Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Three Hats, Three Corners, and a Possible Impasse

Immediately after the election of Mary Glasspool as a bishop in Los Angeles, I received some email that heaped vitriol on Rowan Williams for his immediate and open opposition to TEC's going forward, while remaining silent on the proposed legislation that would make homosexuality a capital offense in Uganda.

The pastoral needs of TEC are self-evident and Mary Glasspool's election is a response to that need. Each church in the Anglican Communion has unique problems and must make unique responses to them. What TEC has done is 'prophetic' but if one bothers to read the bible, one finds that it is unrealistic to act prophetically and then expect to be loved and accepted (much less adored, which is what TEC seems to want).

TEC has its cake and now wants to eat it; some of the reactions of its members and officials are those of a spoilt brat. Subtlety is not its strong point. One cannot expect TEC to go backward, but equally, TEC cannot expect to escape the consequences of its self-absorbed heedlessness (which seems to be a large element in this 'prophetic' step) towards the larger situation in which it is involved.

The Anglican Communion is a voluntary gathering of churches that look to Canterbury as its point of unity. The structure and purpose of this organization is currently in flux. Furthermore, the very foundations on which it presumes (and there is a lot of presumption in the worst British sense of the word) to stake its identity are increasingly being called into question by a greater knowledge of history of the early church (see 'An Opportunity' posted here two weeks ago.) In effect, everything is up for grabs. As the degree of incline of the ship's rolling gets steeper, the screaming gets louder. It would be better if all this energy were devoted to finding a way to live together than to excoriate and demonize one another.

The claims about 'apostolic succession' so dear to TEC bishops who absurdly address one another in official correspondence as "dear successor to Apostles" are simply not true, except in the sense that all Christians share in the lineage of baptism and Eucharist. So-called apostolic succession, like the creeds, is far more about compromise with and pacification of the Empire than it is about the gospel. TEC does not seem about to adjust to what is true, but rather continue in its self-congratulatory, increasingly narcissistic and self-affirming "experience"-based adventure that has less and less to do with the gospels and more and more to do with the mall and the world of entertainment.

At some point it will have to choose between experience and the vision of God—if indeed the point of no return has not already been reached. When will it realize that 'experience' based living objectifies the world to suit its subjectivity, while destroying the possibility of the emergence of a true subject? Read Martin Buber (in I and Thou) on experience if you doubt what you read here. Christianity is about self-forgetfulness, not self-absorption. The squawking from TEC masks a particular set of problems which it needs to address; its complaints most certainly do not have the righteous base it would like the world to think it does. 'Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons' is a phrase that comes to mind. The posturing does not become it; nor does its destructive lack of reflection and distaste for subtlety.

The future of the Anglican Communion depends on such subtlety as, indeed, does the human race.

Rowan Williams wears at least three hats. He is the head of the Anglican Communion; he is Archbishop of Canterbury, covering the southern half of Britain, as well as being first among equals with the Archbishop of York. Additionally he is Bishop of Canterbury. He has a seat in the House of Lords. He is also a scholar, a diplomat, and an extremely private person. Rarely do all if any of these roles converge. He is scrupulous in keeping them separate, while being equally scrupulous about his integrity—it requires real genius to effect such a stance. Unfortunately his critics fail to appreciate this state of affairs.

As head of the Anglican Communion he needs to keep the conversation going, to keep members of the flock talking no matter how much they may disagree, to desire to go off in a huff, or kick some of the others out. So while he might as a private person, for example, favour Mary Glasspool's election (I do not know this to be either true or untrue), as Head of the Anglican Communion he must stick to the policy of restraint counselled by the recent Lambeth Conference and respond accordingly.

This election in LA comes at a time when Uganda is struggling to stem a tide of apocalypse. The threat of making homosexuality a capital offence (one has the feeling that the pressure for this legislation is coming from the top, in part from an increasingly embattled if not psychopathological Akinola) is symptomatic of scapegoating a far deeper turmoil, the aftermath of internal warfare, terrorism, violence, corruption and a sequence of horrors that stretch back forty years to Idi Amin, not to mention an AIDS epidemic that is out of control. Uganda is a country always on the edge of chaos; its citizens face a day-to-day struggle to stay alive that is inconceivable to Episcopalian Americans, who seem interested only in their self-image and their 'rights'.

Africa and Africans are quite rightly still very touchy about the colonial past, and extremely sensitive to the patronizing attitudes of white people, particularly Westerners. A wrong-footed declaration against the Ugandan legislation would more than likely provoke a reaction that would not only hasten its passage but perhaps make it even more wide-ranging than it already proposes to be.

I recently had the privilege of attending an ice cream social in a fairly strict Mennonite home (in America), a home distinguished by its simplicity and joy. Unfortunately this atmosphere was marred by a visiting elder, not very well educated, as po-faced and smooth a churchman as any Barchester cleric. His attitude was a left-over from the Raj. I was unsurprised when he told me that a Mennonite venture in which he had been involved that sought to bring a well to a remote African village had failed due to the resistance of the populace to doing the installation work even after all the equipment was delivered. This elder was, by God, going to force on Africans his idea of what Africans were and what they needed; he reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible. It was an example of the Africans' struggle to preserve human dignity in the face of the missionaries' degrading attitude towards them. The former would rather go without the well than engage in the shuffling and grinning that the latter expected of them. The negotiations were doomed to failure before they even began.

