On Rowan

Well, he resigned.

Unlike many of those who I admire, I was a fan to the very end.  I remained impressed by his erudition and sensitivity.  I never doubted that he worked tirelessly to fulfill his thankless responsibilities.   The trouble he caused in England was necessary.  He often had the right enemies; when the tabloids dissed him, it raised his stature in my eyes.

I admit, I wasn’t that concerned about his decisions about the Episcopal Church and sexuality.  In my neck of the woods, my side won the battle.  There are openly gay and lesbian clergy; more will become nominated and selected to lead the church; and we are slowly, in due course, writing liturgies for same-sex couples.  I see that young people lack the homophobia of previous generations.  No gay person in my own congregation, or even in my own diocese, can worry about being disenfranchised by the church.   Since my state allows for gay marriage it is only a matter of time before I perform them myself.

Rowan, however, heard voices that I do not hear.  Not everyone in the world understands sexuality the way I, nor many of us in the US, do. We tend to see these issues through the lens of individual choice and preference.   It reflects more of a sea-change in other parts of the world.  And for many in the global south, our focus on sexuality seems like a first world problem.  Rowan was aware of many religious traditions that don’t yet understand modern, liberal, secular explanations of sexuality.

We underestimate the worth of those voices.  And while they could be wrong, Rowan asked different questions about the consequences:  how do we live with one another given our different contexts?

But what did Rowan do which changed the way TEC operated?   There was no way he could force the Episcopal church to toe the line.  He tried.  He hurt our feelings.  We can pout all we like because he never gave his stamp of approval, but we should have noticed we’ve still continued ordaining the priests and bishops we like.  Our presiding bishop still got to go hang out with other presiding bishops.  And so we’re still in the councils of the church.  This isn’t Rome.

Certainly, he made mistakes.  I believe he should have let Jeffrey John become a bishop, if only to expose how the English choose their bishops.  I think he might have been a bit more plain spoken about the real stakes in the communion.  It is possible that he did not get good advice, and that he was surrounded by people who were concerned with the machinations of English politics than the fate of the spiritual lives of people in the American church.  Sometimes I wish he could have been media saavy – his nuanced, thoughtful arguments were too easily made into fodder for ridicule by the British Tabloids.

Certainly Rowan didn’t understood the dynamics of the American Church very well.   And the confusion about his role in England, as the first foreign archbishop, is probably the same on our part.  The Episcopalian Church is more congregationalist in its order than we care to admit, perhaps, and the Anglican Church is interwoven with the English establishment in a way that Americans would find hard to fathom.  And perhaps spiritually we wanted him to be like the pope who we could ignore at whim (kind of like the way Americans treat Benedict).

But I believe Rowan understood what the long view looked like.  The English church will ordain women bishops; they will reject the covenant.   These debates needed to happen in the open, over time, in a messy, public, difficult way.  There was no avoiding it.  Although most of us wanted bold declarations and clarity, the Archbishop seemed to understand the dangers of moving too quickly.  I don’t think he idealized caution in itself, but he believed that listening takes a longer time than we like to believe.

Last year an Indian priest visited New York and said to me, “I understand more how the Episcopal church sees the world.  I don’t think my context is ready.  But I feel much differently myself.  And perhaps this will open even more minds.”  He said this after the Idaba process brought people of various perspectives together.  It was a model of mutual understanding, one which Rowan adapted to keep the Anglican communion in conversation.

I think that we’ll miss Rowan.  I’m personally glad he was often misunderstood.  It was an implicit, subtle challenge to the media and even to we liberals who work in internet-oriented, market driven time.  Perhaps over the long haul, we’ll see that he laid a good foundation for the perspectives of gay Christians to be heard throughout the world, and at some personal cost.   We don’t see it yet, but that story will be told.  And for all our focus on the issue of homosexuality, he wrote some remarkable, important words and essays that have gotten lost in the din.

So God bless you, Rowan.   Thank you for your service.

Rowan Williams in the New Statesman

Rowan Williams writes 


But there is another theological strand to be retrieved that is not about “the poor” as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates – like the flow of blood – is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility. Perhaps surprisingly, this is what is at the heart of St Paul’s ideas about community at its fullest; community, in his terms, as God wants to see it.

David Ould, who writes for the traditionalist Episcopalian site, Stand Firm in Faith demands some kind of verbal hat tip to Jesus.  He implies that a prophet is a prophet only if they make a statement that is distinctively Christian.

I find this a little amusing.  It’s as if a statement cannot be Christian unless it has tacked on to it some kind of deliberate referent to Jesus.  It’s like a verbal magic spell (“support the poor, for Jesus.”  “Eat Veggies, for Jesus.”  “Don’t Kill Babies, for Jesus.”)  The numerous implied statements by Williams that invoke the Christian tradition are ignored or dismissed because they aren’t in the face of non-believers.

