What Rowan Williams Should Do for Gay Christians

In March, the Atlantic Monthly published a sympathetic profile of Rowan Williams, who is the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the Anglican Communion. In his article “The Velvet Reformation”, Paul Elie observes that “the place of gay people in the church is one of the bitterest disputes in Christianity since the Reformation” but the archbishop’s “distinctive theology and leadership style may offer the only way to open the Anglican Church to gay people without breaking it apart.” Is he being too generous?

Unlike the Catholic Church, which operates more like a monarchy, the Anglican Communion is a big-tent church, a loose confederation of Christians with different beliefs and cultures, bound together by a common worship service. Ever since Queen Elizabeth I used it to subdue England’s religious strife, the Book of Common Prayer was meant to represent “mere Christianity”, a down-the-middle statement of creedal basics that leaves Anglicans free to disagree about doctrinal details. Williams’ limited authority reflects this preference for pluralism. As Elie writes:

[T]he Anglican Communion is a dramatic testing ground, because it—alone among the churches—has sought to have it both ways: at once affirming traditional Christian notions of marriage and family, love and fidelity, and adapting them to the experiences of gay believers.

It is not a church, strictly speaking, but an aggregation of 44 national or regional churches claiming 80 million believers in all. In theory, its leaders have dealt with conflict by trying to follow the via media, the middle way between extremes. In practice, this means that extremes coexist, jostling each other. Sunday service can feature brilliantined choirboys, or an organist, or dancing women in kente cloth. C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot were Anglicans; so are George and Barbara Bush. The Episcopal Church has a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as its presiding bishop, while the Church of England has no women bishops at all. If this church cannot find a way forward on homosexuality, then none can—and the clash between gays and Christians over marriage and the like may go on for much of the millennium.

All of this puts Williams in an impossible position. Like the pope, he is at the top of an organization with all the treasures and furniture of empire. But his actual power is closer to that of the Dalai Lama: the “soft power” of example and persuasion. And just as the Dalai Lama’s commitment to dialogue with China strikes some people as accommodation, so Williams’s willingness to let gay-friendly leaders and anti-gay ones each occupy space in the church can seem indecisive, even bumbling. But it is grounded in the conviction that the true Christian, rather than rushing to judgment, is willing to wait, confident, as Williams has put it, that it is “through the events of conflict and rupture, through the crisis of acceptable religious meanings,” that the way forward is found.

Later in the article, Elie praises Williams’ 1989 speech to the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement, “The Body’s Grace”, where the then-professor at Oxford made a compassionate and theologically sophisticated case that monogamous same-sex partnerships could be an important vehicle for God’s grace and love. (Read the whole speech here.) However, as Archbishop, Williams signed off on the appointment of an openly gay bishop, but then asked the man to resign when traditionalists pushed back.

From Elie’s interview with Williams, the Archbishop seems to feel that he had more freedom as a theologian than as a church leader. He doesn’t want to use his authority to cut off the conversation and disrespect any group within his flock.

“Archbishops become the focus of people’s expectations in a very big way,” he said. “I want to say, ‘Don’t expect a magical resolution: I can bring what I’ve been given, and what the office gives, but I can’t guarantee outcomes. So bear with me.’”

I remarked that people saw a difference between his approach as archbishop and his personal views, and I asked how this applied to “The Body’s Grace,” the essay on gay sexuality. People were calling him a hypocrite: Was he?

“Never in my career did 5,000 words make such a tempest,” he said, and went on to distance himself from the essay—but not really. “I wrote it as a professor of theology contributing to an increasingly tense debate in the Church of England. I didn’t think, I’d better be careful what I say, in case I become a bishop one day. When people ask have I changed my mind, I can only answer, ‘Well, the questions I raised there are still on the table. They’re still questions. And I still think they’re worth addressing.’ That essay is my contribution, made in good faith at that time. Now my responsibilities are different. The responsibility is not to argue a case from the top or cast the chairman’s vote. It’s to hold the reins for a sensible debate—and that’s a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

Couldn’t it be that all the questions having to do with homosexuality were actually being pushed off the table—pushed by him?

