by Charles Raven
February 15, 2010
Last Wednesday's vote in the English General Synod to 'recognize and affirm the desire of those who have formed the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) to remain within the Anglican family' was a very positive step forward. Although rather reserved in comparison to Lorna Ashworth's original motion 'That this Synod express the desire that the Church of England be in communion with the Anglican Church in North America', it is clearly a setback for TEC's desire to maintain a monopoly on the Anglican 'brand' in the United States and opens up the possibility of formal recognition in the future.
But taking part in a BBC television debate yesterday about the future of the Anglican Communion (of which more below) brought home to me that the theological truth of the 'fork in the road' embodied in the GAFCON Jerusalem Statement and Declaration of 2008 needs to be kept crystal clear if this process of recognition is going to bear good fruit and not be terminally compromised by institutionalists.
Part of Rowan Williams' appeal is that he persistently seeks to offer a 'third way' which appears to avoid liberal and conservative polarities and his Presidential address to Synod was one of the clearest statements yet of that Hegelian commitment to synthesis which informs his theology - and provides a rationale for perpetual conversation while ungodly disorder goes unchecked.
He used the device of inviting Synod to adopt a 'three dimensional' approach, no doubt suggested by the highly popular 3D film 'Avatar'. However, everyone knows that the film is fiction and the 3D effect is simply that - an effect. It is not reality and likewise what Rowan Williams is offering is a fiction in 3D - that there is a third dimension which will allow everyone to live together without sacrificing their integrity.
When standing firm on biblical truth involves going against the grain of wider society and continual abrasion within the Church, it is very understandable that the possibility of a middle way will appeal to many who hold orthodox views and even defend them. Yesterday morning I experienced at first hand both the appeal and the danger of '3D' Anglicanism. I was a participant in the BBC's Sunday morning live television show 'The Big Questions' which asked 'Should the Anglican Church Divide?' Others taking part included Lorna Ashworth, despite her gruelling week in General Synod, the writer and broadcaster Anne Atkins, well known in the UK for her robust defence of orthodox Christian values, and Colin Coward, veteran gay activist and General Secretary of the Christian gay advocacy network 'Changing Attitude'.
Inevitably, much of the discussion focussed on homosexuality. While Lorna Ashworth, in opposition to Colin Coward, was entirely clear that same sex relationships contradict the Church's core doctrine, Anne Atkins went out of her way to make it clear that despite their differences she was happy to belong to a church which could also accommodate Colin Coward. And that in essence is the problem with '3D' Anglicanism - a Church that could embrace both Coward and Atkins could also embrace both TEC and the ACNA.
Because of its attractiveness and plausibility, it is important to see that Rowan Williams' third dimension is not simply a matter of balance, generosity, or even of studied ambiguity. It is a systematic destabilisation of orthodox belief built on a half truth. The essential point seems to be that
'Seeing something in three dimensions is seeing that I can't see everything at once: what's in front of me is not just the surface I see in this particular moment. So seeing in three dimensions requires us to take time with what we see.'
Now as a warning that beyond simple stereotypes we should take time to understand people in their own terms it would be difficult to disagree with. But in the context of at least twenty years of public debate about homosexuality in the Church on both sides of the North Atlantic, being told there is more than I can see 'in this particular moment' is really saying 'trust me'. It implies that beyond what looks like the 'yes or no' (thesis and antithesis) there is something more we haven't yet seen. And either the Archbishop knows what that unseen thing is, but is not willing to say so, or he himself doesn't know and is asking us to suspend judgement as an act of faith in his Hegelian ecclesiology.
Either way, as time goes on it is clear that less and less of his fellow Primates are prepared to extend that trust, Dr Mouneer Anis being the latest example. However, the heart of the problem for the orthodox is this - suspending judgement in this context is not to do with their personal opinions, but with what has been held through the centuries and reaffirmed as recently as 1998 by the Lambeth Conference to be the judgement of Scripture (despite Resolution 1.10 being assiduously spun to give a basis for the spurious 'listening process). This becomes clearer when Rowan Williams goes on to explain the
'simpler sense of three-dimensionality which just reminds us that the other we meet is the person he or she is, not the person we have created in our fantasies. The priest from Forward in Faith finds himself going to a woman priest for spiritual counsel because he has recognised an authenticity in her ministry from which he can be enriched...'
It is not entirely clear if that specific example is real or imaginary, but be that as it may, 'the person he or she is' clearly includes their beliefs and this is where the destabilisation inherent in '3D' Anglicanism becomes clear. If a person who believes that same sex relationships are incompatible with the sovereign authority of Scripture in the Church is called nonetheless to suspend judgement, that person is no longer being recognised as 'the person he or she is'.
Paradoxically, the plea for 'three dimensionality' actually diminishes such a person as it tries to seduce them into a relativistic fantasy in which truth and falsehood can co-exist. The continuing tragedy of TEC illustrates the reality. False teaching has its own dynamic; it drives out the faithful as syncretism subverts the whole Christian tradition. But in Rowan Williams' version of 3D the ACNA looks like a member of the same family as TEC, even if initially a rather distant relative.