The Communion After Williams

Written by:
Monday, March 26th, 2012

Rowan Williams’ formal announcement of his resignation at the end of the year as Archbishop of Canterbury comes as no surprise.  Well-sourced public rumors had been circulating for some months. It will take time to provide an accurate assessment of his tenure.  He came to the position as the most highly touted Anglican theologian in generations.  And although it would be wrong to place him above the level of any previous archbishops on this score – one thinks of Anselm, Baldwin, Thomas Bradwardine, John Peckham, Cranmer, Wake, Temple, Ramsey – his wide-ranging mind, prolific output, and previous academic influences meant that his new bully-pulpit would engage a broad intellectual front for the church in novel ways.  Indeed, Williams’ many lectures and papers, interviews and statements, even a few books, over the past decade have generated public debate of an unexpectedly broad and passionate engagement. Throughout the well-documented Anglican struggles of these years, furthermore, Williams has provided subtle and provocative theological reflection on relevant matters that have, at least in theory, shown these events to be about more than church politics.  At certain key times, e.g. with respect to the Sudan and Zimbabwe, he has courageously engaged unjust civil powers on behalf of defenseless peoples and churches.  His own deep faith and disciplined spiritual life and commitments have shown through his public witness repeatedly.

Williams’ resignation, however, seems an admission of failure on his part.  In this case, the failure is twofold.  First, there is his loss of authority in the Church of England, where his attempts at brokering a compromise on women bishops and his advocacy on behalf of the Church of England’s adoption of the Anglican Covenant are both poised for rejection. Williams’ unpersuasive leadership on this front has weighed heavily on his office.   But second, and more deep-rooted and perhaps consequential, is Williams’ perceived failure with respect to the Anglican Communion’s integrity of common life.

When it comes to the Communion’s conflicted provinces, Williams has voiced a consistent commitment to the voluntary self-restraint on controversial actions by member churches, for the sake of ongoing communion.  This he did through personal appeals, counting on the intrinsic persuasiveness of his exhortations.  But this proved from the start insufficient, and Williams’ reluctance ever to go beyond such a method of personal persuasion gave rise, without let-up or intervention, to quickly accumulating breaks in communion life. .  He seemed increasingly to have been left standing on the sidelines of church struggles, ignored by participants.

That the “participants” themselves have never ceased pressing their own views in often politically unsettling ways has not been Williams’ fault.  But he seems never to have grasped what was needed pragmatically in the face of the irreconcilable positions on the topic of sexuality and Scripture held by the mostly Western Anglo-American churches on one side and the mostly Global South churches on the other. .  He was simply mistaken if he ever thought each could compromise their convictions consistently over time enough to stay together.   There was, however, a real alternative to unimpeded fragmentation: this would have been a strict procedural discipline, based on the current structures of the Communion’s common counsel.

Yet it was just here that Williams was unable to commit himself clearly, to allow “his yes to be yes and his no to be no”.  For reasons that remain unclear, Williams refused to use his own powerful office and formal role as convener, chair, or president of various Communion structures to act upon the general counsel of Communion leaders.  Time and again decisions were reached – among Primates, by designated commissions, at Lambeth Conference even – to follow a certain course of action, yet the Archbishop failed publicly to press these decisions to their disciplinary conclusion.  The choreography of Lambeth 2008, which did everything to irritate and even insult both sides of the divide and nothing to address the issues openly and directly, was a deflating experience of lost opportunities.  The 2009 ACC meeting, which he allowed, as president, publicly to overstep procedural norms and expectations, represented a nadir of institutional dysfunction, which instigated a practical abandonment of the Instruments of Communion by many bishops.  It also subverted, in the eyes of many, the Covenant process he had done so much to encourage, yet then allowed to drift and dangle.

All the while, the dynamics of autonomous division have continued apace.  The numerical and financial implosions of many of the Western churches during this time, with ominous signs ahead for the Church of England, are currently putting an exclamation point to this sad chapter of Anglican life. In the end, he could not accept for the church the kinds of disciplines he encouraged for his own life and mind.  Over the past two years, indeed, the Archbishop has said less and less about these Communion matters, and focused his considerable intellectual energies, for better or worse, on the political and economic concerns of British society. It was as if the Church’s problems had overwhelmed even this great theologian’s capacities and aptitudes, and the kinds of decisions needed for the global Communion’s common life simply did not fit the ecclesiology of patient and open-ended debate with which his personality was most at ease.

It is very uncertain what, if any particular consequence, Williams’ resignation will entail.  The materially self-destructive dynamics of North American Anglicanism are already well entrenched, and are not likely to change any time soon, until collapsing finances completely rob the current structures of their authority.  To be sure, this may happen sooner than some expect, as Canadian and US dioceses go bankrupt, other dioceses see their funding dissipate, and national church budgets no longer support structures of oversight and decision-making that until now have presided over the demise of their churches. Alternative Anglican bodies in these areas, however, are fast becoming separate Protestant denominations, subject to the same cultural pressures and deformations as other independent Protestant bodies.

The key to the Anglican Communion’s future does indeed lie outside the constrained spiritual imaginations of the West, which is why the transition from Williams’ tenure is less important than it might once have been.  Anglicanism’s future lies instead in the hands of the still vital non-Western churches of Africa and parts of Asia.  Ironically, Williams has left them a means by which they can legitimately and formally regroup and restore a center of order, to which dispersed and weakened parts of the Western churches might eventually return:  and that is the Covenant itself, which can easily and quickly be adopted by these non-Western churches, and revised as necessary for future health.

Given the current state of the Instruments of Communion – Canterbury, Lambeth Conference, the Primates’ Meeting and the ACC – it is likely that many African and Asian churches will simply choose not to participate in these councils and relationships. The Covenant, precisely in its likely rejection by the Church of England and other Western churches, can now provide an alternative means of Anglican witness for non-Western churches that is nonetheless able to maintain its links with ongoing Communion structures.   Saying “No” to the Covenant is something the Covenant itself acknowledges as possible, and churches like England’s are exercising that choice.  But no one can say “No” in such a way as to co-opt the choice of others to say “Yes”, and it is for those who embrace the Covenant now to chart its common usefulness, which remains one of rich possibility. In general, the key to the Covenant’s dynamic adaptation to the needs of its adopting members lies in the fact that its ongoing shape and application is under the exclusive governance of those who have adopted it.   And key to its potential unifying role in the future are its origins, content, and intrinsic interest in the older structures and membership of the Communion itself.

Three elements now place a wedge between any future covenanting Anglican churches and not only the Church of England, but the current Instruments of Communion themselves.  First, the Covenant itself grants a functional role to the Archbishop of Canterbury within the Instruments of Communion (3.1.4);  second, after its recent legal reorganization, the ACC is now an English company, whose membership for purposes of English law is the Standing Committee, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is an ex officio member;  third,  Paragraph 4.2.8 of the Covenant  limits participation in the Instruments for purposes of the Covenant to “those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption.”  It is difficult to see, then, how the current Instruments can function for the Covenant, without the Church of England, in the absence of substantial clarification of the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as a “representative” of the Church of England.  The problem with the current Instruments is only magnified by the near certainty that other western churches, who collectively exercise disproportionate influence over the Instruments, will refuse the Covenant as well.

Fortunately, the Covenant already lays out the procedural means for resolving these difficulties through its amendment provision.  Paragraph 4.4.2 provides that any “covenanting Church” (or Instrument) can propose an amendment, which will take effect when ratified by three quarters of the covenanting Churches.  A proposed amendment is to be submitted “through” the Standing Committee, which solicits advice and makes recommendations; but the Standing Committee’s role is mandatory not discretionary.  It has no discretion to refrain from sending the proposal to the covenanting Churches for ratification.  If for any reason the Standing Committee failed to send the proposed amendment out as required in dereliction of its duty, the covenanting Churches could simply deem that procedural step waived.  And it must be emphasized that neither the Instruments nor the non-covenanting Churches have any ability either to amend the Covenant or to interfere in the decision of the covenanting Churches to amend.  The Covenant now lies outside their control.  The Covenant offers a way out of the impasse Williams’ resignation has now exposed.  And it does so in a fashion that is continuous with the Communion’s own movement and spirit of counsel – it is, in other words, ecclesially legitimate.

In broad terms, the scope of necessary amendments to the Covenant is now apparent.  New structures will be needed, at least on an interim basis and with as much continuity with the current structures as is feasible, to function as “Instruments”  of the Covenant Communion, not so much as replacements of current instruments but as means to Communion revitalization.  A coordinating body will also be required to perform the duties given to the Standing Committee in Section 4.  This latter issue has already been resolved by the Global South provinces at their meeting in Singapore in 2010 at which they recommended that the Primates be given this function.  The Primates of the covenanting Churches will be required to take the lead in any event in agreeing to these necessary changes and steering them through the approval process in their Churches.

Finally, among the changes needed to the current text is a clarification to Paragraph 4.1.5, which makes the Covenant available to “other Churches”—churches not currently listed on the ACC membership schedule—at the invitation of the Instruments.  Given the re-definition required for the Instruments, it would be desirable simply to make the Covenant open for adoption to any church that wishes to subscribe to its provisions, including in particular dioceses of Churches that do not adopt the Covenant as a province.  The specific instance of ACNA will also need consideration.

One of the great challenges to the Communion over the past decade has been how churches can legitimately disentangle their common decision-making processes from the political confusions brought about by vying understandings of the Gospel.  The Windsor Report understood this challenge when it spoke of the “very real danger” that Anglican churches might have to “learn to walk apart” (Paragraph 157).  But walking apart need not be a goal, let alone a fixed destiny, if it can be ordered in a procedurally legitimate way that maintains lines of connection and means of mutual recognition.  What Williams failed to bring about for his own church with the Covenant, may well prove – in its present form or in another – the foundation for a future that can one day accomplish a reverse mission to the West, into whose academic halls Williams has now decided to retire.

Anglican Communion Institute
March 26, 2012

A portion of this article has first appeared in The Anglican Planet at

March 26 2012 02:08 pm | Articles