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July 27, 2002
Column #1091

Will the New Archbishop of Canterbury Be Divisive?

     This week Welsh Archbishop Rowan Williams was named the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of 100 million Anglicans in dozens of nations.

     Was he chosen in an election by their representatives?

     No. He was the personal choice of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. According to Anglican tradition, the government selects the spiritual leader. It is as if the next Pope were chosen not by the College of Cardinals representing the worldwide Catholic Church - but by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Not even the 20 Anglican bishops who sit in the House of Lords had a voice.

     What did Blair admire? His evangelical zeal? Hardly. There are only 45,000 practicing Anglicans in Wales, out of 3 million residents. His intellect? Yes. Williams speaks seven languages, has written 14 books, and is the only person to have been Professor of Theology at both Oxford and Cambridge. He is also as charming and humble as he is brilliant. 

     More importantly, "Williams reflects the viewpoint of Tony Blair," on such issues as homosexuality said retired U.S. Bishop William Wantland. "Secular opinion and New Age theology now firmly control the church."

     Williams has ordained a man who he knew had a homosexual partner "in the background." Williams explained, "I am not convinced that a homosexual has to be celibate in every imaginable circumstance." He acknowledges, "I start with nil credibility with the evangelicals."

     Indeed, most Anglicans in the world disagree with him. .

     When word leaked out in June that Williams was likely to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, leading evangelicals and conservatives swiftly urged Blair to reconsider. In a letter to the Prime Minister, conservatives wrote, "Such actions and views fly in the face of the clear teaching of Holy Scripture." They charged that "Williams would not have the confidence of the vast majority of Anglicans in the world, who, as loyal Anglicans, take the Holy Scriptures as their supreme authority. His appointment would lead to a major split in the Anglican Communion."

     That sounds alarmist, but is conceivable. Nigeria alone has 18 million Anglicans, or six times that of Canada and the United States (where Anglicans are called Episcopalians). There are more black Anglicans in Africa than whites in Europe and North America. Entire African animist and Muslim villages come to Christ on a weekly basis, while England has only 1.2 million of 36 million nominal Anglicans attending church.

     To most of the world's Anglicans, ordaining practicing homosexuals, or marrying them, is unthinkable. In 1998, these issues were debated by bishops from the worldwide Anglican Communion. By a stunning vote of 527 to 69, they opposed "legitimatizing or blessing of same sex unions" and "ordaining those involved in same gender unions." But those bishops had no voice in choosing Williams.

     "The choice of a white liberal is provincial and racist for a church that is predominantly nonwhite, under 30 and female," says David Virtue, director of a widely read website,

     Further, the vote had no binding effect. The issue remains profoundly divisive. In 2000, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to say couples "living in life-long committed relationships" could have a "holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God." 

     What's wrong with that? It is wishful thinking. 

     One U.S. bishop said that as a pastor in four churches over 30 years, all of which had gay and lesbian couples, "There were only two pairs who were in faithful, monogamous relationships. Among the others were some who were exploitative, some abusive and all the others were promiscuous." 

     Some conservative U.S. Episcopal churches with revisionist bishops have asked for pastoral oversight by orthodox bishops. That was endorsed by Anglican primates (Archbishops) leading 28 nations. Yet the bishop of Pennsylvania refused such oversight and is in litigation with three parishes. Others left the diocese and the Episcopal Church.

     One Canadian diocese voted in June to develop a rite for the blessing of same-sex unions. Thirteen conservative Canadian bishops argued it was "in conflict with the moral teaching of Holy Scripture and the tradition of the universal Church." Nine parishes asked for outside episcopal oversight, and three primates are flying in.

     The biggest division is between the western industrialized North and the Global South - Africa, Asia and Latin America. David Virtue fears the elevation of Archbishop Williams "may well mark the beginning of the end of the Anglican Communion, as we know it." Most southern primates have been silent. Peter Akinola, the primate of Nigeria, says of Williams, "I wish him well. My hope is that he will prove his detractors wrong."


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