The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rowan Williams and the Problem of Passivity

In T.H. White's The Once and Future King, the Quest for the Holy Grail requires the knights to show their worthiness by renouncing violence. Sir Bors is tested by his brother Sir Lionel's rage at him (rather than kill Lionel's attacker, Bors leaves Lionel to die). When Lionel later draws his sword on Bors, Bors refuses to defend himself. Lionel is about to kill his brother, when a hermit interposes himself between the brothers. Lionel, in his passion, kills the hermit. Sir Colgrevance, another knight, sees Lionel about to recommence his attack on Bors, and interposes. Lionel quickly "had him on the run," leading Colegrevance to cry out to Bors, "Why are you letting me be killed for you?" As Lionel tells his story to Arthur, after Lionel kills Colgrevance:
Then I came back to Bors, to finish the matter. He held his shield over his head, but would not struggle."
"What happened?"
"God came," said the boy [Lionel] solemnly. He came between us and dazzled us, and made our shields burn. . . .Bors will find the Grail if anybody does find it, an that is the end of my story. "
They sat silent, finding it difficult to talk about spiritual matters, until finally Sir Lionel spoke for the last time.
"It is all very well for Bors," he said complainingly, "but what about the hermit? What about Sir Colgrevance? Why didn't God save them?"
(The Once and Future King, at 471-472).

I thought of this story when I read that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, is resigning as of the end of 2012. I have long found Williams a puzzling, and disturbing figure--one whose appointment heralded great hope, but whose performance seemed bizarrely lacking. After a brilliant academic career, including writing containing an exciting fusion of Anglo-Catholic spirituality and openness to the world reminiscent of Charles Gore, Williams has persistently favored the reactionary elements in the Anglican Communion over those whose words and acts drew inspiration from his own writings. As I have previously noted, indeed, repeatedly noted, Williams has effectively stigmatized the Episcopal Church for advancing the equality and recognizing the ministry of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, while remaining silent on the affirmative endorsement of human rights violations against them by provinces such as Uganda and Nigeria.

Giles Fraser writes that "[t]he fact Williams attempted such an impossible mediation was, for some, the very essence of sacrificial Christianity," but ultimately concludes that for Williams, church "[i]s where the individual moral choices of its members have to be subsumed to the will of the whole," and that in his effort to preserve the broadest possible community, "his increasing appreciation that the African church was dead against any accommodation with homosexuality made him side with the conservatives."

I think that's both correct, and what galls me about Williams as archbishop, ultimately. He believes that sacrifice is warranted to preserve unity, but is not one of those whose interests, rights or needs is sacrificed--it's Jeffrey John, or V. Gene Robinson, or the Americans, or Davis Mac-Iyalla, or the unknown GLBT Nigerians and Ugandans against whom the Anglican churches in their countries are urging the states to enact draconian laws. Bors could plead in his defense that the hermit and Sir Colgrevance chose to risk their lives to protect him; Archbishop Williams has chosen institutional unity over the needs of the vulnerable who look to him for leadership.

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