“They’re not going to go away, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are,” Williams said. “But my question as archbishop of Canterbury is: How do we address this as a church, not just a group of local religious enthusiasts here and there? The ordination of Gene Robinson had effects that were extremely divisive because people elsewhere felt it committed them to a position they had not arrived at themselves. So part of my job becomes to ask: If there is to be any change, how do you decide what change is appropriate? And that leads to the characterization of being indecisive and all the other things that everybody always says.”

Reading his books, I’d been struck by his confident account of the life of faith as “human actions that seek to be open to God’s action.” How, I asked, did he hope God would act in the crisis?

He paused, steepling his fingers, then answered carefully. “I think the challenge that God is putting to us is this: Granted the differences of conviction, with how much positive expectation and patience can you approach the other? It doesn’t mean you stay together at any price, but it is a matter of whether we can demonstrate to the world a slightly different mode of operation than that which the world commonly operates with.”

It was a good answer, clear, subtle, truthful, and yet, listening to it, I couldn’t help but think of the night before, when Desmond Tutu had led a prayer service at the church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square. Several hundred people crowded in. Archbishop Tutu stood at the foot of a staircase and spoke, in his singsong voice, about Robert Mugabe’s misrule of Zimbabwe, and although most of us could hardly see him, his blend of confident righteousness and puckish self-deprecation united us in minutes. This was charisma as a form of leadership: the charisma of a man who is not divided internally, who knows what he thinks.

Even to Elie, who was obviously charmed by the Archbishop, it seems clear that he could do more:

Rowan Williams is one of the strongest, subtlest voices in all Christianity. Surely it is right for him to try to moderate the discussion about the place of gay people in the church. But that is not enough. He is a leader, not a stage manager. He should also take part in the conversation; he should somehow declare himself for the course of action he favors—which seems obvious—if only to say that he doesn’t favor it yet.

I would go a lot farther than this. Whether or not Williams thinks it would be appropriate to weigh in as archbishop, he has an obligation to use his gifts as a theologian to counteract the anti-gay Biblical interpretations that cause so much suffering, particularly in the developing world, where there are no civil rights laws to protect gays from religiously motivated violence.

Because professors and students at most Christian colleges in the US are required to renounce, and often to denounce, same-sex intimacy, the folks who can best “talk the talk” with respect to the Bible are either anti-gay or unwilling to risk their careers to express a different view. Liberal Christians tend to be weaker at the verse-slinging game, having been scared away from deep study of the Bible because they associate it with prejudicial attitudes. Then their opponents say, “See, acceptance of homosexuality leads to heresy.”

It’s incumbent on inclusive theologians like Williams to make the best possible case that we don’t have to choose between the Bible and justice for gay Christians. He doesn’t have the right to sit back and let the “conversation” go on, ignoring the fact that gay and gay-friendly members of his flock in Africa are being forcibly silenced. (See the Other Sheep East Africa website for stories about these persecutions.)

I’ll end with some excerpts from “The Body’s Grace”:

Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.

The whole story of creation, incarnation and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tells us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God.

The life of the Christian community has as its rationale – if not invariably its practical reality – the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy. It is not surprising that sexual imagery is freely used, in and out of the Bible, for this newness of perception. What is less clear is why the fact of sexual desire, the concrete stories of human sexuality rather than the generalising metaphors it produces, are so grudgingly seen as matters of grace, or only admitted as matters of grace when fenced with conditions. Understanding this involves us in stepping back to look rather harder at the nature of sexual desire; and this is where abstractness and overambitious theory threaten….


…[I]n sexual relation I am no longer in charge of what I am. Any genuine experience of desire leaves me in something like this position: I cannot of myself satisfy my wants without distorting or trivialising them. But here we have a particularly intense case of the helplessness of the ego alone. For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other, because only as directed to the enjoyment, the happiness, of the other does it become unreservedly lovable. To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body….


