s limits. The principle of confession both requires us to recognise that there may be occasions when visible unity matters less than fidelity - and that the point at which this becomes a question will not necessarily be the same from age to age.

It is an uncomfortable message for anyone committed to ecumenism. Just as culture and piety are put into perspective by the immediacy of a threat to the very integrity of the gospel, so is church unity. Yet it is a very difficult discernment that is called for here. It is not that division in the Church is imperative for the sake of some abstract truth; Bonhoeffer is cautious about whether the Reformation disputes over the Eucharist are now quite what the churches should be giving priority to. The issue is whether the gospel of God’s action - and the reality of God’s action - can be manifest and effective. As with the questions about culture and piety, this challenge too requires us to think very carefully about what might constitute a ‘pseudo-church’ - not just a church that teaches erroneous doctrine but one that in its actions and words denies the grace of God.

So that, as with our earlier categories, we have to recognise a question that unsettles both the liberal and the conservative, and which should prompt all engaged in interchurch dialogue to reflect on what it is that might make a pseudo-church. And to answer that, we need not a more exact calibration of the purity of other Christian groups but first a freedom for self-criticism in the presence of Scripture and secondly a keen eye for what is challenging the Church in the contemporary world and what menaces its integrity in this particular environment.

At Lambeth in 1988 he continued with words even more pertinent to where TEC and the Communion now stand

When I reluctantly continue to share the Church’s communion with someone whose moral judgement I deeply disagree with, I do so in the knowledge that for both of us part of the cost is that we have to sacrifice a straightforward confidence in our ’purity’. Being in the Body means that we are touched by one another’s commitments and thus by one another’s failures. If another Christian comes to a different conclusion and decides in different ways from myself, and if I can still recognise their discipline and practice as sufficiently like mine to sustain a conversation, this leaves my own decisions to some extent under question I cannot have absolute subjective certainty that this is the only imaginable reading of the tradition; I need to keep my reflections under critical review. This, I must emphasise again, is not a form of relativism; it is a recognition of the element of putting oneself at risk that is involved in any serious decision making or any serious exercise of discernment (as any pastor or confessor will know). But this is only part of the implication of recognising the differences and risks of decision-making in the Body of Christ. If I conclude that my Christian brother or sister is deeply and damagingly mistaken in their decision, I accept for myself the brokenness in the Body that this entails. These are my wounds; just as the one who disagrees with me is wounded by what they consider my failure or even betrayal. So long as we still have a language in common and the ’grammar of obedience’ in common, we have, I believe, to turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and to embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided. The communion’s need for health and mercy is inseparable from my own need for health and mercy. To remain in communion is to remain in solidarity with those who I believe are wounded as well as wounding the Church, in the trust that in the Body of Christ the confronting of wounds is part of opening ourselves to healing.

The implications of this are spelled out in words that doubtless are shaping his response to the current crisis and the issue of Lambeth invitations:

Unity at all costs is indeed not a Christian goal; our unity is Christ-shaped, or it is empty. Yet our first call, so long as we can think of ourselves as still speaking the same language, is to stay in engagement with those who decide differently. This, I have suggested, means living with the awareness that the Church, and I as part of it, share not only in grace but in failure; and thus staying alongside those on the other side, in the hope that we may still be exchanging gifts - the gift of Christ - in some ways, for one another’s healing.

The seriousness of the current situation, however, is clear from one of his other appeals to a common language or ’grammar of obedience’ - his contribution in 2005 to the General Synod debate on Windsor when, in reflections on unity and truth, he said

We all know that there are some moments when the church, or parts of the church, take risks. They speak for a church that which doesn’t yet exist, so they believe, out of a conscience informed by scripture and revelation. At the Reformation, our church and many others took that kind of risk. and we have to be candid, in our decision to ordain women to the priesthood we engage in something of that sort of risk. The trouble is, that risk really is risk. You don’t and you can’t know yet whether it’s justified. The church is capable of error and any local church is capable of error, as the Thirty-Nine Articles remind us forcibly. So if one portion of the church decides that it must take a conscientious risk, then there are inevitable results to that. There are consequences in hurt, misunderstanding, rupture and damage. It does us no good to pretend that the cost is not real. So I don’t think it will quite do say, if anyone does really say this, that a risky act ought to have or can have no consequences.

