Rowan Williams and the High Price of Riding the Fence

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is back in trouble again, this time for his “real” position on same sex relations:

However, in an exchange of letters with an evangelical Christian, written eight years ago when he was Archbishop of Wales, he described his belief that biblical passages criticising homosexual sex were not aimed at people who were gay by nature.

He argued that scriptural prohibitions were addressed to heterosexuals looking for sexual variety. He wrote: “I concluded that an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness.” Dr Williams described his view as his “definitive conclusion” reached after 20 years of study and prayer. He drew a distinction between his own beliefs as a theologian and his position as a church leader, for which he had to take account of the traditionalist view.

The letters, written in the autumn of 2000 and 2001, were exchanged with Deborah Pitt, a psychiatrist and evangelical Christian living in his former archdiocese in South Wales, who had written challenging him on the issue.

In reply, he described how his view began to change from that of opposing gay relationships in 1980. His mind became “unsettled” by contact as a university teacher with Christian students who believed that the Bible forbade promiscuity rather than gay sex.

That, in turn, led to this comment from Andrew Brown at the Guardian:

He does not believe what his church teaches on this issue, but he does – so far as anyone can tell – believe that the church really does teach this and that bishops ought to believe what they teach. It’s not exactly a crucifixion, but it is something like being trapped in an Escher staircase of descending logic. Any two of those two things could be true, but not all three of them together.

Looked at another way, what Williams is doing is “riding the fence” on this issue. And this practice is well established in the Anglican world. It is the one thing that frustrated me about the Episcopal Church more than anything else, especially as a teenager looking for answers. It is one reason why I “swam the Tiber,” because even I at this tender age understood the difference between a complex and nuanced position and a contradictory one. (That, youth pastors, should be a warning to you attempting to “accomodate” the external struggles and unsavoury outbursts of your young people.)

Unfortunately the fence of same sex relationships is a barbed wire one, which has made riding it a painful one for Williams and many others in the Anglican/Episcopal world.

Although one would like to see the Archbishop see daylight on this and realise that the commitment level of same sex relationships isn’t relevant to the discussion, at this point it would be better for Williams to be flat wrong on this issue and attempt to impose his personal position on the Church of England. It would detonate the long-feared split, but then everyone’s position would be clearer and we could then find out who would end up on the “ash heap of history.”

As they’re saying in Beijing these days, let the games begin!

2 thoughts on “Rowan Williams and the High Price of Riding the Fence”

  1. Hello,Positive Infinity. I have been catching up with stuff on the Web concerning the letters the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote me.
    My reply to Dr. Williams’ first letter ran to more than six pages, and I brought up the same points you are making about Dr. Williams’ interpretation, or misinterpretation’ of scripture. I am praying that people with sound Biblical scholarship to show that DR. Williams is wrong, wrong, and that he is making grievous errors that will have widespread bad repercussions of momentous proportions if his ideas encourage homosexual sex.
    Please keep abreast of this issue and keep writing. I appreciated your article and I agree with your conclusions. better to get things out in the open.

    Yours sincerely in Christ Debbie Pitt

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