No room in the church: archbishop finds himself cast out by evangelicals
Congress exposes Anglican leader’s position as split over gays grows deeper
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, yesterday led prayers at the opening of the biggest gathering of English evangelical members of the Church of England for 16 years. But it was a visit that some of them did not want him to make.
Astonishingly, the organisers of the National Evangelical Anglican Congress, which is meeting this weekend in Blackpool, had to vote on whether to invite the leader of their church even to attend, such is the state of rancour in the denomination. They eventually decided they would let him in, but only to lead prayers.
Welcome to the Church of England in 2003: on the brink, perhaps, of a split that some among the 2,000 attendees to the congress – a gathering entitled, apparently without irony, Fanning the Flame – have been anticipating, maybe praying for, for more than 10 years.
As some hardliners absented themselves to hold their own separate prayer meeting yesterday, the archbishop told the majority wryly that he had resisted the temptation to preach on Psalm 71: “I am become, as it were, a monster unto many.” Instead in a seven-minute address he urged them to listen to a loving God.
He was welcomed by Liverpool’s Anglican bishop, James Jones, but his warm words could not mask the controversy which has dogged the archbishop’s relations with this particular section of his turbulent flock.
Evangelicals, founding their belief on biblical revelation and personal conversion, form the most dynamic and growing element of the CofE and some are rejecting the leadership of their bishops and archbishops. In the 1950s, 7% of worshippers counted themselves as evangelicals, now the figure is 40% and that stretches to 60% of ordinands in training. Although by no means all feel this way, a sizeable proportion do. To their church opponents they are the Taliban, zealous for orthodoxy and the unchanging message of the Bible. To an outsider they can appear more like the Militant Tendency that wreaked havoc inside the Labour party in the 1980s.
Dr Williams, in post for less than a year, and possibly the most intellectual, charismatic and deeply spiritual leader the church has had in many years, is seen by many as the last and best hope to re-enthuse an increasingly indifferent and secular nation. But to some in his congregation yesterday he is little better than a heretic, a false teacher and the catalyst for the showdown they have been itching for. Even though he is regarded as theologically orthodox, he is not orthodox enough on just one subject for them. Some will not even have a man they privately call the arch-heretic in their churches.
David Banting is chairman of Reform, the most belligerent and largest of the conservative evangelical pressure groups within the CofE and vicar of St Peter’s, Harold Wood, in suburban Essex. Sitting on the chancel steps of his church, beneath a banner proclaiming In Christ Alone dangling from a lectern, he paused to consider whether he would have the archbishop to preach in his church. Then he said he rather thought he would not. Dr Williams would have to affirm that he supported the 1998 Lambeth declaration, hostile to gay relationships, first. The Parochial Church Council (PCC) was demanding it, though, of course, it is a body over which a vicar holds sway: “He would have to do that before he preached here. The PCC wants people who are truthful to firm orthodoxy. Come and teach us, come and stretch us. But do not unsettle the faithful.”
It is all over an issue that many see as, at best, a secondary one: how the established church deals with one small section of the population – gays and lesbians – within its midst and how it presents itself to those out in the wider community. Dr Williams’ crime in the eyes of conservative evangelicals has been to preach in the past the possibility of tolerance for gay relationships. The fact that he now says he will uphold the current position of the church does not save him in their eyes. They want retraction and repentance.
Christina Rees, a leading lay figure in the CofE, former member of its executive body the Archbishops’ Council, experienced the depth of that hostility at a meeting of the Church of England Evangelical Council last October, shortly after Dr Williams’ appointment. Reform and the Church Society, an even more conservative pressure group, had called on the new archbishop to stand down and the council, the umbrella body for CofE evangelicals, was considering a similar motion.
“I went knowing it would be a difficult meeting. They had it in for him and they wanted him to confirm his orthodoxy. One man leapt to his feet and said: ‘Rowan Williams is unorthodox on the creeds and the Christian faith.’ I could see how it was going so I leapt up too and said: ‘Am I to understand that I am the only person in the room who is delighted that Rowan Williams is to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury?’ There was a huge shout of yes. So I said: ‘Is there nothing about Rowan Williams that makes you glad he is our next archbishop?’ And they answered no.
“The chairman Paul Gardner, archdeacon of Exeter, chairman of the evangelical council, then took a vote on the motion and everyone signed up to it except me. ‘I guess that’s unanimous then,’ he said. I realised that when my face and vote were ignored I had ceased to be useful, so I walked out.”
The Jeffrey John affair in the summer – when a gay but celibate theologian was first appointed and then forced by Dr Williams to withdraw from the suffragan bishopric of Reading following evangelical protests – has galvanised the faction. At the same time a diocese of the sister, Episcopal, church in Canada allowed a woman priest to bless the union of a gay male couple. And, worst of all, the US Episcopal church elected an openly gay cleric, Gene Robinson, diocesan bishop of New Hampshire.
Those moves have precipitated a crisis in the worldwide Anglican communion that Dr Williams leads. The 38 primates – leaders – of the church have been summoned to Lambeth Palace in three weeks’ time to try to find a solution, which a majority of the primates, trained in evangelical traditions, believe must mean casting out the north Americans for their temerity in coming to their own decisions.
The crisis has been a long time coming. As long ago as the late 1980s this was the issue over which some evangelicals wanted to cleanse the church and assert the authority of their views.
Roy Clements can attest to that. At that time he was the Baptist minister of a large church in Cambridge and one of the most dynamic and respected preachers on the circuit, maybe a future leader of evangelicalism, which does not always recognise denominational boundaries. He was in on the discussions. And he was also beginning to realise that he was himself gay.
Mr Clements told the Guardian: “The leaders believe the Church of England has been so corrupted by error and moral compromise for so long that they want to complete the reformation that should have happened in the 17th century. Homosexuality is an opportunist issue. They knew they had to have something to crystallise opinion in their constituency and they identified it as the thing most likely to galvanise it. They could not do it over women’s ordination because evangelicals were themselves split but I was told 15 years ago that this was the issue on which to risk schism.”
He sees the hardline evangelical stance as a mixture of moral panic, homophobia and fear of the thin end of the wedge. “Evangelicals have not absorbed the idea that homosexuality is an identity, not a practice. It is not like being a murderer. They believe it is a sin. There is no question that they are out of touch with modern British culture. They are suspicious of the world and the fact that the secular world does not support them merely proves that they are right.
“Everyone knows there are gay clergy and gay bishops. Would they prefer it if those people remain locked in the closet? This shows how out of touch they are: people in the outside world are tired of things being hidden. They see that that has no integrity.”
It took nearly 20 years for Mr Clements to come out as gay. When he did so four years ago, he was immediately cast out. His books and tapes were unceremoniously removed from church bookshops. The sudden departure of the church’s most charismatic speaker rated a brief mention in the Baptist Times. Unctuously, church leaders announced they would be praying for him and his family. None has been in touch with him since.
Similarly, the Courage Trust, an evangelical group working with gays for the last 20 years, recently changed its mind, deciding that homosexuality was not an illness that can be cured. When they told their sponsors, the Evangelical Alliance, they were cut off and their funding removed.
Christina Rees found herself voted off the Archbishops’ Council when she fell foul of the evangelicals of the so-called 1990 Group, who sit on it. They lobbied like-minded synod members against her. She said: “George Carey, the former archbishop, wrote me a letter afterwards saying he thought I would be the last person to lose my place. I didn’t know whether he knew or not.
“I think people now believe that if you complain loudly enough you will get your own way … They have been working to discredit Rowan and make life very difficult for him. There are people who are still committed to not accepting him. One blink at the conference this weekend and you will miss him.
“I think we are missing the point to get all hung up on gay sex. Rowan Williams has asked whether it is always and forever outside God’s will for two people of the same sex to express their love for one an other. This is not a case of casual promiscuity but about people who have been more faithful and constant than many people who the CofE is happy to marry. If we are talking about love and faithfulness and making things stick maybe we have something to learn from Jeffrey John and Gene Robinson.”
At St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, in the City of London – the church where Shakespeare worshipped – the vicar, an ex-army officer called William Taylor, is one of 60 clergy believed to have retained a portion of their diocesan contributions in protest at Dr Williams’ unsoundness – a powerful weapon for wealthy evangelical parishes in a cash-strapped church.
Like many of Reform’s leaders, he has the assured background and upper social status of a type familiar to anyone who remembers the days of Thatcherite Toryism. “I think you will find the mainstream of the Church of England are very worried about the views Dr Williams has expressed … I don’t think I would give Rowan pulpit space … we need to be clear that the person teaching is going to teach under the authority of scripture.”
Like many in Reform he is also uncomfortable with women’s ordination: “We believe the leadership within God’s people is to be exercised by men but some of the best possible teachers at St Helen’s are girls, women, and I will even ring up one of our well-trained girls quite often and they have been a big help.”