I have promised a few people some thoughts on Archbishop Rowan Williams’ reflections on General Convention, “Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future.” Before getting to that, and by way of introduction, I want to offer some more general thoughts, in part based upon the very limited conversation I had with the Archbishop during General Convention. Not only did it help me to understand him better (as I hope it did, and hope it did him me), but it also helped me better to grasp some of the points on which the two of us approach issues of the Communion from somewhat different directions. So I promise I will get to a detailed examination of his reflections on GC, but in this first post address some aspects of the Archbishop which I think make it somewhat easier to grasp his sometimes vague and always nuanced meaning. Some of these aspects don’t fit into the usual mode of American progressive thinking — or conservative thinking, for that matter — and this leads, in my opinion, to misunderstandings on all sides.
The Tragic View of Life
First of all, Rowan Williams does not shy away from pain and difficulty. He has a very mature understanding of the church and its dynamics — that there is an undeniably Paschal and sometimes tragic aspect to the life of the church and its struggles. He is well aware of the “toil and tribulation and tumult of her war,” and believes that this is something that the church must work through. Much as he might like, as a sensible human being, to avoid pain and difficulty, he knows the truth of the old rabbinic saying, “no pain, no gain,” and the gospel concept, “no cross, no crown.”
I have used the word quixotic to describe this in the past, and fear I have been misunderstood. I do not mean that Rowan Williams is like Don Quixote in the comical, satirical sense; but rather in that kind of wild and tragic nobility that faces the dark, satanic windmills of the powers of this world in the knowledge that whether they are giants or not they can still be dangerous to life and limb — if one chooses to tangle with them.
This tragic or elegiac view of things seems to me to have a particularly British underpinning. Let us not forget that Rowan is Welsh, a poet, and named for one of the most magical of all trees. There is a kind of brooding melancholy of what another poet Williams (Charles) called “the Druid woods,” to Rowan’s character, relieved by a sparkling wit from time to time — these two aspects together being a hallmark of the Bard. At times I wish that Rowan could move away from the tragic a bit to see the whole story more in the way that sunny Italian Dante did, as a divine comedy, with a happy ending after all. Still, this Paschal attitude gives Rowan the capacity to endure a great deal of difficulty, ambiguity, tension, and imperfection — things which progressives tend to find annoying and reactionaries unacceptable — and which his office as Archbishop of Canterbury in this particular age provides him an ample supply.
A Scholar’s Way
It should go without saying that Rowan has a scholar’s mind. He is accustomed to the quasi-monastic life of academia, in which people have to get along with each other even though they may have radically differing philosophies or beliefs. This urge towards a collegial life is reflected in his longing for an Anglican Covenant, and a Communion bound more tightly not by unanimity of opinion or even uniformity of action, but by a truly radical desire to stay together even in the midst of disagreements. It is utterly wrong to think that Rowan is more upset with the Episcopal Church than he is with Gafcon — schism and division are the things he dislikes most of all, and he is bending over backwards to find a way to hold things together in dynamic tension. (One may think him foolish to try to hold such differing views together; but there you have it. Perhaps he is also wise enough to be a Holy Fool, for Christ’s sake? Scholars make the best Fools.
As a scholar, Rowan also attempts to be very precise; sometimes too precise for his own good. He chooses his words carefully, and I suggest the greatest disservice done to him, in various readings of his reactions to General Convention, is the tendency to paraphrase or summarize or expand what he says in directions that seem to me clearly at odds with his actual intent, based on close and careful reading. People think they know what he means and so massage what he says to fit that predetermined meaning — this is never a good thing in communication, but with someone as subtle and careful as Rowan it is disastrous.
A Truth Teller
Finally, Rowan brings these previous aspects of his personality and skill-set to bear in attempting to “tell it like it is.” Sometimes, in so speaking, people seem to think he is talking about how things ought to be. For example, when Rowan says that some action or other is going to have consequences or create difficulties, he is not necessarily saying that the action should not happen — remember my first point about the Paschal nature of the church. It is not that he’s Hegelian — he’s not predicting a final synthesis; but he is observing that if such-and-such happens, there will be difficulties — and we will have to work through them. Thus his language is more descriptive than prescriptive. What some are reading as a stop-sign is more correctly understood as “Dangerous Curves Ahead.”
I will end this first section of my comments on Rowan here, with the concept of Truth — as I hope to say a bit more about that in the next blog post.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG