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.
"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
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
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
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
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."