Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury's New Vestments

I am a lad now so many years ago, and my fifth grade teacher is reading her class a story. It is Hans Christian Andersen's, "The Emperor's New Clothes" and seems to paint a picture of an inept, bumbling ruler who, along with many of his subjects, is given over to the power of persuasion by dishonest and mean-spirited men. The men are tailors who tell the emperor they are crafting a new suit of clothes, the finest ever made, fabricated from materials which are visible only to those who are capable and competent. As the emperor parades down the street in the new clothes it takes the intervention of a child, an innocent, to help the emperor realize in his foolishness that he is indeed naked, wearing nothing at all.

Some say it is impertinent for a retired priest to question or criticize the Archbishop of Canterbury, and indeed so it might be to some at least foolish. Nonsense. When the Archbishop begins worship without his cope and miter, someone needs to remind him that he is not wearing his vestments! This retired cleric intends no disrespect for either Rowan Williams, the scholar, priest and bishop, nor the office which currently he holds. The Archbishop is an accomplished scholar and, one suspects, a good man trying very hard to perform his duties in the midst of very trying, often troubling, times. Let me say I admire the man, and I admire many of his accomplishments, but I disagree with him profoundly about the decisions which he is making regarding the Anglican Communion. At issue is the most recent diatribe from his palace, entitled merely, "Archbishop of Canterbury's Pentecost letter to the Anglican Communion."

The Archbishop appears to want to take The Episcopal Church over his knees and give us a good spanking, most recently for consecrating as a Suffragan Bishop of Los Angeles the Right Reverend Mary Glasspool, an avowed lesbian living openly in a committed and monogamous partnership now for many years. As the daddy of a family is wont to provide discipline when the children appear to misbehave, Rowan seeks to expel The Episcopal Church from two functions within the Anglican Communion -- a group which studies doctrine and a group which participates in international ecumenical discussion.* It is a given that there are many differences within the Anglican Communion, much as there are sometimes when children play. In the face of such differences, wise parents do not remove the sand from the sand box, but remind the children to get along, one with another.

It surprises me, nay indeed it both saddens and alternately infuriates me, that an academician of merit suggests that punishment is best meted out by limiting the number of voices at the tables of reason. One cannot control the growth and development of thought, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury. I am reminded that five hundred or so years ago a Pope tries to silence a monk and the Reformation is born, an event which for ever changes the course of Christianity. Does the highly gifted Williams really believe that the course of international ecumenism is going deleteriously to be impacted by having representatives of The Episcopal Church sitting at the tables of discussion, or is he merely looking for a way to paddle TEC?

One wonders if the current Archbishop ponders, even for a second, the relative value of being at table with the Roman Catholic Church in ecumenical matters? The Roman Catholic Church is, after all, the organization which excommunicates its nuns when they permit medical procedures designed to save a twenty seven year old mother of four whose life is in jeopardy due to a pregnancy. This is the church which cannot seem to take effective, meaningful action to end the molestation of children at the hands of its ordained clergy. This is the church which steadfastly refuses to recognize the dignity and humanity of women as potential clerics. This is the church which proclaims that the Pope is infallible in matters of faith and doctrine when speaking ex-cathedra. Perhaps Rowan Williams pursues ecumenical conversations with the Roman Catholic Church because he envies the stature of infallibility?

This observer dates the foundation of the current struggles within the Anglican Communion to the post-World War Two era when some very famous but sadly now often forgotten clergy of note began to speak their faith in the form of questions. It is hard to imagine the current so-called crisis without the foundations laid by Bishops John A. T. Robinson and James Pike whose writings enabled an entire generation to look at Christian faith from non-traditional perspectives. One wonders if today anyone reads books like, "Honest to God," or, "A Time for Christian Candor," and if so, whether the realization of their significance is not lost to the cacophony of willful ignorance pouring from the religious right. Sad to say, but the more Archbishop Rowan Williams pontificates [word chosen with care], the weaker he becomes as a leader among leaders.

* "Representatives of those Provinces, national or regional churches whose decision-making bodies have gone against the agreed moratoria a) will be asked to step down from formal ecumenical dialogues such as those with Orthodox Churches or the Roman Catholic Church, and b) will no longer have any decision-making powers in the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order that handles questions of church doctrine and authority."