No Good News
A Reply to Alister McGrath’s Assessment of Rowan Williams’s Theology
Alister McGrath tells readers of the Church of England Newspaper (no. 5627) that he is ‘positive about Rowan’s appointment’ as archbishop of Canterbury. Specifically, he is encouraged by the fact that Rowan Williams believes that the role of a bishop is to be a focus of unity, not to push his own personal agenda, and that he holds his views on the question of homosexuality on the basis of Scripture rather than cultural pressure.
As a fellow Evangelical it is with reluctance that I write to disagree with McGrath, but I fear that his reasoning is mistaken. More importantly, his conclusions will be too influential among Evangelicals to allow them to pass unchallenged.
McGrath adduces evidence mainly from ‘Authority and the Bishop in the Church’, a piece written by Williams in 1982 about the function of bishops. Williams, he tells us, will be safe as archbishop because he sees bishops as the focus of unity, not as agents of discord. There are two problems with this claim.
First, it fails to take account of the available evidence. McGrath covers what Williams has written, but he ignores what we know of the years since 1982 during which he has actually held the office of bishop and archbishop. It was after writing the 1982 piece, having become a bishop, that Williams voted against the Lambeth resolution, knowingly ordained a practising homosexual, and gave the interview in which he admitted and defended his action.
McGrath may conclude from his writings of twenty years ago that Williams will distinguish his public and private opinions, but his public words and actions since then have been alarmingly consistent with his private opinions.
Secondly, it is curious to find McGrath telling us not to worry about Williams because he holds that the bishop is ‘an authority to unify’. This claim ought by itself to alarm any Evangelical theologian. Certainly the ecclesiology behind it is an ancient one, evident for example in the work of Ignatius of Antioch. But the unity of the church inheres first and foremost in Christ and in the Gospel which is believed.
Where that unity manifests itself, it does so with congregations as its primary focus, not bishops. Hence the visible church, as Article 19 puts it, is to be defined principally as ‘a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered’.
It is not even clear that McGrath himself thinks that Williams will hold the line on the issue of homosexuality. He judges that Williams ‘will see his role as raising uncomfortable questions, and keeping them open’. Hence, perhaps, his vote against the Lambeth resolution. Is this really meant to comfort us? Surely this is bad enough by itself?
Here is (in New Testament terms) the most senior presbyter in the whole Anglican church, and he will be busy raising uncomfortable questions about the teaching of the Word of God. It is hard to find a passage where Paul tells Timothy or Titus to appoint people who will be able and reliable in raising awkward questions about the teaching handed down to them, and they were only looking for local elders. Of course, there are plenty of searching questions that an archbishop could rightly ask.
But given his own views on homosexual practice, McGrath can hardly think that the basic questions of its morality and of what it means to be conformed to Christ, questions which Williams has raised, fall within that category. Presuming this, it is hard to see why he seems to be encouraged by the continuing questioning that he anticipates.
McGrath’s right anticipation of ongoing debate shows why the headline in the same edition of the Church of England Newspaper, ‘Archbishop Backs Lambeth Resolution’ is misleading. Rowan Williams does not back the resolution. He says that he will adhere to it while it is there, but that is not the same as backing it himself.
This is no encouraging statement, since his letter to the primates also makes clear that he disagrees with the resolution, and that he wants to keep the issue open for debate. In other words, he disagrees and will seek to keep pressing for change. This simply shows that he is politically astute in his opposition to the resolution and is prepared to move slowly in working for a new consensus which fits his ‘private’ opinion, not that we should be encouraged because he supports it from the heart.
It would seem fair to expect that the ‘higher’ you look in the church the more you would expect to find a man who stands firm in expounding and defending Scripture. Yet bizarrely we are in precisely the opposite situation. It is easily summed up. Even most conservative Evangelicals in the Church of England seem to be happy to have as their archbishop a man they would not accept as their local vicar. Indeed, many of them would move if he were appointed to the parish church.
This is an extraordinary situation. They may argue that he is not the Pope, but he remains the most senior presbyter, and he is the most publicly noticed figure in the church.
At the least then, it is like having him in charge of your parish’s public statements. We need to remember that the ‘uncomfortable questions’ have already been raised not behind closed doors but before the watching non-Christian public. Even before Williams was appointed, non-Christians were making comments on the gay issue like ‘So all of that is OK now is it?’.
How can we possibly welcome such a witness? How can we not lament the pastoral damage it may do to Christians who struggle with homosexual temptation? Such questioning by itself is sufficiently damaging to the church’s witness and its people to mean that the appointment of Williams can never be a positive thing.
It is also alarming to see McGrath apparently encouraged by the fact that Williams claims that his opinions are simply an interpretation of Scripture. It is as if this means that we should take him more seriously, simply because he claims to be interpreting rather than disagreeing with the Bible.
