Rowan Williams’ resignation/retirement as Archbishop of Canterbury has generated a great deal of comment within and without the Anglican/Episcopal world. It’s not been a happy tenure of the seat of Becket and Cranmer (it ended badly for them, too, from a temporal standpoint) and everybody knows it.
But life is too short to make all of the mistakes we need to learn from, so let’s consider the lesson here. And it’s simple: “Anglican Fudge,” that time honoured skill honed by generations of Anglican/Episcopal ministers and prelates, just doesn’t work any more. That was obvious to some of us before but Williams’ tenure has only given us an outsized object lesson.
For the uninitiate, “Anglican Fudge” is that quality of thought and discourse whereby ministers and bishops say things in a mellifluous way that have the tone of gravitas and serious thought but which in reality say nothing. Generations of Anglican/Episcopal people have been nurtured on this kind of “spiritual food” and thought themselves superior to the rest of Christianity–to say nothing of humanity–for ingesting it. For harder headed people, it came across as vacuous, which is why people like my father seldom found themselves passing through the narthex. For me, it was a big reason why I went to Rome forty years ago–when you need crisp answers for life, Anglican Fudge is the last thing you eat.
Williams, however, had an Anglican academic’s consummate skill at coming out with Fudge. He could make statements that had the sound of gravitas and in some ways a sense of verisimilitude, but in the end either said nothing or missed the point completely. A classic example of this was his recent gaffe over people wearing crosses to work, where his implied comparison of Christian people who lost their jobs to superficial Christians who only wore it as a decoration was otiose at best and offensive at worst.
To be fair, Williams’ situation both in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion wasn’t very happy from the start. The usual troublemakers, the Episcopalians, along with their Canadian counterparts, had cleverly used the Fudge to obscure the real trajectory of their church, which is why the 2003 ordination of the openly gay V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire came as such a shock–and a wake-up call–to many. On the other side, the highly un-Anglican confrontations at Lambeth 1998 had stirred the Africans in particular to realise that many of their Anglican counterparts in the West had abandoned the faith behind the cover of Fudge and that something needed to be done. That “something” was the numerous border crossing efforts, starting with the AMiA and continuing to this day.
It should have been obvious to any long-term observer that what we had here were irreconcilable differences between two world views. Given his past opinions on the subject, and given the course of his own country, the logical thing to do for Williams was to basically tell the Africans and other conservatives that “good” people were going towards “tolerance” and that they would be left behind if they didn’t. That wouldn’t have sat well with the intended audience but it would have least brought honestly and clarity to the discussion, saving the Communion a lot of heat without light and overseas travel expenses to boot.
But purveyors of the Fudge don’t always think logically. Williams’ basic approach was to put the Communion through endless meetings and summits, crowned by the indaba-based Lambeth 2008. (Personal note: I have worked for Africans for the last three years, and we haven’t had an indaba about anything.) His idea was that he could gum the Communion to death they would come to some kind of meaningless consensus and everything would be good again. It didn’t work on either side. You can eat the Fudge without teeth, but the Africans rightly know that, with Islam and the other challenges of life in reality, you cannot live on Fudge alone. On the other side, the Episcopalians chose Katharine Jefferts-Schori as Presiding Bishop, who left behind a Fudge-laden approach for a more smashmouth (and expensive) way of ruling her church.
It’s tempting to say that a “real leader” could have done better. Given the irreconcilable differences we have both in the Communion and in the world at large–and especially those in a Britain overshadowed by militant secularism and Islam–it’s unlikely that a stronger leader could have brought meaningful reconciliation. What one could have done is to have brought the conflict to a more definite climax and conclusion. The last thing that Rowan Williams wanted to do, however, was to preside over the dissolution of the Anglican Communion. On paper he has succeeded, but the present reality will doubtless assert itself in the days ahead as it has in the recent past.
But most of us will go on living after Rowan Williams is burrowed at Oxford. The lesson that we who profess and call ourselves Christians must take to heart is that, in a world where those who hate us outnumber those who love us–or at least are better positioned in society to shove that hatred down our throats:
But Jesus answered: “Scripture says–‘It is not on bread alone that man is to live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4)
And that goes for the Fudge, too.