Anyone who had stopped to think (not something Americans are good at) would have realized that Rowan's silence on the subject of the proposed Ugandan legislation must have meant that there is a lot going on behind the scenes, a fact confirmed in today's papers. The rush to judgement to condemn Rowan for not speaking out immediately on this proposed legislation is not only short-sighted; it is simply stupid, just as stupid as wanting to be loved and adored for having elected Mary Glasspool.

If you're going to do something that might make sense in the smaller perspective but that is risky, if not defiant of or injurious to the reality in the larger perspective, then do it and take your lumps. It's TEC's outrage at not being internationally loved and adored for what it has done that is part of what is so repellent about this whole affair.

Realpolitik is a long way from the world of instantaneous reaction demanded by the media, that is operative in the cartoon world that life in the USA increasingly resembles, or that is essential to operating the computer games to which Americans seem increasingly addicted.

Unfortunately Americans, including, or maybe especially, members of TEC, are not known either for their restraint or their sense of the common good. Every issue is all about me, me, me and my real or imagined right; most of about my feeling good. Such attitudes are neither Christian nor even civilized. As Joseph Conrad showed us, one of civilization's most distinguishing marks is restraint. So while the TEC attitude towards same-sex oriented people may be civilized at one level, its unthinking, jingoistic, in-your-face, Dubya way of going about forcing its attitudes on other countries where the issue is enmeshed in an unimaginably complex situation is, in fact, counter-productive: it polarizes the situation, raises the stakes, makes all negotiations more complex and difficult for all involved, especially for Rowan Williams.

Last summer I had a conversation with an American clergywoman who has a thriving parish, is a bigwig in the diocese—and is going to take early retirement. "How long do you think it [TEC] will take to die?" was her opening gambit over lunch. "It will be long and slow, and accompanied a lot of whining," I responded, "but it is certainly not the context into which I made my vows." Nor was it for her, she said; nor is it for a (male) member of one of the most respected Anglican religious orders, as revealed in a conversation I had here in the UK yesterday evening.

There is so much that is basic to religion that has gone missing from TEC (and the C of E) that it is hard to know any longer what it is or what purpose it serves. It is rare, and getting rarer, that I go in to an Episcopal church and am able to stay and pray in community—there is no community, and there is no worship in the sense that going to church is a support for seeking and engaging the vision of God. Much of what passes for liturgy is repellent, banal ego-massage, reflecting the attitudes discussed in the post "Reader Query III" August 31, 2009 on this blog.

The unwarranted criticisms of Rowan that I have received in the last week are far more reflective of the decline of TEC than they are either of the situation they purport to comment on, or they are of him. If Americans want to know why they are often despised abroad, this recent spate of members of TEC shooting themselves in the foot by unthinking criticism of Rowan over the LA election and the Uganda situation should show them why. These knee-jerk reactions don't help to alleviate homophobia; they only inflame it. They don't help TEC's position in the Anglican Communion or an outsider's perception of it; they make TEC look ridiculous and eminently dismissable.

To be fair, there is a polite clergy correspondent in this morning's Times who makes the same error as my correspondents from America: why can't Rowan use his considerable spiritual authority to impose the correct viewpoints on the dim fundamentalists and Anglo-Catholics? So be comforted, TEC Americans; the C of E Brits can be just as unreflective as you.

Some weeks ago Rowan participated in a BBC programme called "Something Understood". Unfortunately I can't find it in the BBC archives or I'd recommend listening. The programme was on silence, and at one point Rowan said to the interviewer with a sigh (not a direct quote), 'Sometimes I sit in liturgies and think, why don't we all just shut up for a while?'


Blogger Bo said...

I second this---but am in the complacent and blissful position of not being obliged to care WHAT the bloody Anglican Communion does, one way or the other.

10:16 pm, December 15, 2009  
Blogger m11pilgrim said...


You can find the Something understood interview at

11:11 pm, December 22, 2009  
Blogger m11pilgrim said...

You can find the something understood interview at

11:13 pm, December 22, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The dilemma is that there is a very real danger to Ugandans, straight and gay alike, posed by the legislation, which penalizes not only homosexuality but also neglect to report *suspected* homosexuality in others to the authorities. (See the final quote here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/world/africa/04uganda.html). A very difficult call indeed.

4:13 pm, January 04, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

@ mojnun

Yes, the danger is real, and the crisis was caused by some American fundamentalists who went to Uganda to give workshops and conferences on the evils of homosexuality and how it was a threat to families and children. . . .hence the over-reaction, as these are among the highest values for Ugandans.

I rather think fundamentalism Christian or otherwise is one of the most dangerous forces on the planet, inimical to all life, physical, spiritual, human, animal.

10:43 am, January 05, 2010  

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