Becoming Episcopalian: Archbishop of Canterbury stepping down

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is stepping down at the end of this year. I'm still new to the whole Episcopalian/Anglican thing, and don't really have a clue who he is. I've seen comments on various sites, though, that say he didn't do enough to advance the idea of female clergy, that he handled the whole gay bishop Gene Robinson thing poorly, and wasn't doing so great when Pope Benedict XVI started making it easier for Anglican parishes to become Catholic under their own ordinariat.

I really don't know enough about Williams to say whether I agree with these criticisms or not.

I did like when he had a nice conversation (argument?) with Richard Dawkins. Very respectful. I do appreciate Archbishop Williams' acceptance of science. I do appreciate how he tried to navigate the ever-changing nature of Christianity and Christians, to find the balance between tradition and adaptation, even if some think he failed.

I'm still trying to figure out what exactly the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury is, too. I mean, it's not quite like the Pope. He's not the supreme pontiff of the Anglican/Episcopalian communion. Episcopalianism is a little bit more decentralized, much like the way the bishops were in the early Christian Church, before theology started to develop to elevate the bishop of Rome over the other bishops. (It led to the schism of the Roman and the Eastern churches. Or rather, it was the final straw.)

There's certainly no notion of infallibility, either. That's something I'm still getting used to. Papal infallibility is such a recent concept in theology (at least in the theological sense. It was first thought of in the 13th century, and wasn't declared dogma until the mid-to-late 1800s).  And growing up in the age of creeping infallibility, I'm used to the idea of a pope saying, "STFU, what I say is right. If you don't believe it, you're not Catholic." I liked the idea of having a trump card to end the endless theological debates. And then I found myself on the side of people who dissent with Catholic teachings on a few issues. Like being able to use contraceptive hormones therapeutically. And then I started even questioning the theological soundness of the whole "contraception = marital rape" business, and is it even sinful to use contraception for its original purpose, when, for whatever reason, NFP doesn't work out?

And I realized how creeping infallibility and the requirement to adhere to doctrines can constrain intellectual and spiritual growth. It helps some people, and I am glad it does. It helped me for a little while, like a support for a growing tree. And then after a while, that support became too constraining, and I was thrown into an internal struggle. What if I really do think that some of the critics are right? What if I think *gasp* Fr. Charles Curran has a point? I was suddenly outside of the chalk line, drawn around the loyal believers.

Anyway. One thing I have noticed in the Anglican Communion is how Episcopalians  aren't abashed to criticize the bishops. Catholics who are critical of the hierarchy, doctrine, organization, or practice of Catholic theology and beliefs are looked askance at by other Catholics, and they have to endure whispers of "heretic", "cafeteria Catholic", "not really Catholic" and so on. They get condemned by the "Catholic" Catholics. Not so in the Episcopal Church. It is a big tent, as some commenters have said. There is plenty of room for growth, for questioning, for investigation. Because people can be critical and still be Episcopalian, it allows others to join in the ongoing intellectual growth and theological discussion. Without that open forum where people can talk, how can the Church grow and change?

The search will begin soon for the next Archbishop of Canterbury, which seems like such a messy process. Well, it seems messier because it's unlike how the cardinals elect popes. That's the one thing I really don't like about the Anglican Church. Why should the Queen of England have any say in the appointment of the Archbishop? It should be purely a religious matter. I know, history, blah blah blah, but seriously, she shouldn't be able to affirm/deny a potential candidate. Well, it won't be too long before there will be a motion to officially separate the government and the church in England--it's fast becoming and outdated practice having meddling monarchs.

In any case, I wish Archbishop Williams the best in his new endeavor, and it will certainly be interesting to see who is appointed to take his place.

Filed under: Becoming Episcopalian


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  • A previous Archbishop, Michael Ramsey, has several books you may find enlightening on the topic of Anglicanism. My favorite is "The Gospel and the Catholic Church". (Let me say that the use of Catholic here is not the parochial use that just refers to the Roman Communion.) In it, Ramsey examines the episcopacy in light of the Gospel and suggests that the Papacy adopt a role more like (SURPRISE!!) the Archbishop of Canterbury's role in guiding the Anglican Communion. Stated baldly this way it sounds self serving, but in Ramsey's hands, he provides a cogent, gentle and well thought argument for his position. He points out that the Church is the broken Body of Christ...why should it be uniform??? That the Catholic Church is living testimony to the Crucifixion AND the Resurrection. He insists on the volcanic (my word) impact that Christ's death and Resurrection had on the early Church as the central fact of Christian history. And why the Episcopacy and Apostolic Succession is a necessary direct outgrowth of the Resurrection. A great book.....especially for a librarian becoming an Episcopalian!!!!! (Actually a great book for anyone in the conversation.)

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