The problem with such a stance should be obvious from church history. We need think only of the Socinian radicals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In their defining text, the Racovian Catechism (first published in 1605), we find an impeccably orthodox doctrine of Scripture. They affirm the total authenticity, sufficiency, and perspicuity of the Bible in terms of which even a Reformed Scholastic such as John Owen could approve. Yet at the same time they deny the doctrine of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, of the Atonement, and of justification by faith alone. All this, they claim, is merely the right interpretation of Scripture. Their example makes plain that saying ‘I am merely interpreting Scripture’ actually proves nothing at all if the interpretation is ill-founded and unfaithful.
So when McGrath writes that ‘Rowan’s views on this matter, however, do not result from an uncritical absorption of the views of Western culture, but rest on his reading of Scripture and especially his understanding of God’s inclusiveness of homosexuals in the mission and fellowship of the church’, we may justly be suspicious. Doubtless this is what Williams himself thinks, but in rejecting his interpretation as a misinterpretation we find that in fact his views cannot legitimately be derived from Scripture, and thus must in fact stem from elsewhere.
Conversely, to give any kind of credibility to his misinterpretation because it claims to be an interpretation is to go a long way toward validating the hermeneutic which Williams employs. I cannot think that McGrath would want to do that.
McGrath is also encouraged by these words which he quotes from Williams: ‘At its best, the Catholic tradition can claim that it has sufficient joy and gratitude and confidence in its understanding to know that it is not going to be undermined or rubbished by other perspectives, but rather be enriched and illuminated by them.’ From this McGrath concludes that for Williams ‘Evangelicalism is thus something to be affirmed, rather than perceived as a threat or an enemy, in that it offers a stimulus to discerning the “fullness” or “wholeness” of the catholic faith.’
But let us look again at the wording. The conceptualization is clear. At the centre stands the Catholic tradition, and on the periphery we have other things which can be drawn on for insight. Evangelicalism, the religion which puts the Bible and the Cross at its centre, is thus a displaced theology, one which stands at the edges to be used as a kind of supplement for the spiritual diet.
On the contrary, John Stott reminds us that the substance of Evangelicalism ‘is biblical, original, fundamental Christianity […] the true faith of Christ, as He taught it to His apostles and especially as He defended it against its opponents and detractors’ (Christ the Controversialist, London, 1970, p. 8). We should not be encouraged to find such apostolic Christianity sidelined.
The new archbishop’s marginalizing comments on Evangelicalism will be no surprise to anyone who has read one of the interviews given by him in Australia (available at http://www.media.anglican.com.au). Asked about the contribution of Reformed theology and Evangelicalism, Williams commented that ‘It is something that I think became very important to me at one or two points when I needed it as a kind of corrective to what can be a slightly precious and elitist anglo-catholicism. Sometimes you just need to sing Blessed Assurance and hit a tambourine. You just need to know that there is something profoundly simple about what an evangelical would rightly call a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that nothing substitutes for that.’
We may be glad that Williams sees a relationship with Jesus as important, but does he really think that a comment on the contribution of Reformed theology and Evangelicalism is best introduced by emphasising the occasional importance of bashing a tambourine, let alone that such an action is rightly identified as an instantiation of the reality of our personal relationship with Christ? Is this really the extent of his appreciation for Evangelicalism or his understanding of it?
There is no reason here to be encouraged. Some will reply that they will be delighted to have an Archbishop who asserts central credal doctrines. This delight in itself is alarming. We know that we are in a bad way when we rejoice to hear a bishop affirm something which even the youngest convert should believe, as if this were a novelty. Indeed, we should despair that we are in a situation where a basic affirmation by one of our leaders has become encouraging.
It is still less satisfactory that Williams seems to down-play the importance of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, even though he holds to it himself. In his volume Resurrection (London, 1982) he presents as competing alternatives an objective and a more subjective account of the event. He favours the former, but he writes that, even in the midst of that discussion, he is ‘not particularly concerned’ with arguing for the objectivist view. He identifies the very question ‘What happened to Jesus?’ as part of the trouble with the modern debate on the resurrection (p. 119).
This rather laissez-faire attitude in print twenty years ago lends credibility to more recent reports of comments made by the archbishop in America and Uganda concerning the permissibility of denying the bodily resurrection and the virgin birth (available online in the Virtuosity archives for August). If this evidence together represents the archbishop’s present thinking, then what he has said on these subjects may amount to little more than an advance promise to fail to exercise doctrinal discipline.
It is very surprising that the Alister McGrath can feel positive about this appointment for these reasons. I would urge him and other Evangelicals to rethink as they consider their response to recent events.