Rowan Williams, the Pope, and the Nature of the Church

The Ugley Vicar tells us that the Archbishop of Canterbury is calling Rome’s bluff:

For a man hardly renowned for his robustness, the recent speech given in Rome by the Archbishop of Canterbury was remarkably robust. Of course, it was given partly in response to the announcement from Rome on October 20th of effectively a ‘safe haven’ for Anglicans disenchanted by the policies of the Church over which Rowan Williams presides. Few will forget his somewhat glum and deflated appearance at the press conference called for that purpose, which must have been an intensely difficult and embarrassing moment for him.

Could it be that the man has feelings just like the rest of us, and that his visit to Rome came as a personal opportunity to put a few things straight? Despite its donnish language, there are elements of the speech which are decidedly ‘in Rome’s face’, and some will welcome this.

Rowan Williams did put his finger on a core issue, i.e., the nature of the church:

… the major question that remains is whether in the light of that depth of agreement the issues that still divide us have the same weight — issues about authority in the Church, about primacy (especially the unique position of the pope), and the relations between the local churches and the universal church in making decisions (about matters like the ordination of women, for instance).

But then…

When so very much agreement has been firmly established in first-order matters about the identity and mission of the Church, is it really justifiable to treat other issues as equally vital for its health and integrity?

I don’t see the first order agreement.

One thing that comes through clearly in this debate: Rome knows what its objectives are.  Its idea is that it is the one true church, it is a formal agent in the dispensing of grace, and that unity won’t be until all are under the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.  It amazes me that Protestant churches of any kind continue flapping their gums with ecumenical dialogue.  Anyone who understands the Roman idea and system knows this is the case.  Rome’s central nature is an integral part of that.

Anglicanism, in its own inimitable way, is still wrestling with definitions of unity and grace.  It does not have a univocal response to this.  The Evangelical vs. Anglo-Catholic divide insures that the Anglican world does not have a unifying vision of the nature of the church, even though Anglo-Catholics for the most part don’t grasp the nature of the Roman vision of the church.  The Affirming Catholics insure disunity over the nature of grace.

The Orthodox are in somewhat of a stronger position from an intellectual standpoint.  Their division as national churches was a voluntary one, and their view of the church is closer to Rome than most Anglican ones.  It’s the see of Peter that is the main sticking point.

As far as women’s ordination is concerned, the Roman (and Anglo-Catholic) view of the priesthood bars this.  Priests are the representatives of God on earth; since Jesus Christ, His Son, was male, they must be too.  Women in ministry require at least a Protestant and in reality a Pentecostal theology to justify their existence.  Williams’ lack of comprehension of this is either a major lapse or disingenuous.

And, of course, we see that the Church of England is in a major mess over this issue.  How can there be a dialogue on a subject when one side doesn’t even know what it believes?

I agree with the Ugley Vicar that Rowan “Williams does not have the substance behind him to back it (his calling of Rome’s bluff) up” but perhaps not for the same reason.  Were it not for the liberal elements in its own camp, Rome would be pursuing its course of receiving Anglo-Catholics more aggressively than it is now.

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