…[T]he moral question, I suspect, ought to be one of how much we want our sexual activity to communicate, how much we want it to display a breadth of human possibility and a sense of the body’s capacity to heal and enlarge the life of other subjects….[S]ome kinds of sexual activity distort or confine the human resourcefulness, the depth or breadth of meaning such activity may carry: they involve assuming that sexual activity has less to do with the business of human growth and human integrity than we know it can have. Decisions about sexual lifestyle, the ability to identify certain patterns as sterile, undeveloped or even corrupt, are, in this light, decisions about what we want our bodily life to say, how our bodies are to be brought in to the whole project of “making human sense” for ourselves and each other.

To be able to make such decisions is important: a conventional (heterosexual) morality simply absolves us from the difficulties we might meet in doing so. The question of human meaning is not raised, we are not helped to see what part sexuality plays in our learning to be human with one another, to enter the body’s grace, because all we need to know is that sexual activity is licensed in one context and in no other. Not surprising, then, if the reaction is often either, It doesn’t matter what I do [say] with my body, because it’s my inner life and emotions that matter” or, “The only criterion is what gives pleasure and does no damage”. Both of those responses are really to give up on the human seriousness of all this….


…It’s worth wondering why so little of the agitation about sexual morality and the status of homosexual men and women in the Church in recent years has come from members of our religious orders; I strongly suspect that a lot of celibates do indeed have a keener sensitivity about these matters than some of their married fellow Christians. And anyone who knows the complexities of the true celibate vocation would be the last to have any sympathy with the extraordinary idea that sexual orientation is an automatic pointer to the celibate life; almost as if celibacy before God is less costly, even less risky, for the homosexual than the heterosexual.

It is impossible, when we’re trying to reflect on sexuality, not to ask just where the massive cultural and religious anxiety about same-sex relationships that is so prevalent at the moment comes from; and in this last part of my address I want to offer some thoughts about this problem. I wonder whether it is to do with the fact that same-sex relations oblige us to think directly about bodiliness and sexuality in a way that socially and religiously sanctioned heterosexual unions don’t. When we’re thinking about the latter, there are other issued involved notably what one neo-Marxist sociologist called the ownership of the means of production of human beings.

Married sex has, in principle, an openness to the more tangible goals of producing children; its “justification” is more concrete than what I’ve been suggesting as the inner logic and process of the sexual relation itself. If we can set the movement of sexual desire within this larger purpose, we can perhaps more easily accommodate the embarrassment and insecurity of desire: it’s all in a good cause, and a good cause that can be visibly and plainly evaluated in its usefulness and success.

Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff’, but – just as worryingly – of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace. It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ?

The odd thing is that this sense of meaning for sexuality beyond biological reproduction is the one foremost in the biblical use of sexual metaphors for God’s relation to humanity. God as the husband of the land is a familiar enough trope. but Hosea’s projection of the husband-and-wife story on to the history of Israel deliberately subverts the God-and-the-land cliches of Near Eastern cults: God is not the potent male sower of seed but the tormented lover, and the gift of the land’s fertility is conditional upon the hurts of unfaithfulness and rejection being healed….


In other words, if we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be. When looking for a language that will be resourceful enough to speak of the complex and costly faithfulness between God and God’s people, what several of the biblical writers turn to is sexuality understood very much in terms of the process of “entering the body’s grace”. If we are afraid of facing the reality of same-sex love because it compels us to think through the processes of bodily desire and delight in their own right, perhaps we ought to be more cautious about appealing to Scripture as legitimating only procreative heterosexuality.

In fact, of course, in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures. I suspect that a fuller exploration of the sexual metaphors of the Bible will have more to teach us about a theology and ethics of sexual desire than will the flat citation of isolated texts; and I hope other theologians will find this worth following up more fully than I can do here.

This is a good and eloquent essay, but it is a philosophical essay, not a Biblical argument. Williams surely has the ability to do both. Does he have the will?