Of course it does and we are dealing with those consequences now. There is when such a risky act is taken that there is or there will be the church’s act or decision. We don’t know, and meanwhile the effects are serious and they are hurtful. And part of the cost involved in the repercussions of recent events is, I think, that it has weakened if not destroyed the sense that we are actually talking the same language within the Anglican Communion. Rightly or wrongly, and there will be very different views in this chamber on this subject, that has been what has happened. People are no longer confident that we are speaking the same language, appealing to the same criteria in out theological debates. And the deep lost-ness and confusion that arises from that and the anger that arises from that is something that does not in any sense help the long- term health of the body or our search for truth together in the Body.

That these connections between unity, Bonhoeffer and Lambeth 2008 are real is clear from his March 2006 interview with the Guardian which included the following exchange -

The guest list for the 2008 Lambeth Conference presents Williams with a very great headache. It is surely inconceivable that he would ban Bishop Gene Robinson (the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire) from attending while extending the warm hand of welcome to Messrs Akinola and Malango. At what point does Williams bump up against the irreducible core of his socially liberal values and decide there is something more valuable than unity?

He reaches for a rather startling historical parallel. "It’s a dangerous comparison, because it sort of ups the stakes a bit, but I’m very struck by what (the German theologian) Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in the middle 30s about the division of the Church over the Aryan laws in Nazi Germany."

The reference is to the split in the German Church when the Confessing Church - a breakaway group of German Lutheran (Evangelical) Christians - split from the state Lutheran Church’s support of Hitler. The leaders were persecuted - Bonhoeffer was hanged - and in 1939 the movement was suppressed until the end of the war.

"Bonhoeffer says both that it’s extremely important not to try and work out in advance every circumstance in which it would be necessary for the church to break, and that it’s important to have the freedom and the clarity to know when the moment comes, and there just isn’t a formula for that, I think he’s saying.

"He felt in 1935 the moment had come, that he was faced with a context in which he just couldn’t see a common Christianity between himself and the German Christians who accepted the racial laws. He just couldn’t see what it meant for them to think they were a church at all. That’s pretty drastic, but he says you’ve got to have the ability to say that at some point ... I wrestle with that text constantly, I must say."

Williams recently took part in services to mark Bonhoeffer’s centenary in Germany and Poland and says these texts "were sort of pounding in my head". So there might come a moment when he decided the Anglican communion could no longer be held together? "There might come a moment where you say, ’We can’t continue, we can’t continue with this.’ I don’t know when or if."

It is a signal of the difficulty of reading Williams, that there is confusion about how the analogy plays out in his mind - ie, which side in the present near-schism mirrors the Confessing Church of Bonhoeffer? Liberals might assume that Williams would finally break with the Africans and conservative evangelicals. But close Rowan-watchers believe the reverse is true.

They point to a meeting at Lambeth in September 2003 between Williams and six American conservatives who were planning to split their church - plans now rather further advanced. In the course of this, Williams suggested that they call themselves "The Network of Confessing Dioceses and Parishes". One of the American delegation later claimed that Williams had not only suggested the name, but linked it explicitly to Bonhoeffer’s struggle.

If this interpretation is right, it suggests that Williams may be mentally preparing for the possibility of siding with the African churches and the conservative evangelicals rather than the liberals within the Anglican Communion. In any event, the time left for contemplation and constructive ambiguity may be short.

The Archbishop has had another 18 months since then for ’contemplation and constructive ambiguity’. There can be little doubt that there has been much of the former and that Bonhoeffer is one of the saints who will have guided his thinking and praying. The time now is very short and whatever is done will have to be constructive rather than marked by ambiguity. We can, however, probably be clear that whatever is said by the Archbishop in the next few weeks about Lambeth 2008 as we enter Advent it will not seek to be a final word which brings the tensions and the need for ongoing dialogue and listening to an end. As Humphrey Southern concludes in his interesting study of the Archbishop’s theology from back in 2003 - The Impossibility of the Last Word: The Theology of Rowan Williams -

"Oppression", wrote Archbishop Rowan in the essay entitled ‘Remorse’ in his book Lost Icons, "is a situation where people don’t talk to each other; where people don’t find each other difficult". We are certainly at a point in the history of our Communion when some of us are finding each other "difficult" (to say the least of it!) and it may be that some will feel that the only way out of the difficulty will be by closing down the conversation. I do not believe that Rowan Williams will be happy to see that "last word" moment arrive and I, for one, will be one of those praying earnestly that it does not.


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