Monday, July 01, 2002

The latest controversy in the Anglican world surrounds the status of Rowan Williams, now Archbishop of Wales, as front runner for appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury. The choice of Williams, known to support both the ordination of women and revision of church teaching regarding homosexuality as well as being an outspoken pacifist, has stirred vehement protests from the evangelical wing of the Anglican church, both at home and abroad. For a sample of the conservative reaction, see this editorial by Episcopal "muckraker" David Virtue.

As an Orthodox Christian, and a former Episcopalian, I share some of their misgivings. At the same time, Williams is the one figure on the "liberal" wing of the church that I read and admire. His early work on Christian spirituality, The Wound of Knowledge, has repaid repeated readings over the years. He is aware of and knowledgeable about Orthodoxy, both through study and some first hand experience. In one interview, he describes how regular use of the Jesus Prayer is part of his own discipline of prayer. He has written on major figures in Russian Orthodoxy and his latest book is a meditation on several Orthodox icons of the Virgin.

A vital part of Williams' work is his engagement with Tradition. As distinguished from such figures as John Spong, who facilely rejects Tradition with all the sophistication of an old fashioned village atheist, or Frank Griswold, who grazes through the Tradition, picking and choosing like a banquet line, Williams wrestles with it. He is a sensitive, acute reader who listens to the voices of the great Christian thinkers of the past. Yet, at the same time, his engagement with Tradition is still, in a sense, from the outside. Where Tradition conflicts with the apparent needs and pains of persons before him, Williams feels free to abandon or change it. Perhaps this comes when one confronts the Tradition embodied in books, rather than monks. In the Roman Church, the magisterium speaks on behalf of the Tradition (at least as it developed in the West). In Orthodoxy, monasticism and the liturgy serve the same function. The Anglican church was born in the rejection of a magisterium, the destruction of the monasteries and the radical simplification of the liturgy. As a result, when even as sensitive and intelligent a scholar as Williams reads the Church Fathers, he is engaging in an imaginative recreation of a past world, much like those ensembles devoted to early music. In Orthodoxy, the Tradition is a living music.

If Williams is chosen as the symbolic leader of the Anglican Communion, we have the irony, as Orthodox, of dealing with a man who is both closer to and further away from us than Archbishop Carey, his Evangelical predecessor. It would be a further irony if Williams, a man devoted to peace and reconciliation, were responsible for a final schism within the Anglican Communion.