Can one can make Christian claims without making a distinctive appeal to Jesus.  This requires some mental work and imagination, but it is entirely possible and worthy to do.  And must what is valuable in the Christian tradition be distinctively Christian?  And why must it be so?

The archbishop has taken some heat from the conservative press, but he still asks some fair questions:

First, what services must have cast-iron guarantees of nationwide standards, parity and continuity? (Look at what is happening to youth services, surely a strategic priority.) Second, how, therefore, does national government underwrite these strategic “absolutes” so as to make sure that, even in a straitened financial climate, there is a continuing investment in the long term, a continuing response to what most would see as root issues: child poverty, poor literacy, the deficit in access to educational excellence, sustainable infrastructure in poorer communities (rural as well as urban), and so on? What is too important to be left to even the most resourceful localism?

The archbishop need not be right – but he can clearly speak on this issue as a person with moral authority.  He is justifiably speaking from his knowledge of a moral tradition of wisdom.  It makes some uncomfortable.  It seems political.  It may or not be prophetic.  It is worth reading and understanding.

Breathing Space: a 9/11 sermon

Preached on 9/8/2002

Twenty years from now you may still be asked “where were you on September 11th?”  Like the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger Explosion, or the Fall of the Berlin Wall, moments of surprise, shock and terror that sear our collective experiences in our minds forever.

Consider where you were the day before?  The weekend before?   I was here, having driven back the long six hours from Rocester.  My father was dying.  The day before he had told me, for the last time, “Good-bye.”  An atheist, he nonetheless said to me, “and perhaps I’ll see you afterwards,” and with his typical, mischievous, broad smile.  He was offering me something, anything, a memory of him to hold while he was still lucid.

The next day I got the apartment ready for visitors.

I remember preparing for mass and trying to write my sermon, halfheartedly.

And it was a beautiful week-end.

What happened the day before?  Someone died after a long fight with cancer; Wasn’t there an earthquake that killed thousands?  Wasn’t someone’s son murdered that day?  Or you, maybe you found out you needed chemotherapy, or you knew someone who died in a car crash;  or did you yourself drive drunk the night before, daring God to keep you alive? Where were you the day before?  The week before?  What terrible things did we do?

How may women were raped in the Congo that week?  How many children got sick from unsanitary water supplies?   Who fled slavery?

Where were you the day before?

I can tell you I thought not of Chechnya being bombed by Russians; or Chinese Christians being killed by Muslim Indonesians; the starvation of thousands in the Sudan, or the sickness of children in Iraq.  I thought not of you, or my ill congregants at White Plains Hospital.  I was thinking of one thing.  I was thinking of my father.

I was thinking of my father and living life without him, what it would be like to live alone, an orphan, without him meeting a future wife or holding his grandchildren, to only hold him as a fading memory.

September 10th.

It’s hard for me to imagine thousands of people dying.  Three thousand?  It’s so many.   Do you know three thousand people?  One thousand?  The numbers magnify.  What of those killed by institutional negligence; or even deliberately.  The ones murdered by Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Amin.  Ten thousand?  Five million?  Twenty Million?  As the typhoons swept Bangladesh one year killing hundreds of thousands, the writer Annie Dillard wrote how she can’t conceive of it.   Her young daughter says, “it’s easy.  Just think of dots.  Lots and lots of dots.”

Dots, swept into the Bay of Bengal, swept away into the deep.

It’s easier to think of dots than human beings.  And when conducting a war, it becomes crucial to reduce human beings to dots.  Can you imagine 100,000 Iraquis killed?  Or a few thousand Americans?  Each American hurts more.  For each American has a body, war breathing body with the potential for love, a family that cares for them, joys and failures, plans and frustrations.  The Iraquis, the enemy, any enemy, remain dots.

Numbers cannot convey all that pain and sorrow, of 100,000 families.  Imagine losing one son, twenty years old, his life before him; an entire extended family.  Imagine it’s your son.  Your daughter.  Your father, your mother.  Now magnify it by 100,000 times.  Can you?  Can you imagine it?

Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered, God is there.”  Why?  Why does he say this?  “Breathing Space,” the Archbishop of Wales (now Archbishop of Canterbury) writes.  For when we affirm and love someone we allow for breathing space, a place to exhale, to fill our bodies with oxygen, to fill our bodies with a love that stands up in spite of our overwhelming sorrow. When we encounter someone there is the opportunity to be liberated from fear strangling us, for face to face we do not have just the enemy and outsider, another atomized and irrelevant dot, but a living person, a breathing person.

A retired solder once told me about urban combat he’d conducted  when we invaded Grenada.  He was a Ranger, and now battling street by street, house by house, with Cubans.  “I had only three weeks before I’d be discharged.  Then this.”  He turns a corner and meets a man.  Their eyes lock.  He sees a soldier, an opponent, an enemy, a living body;  they are both filled with fear, their faces fixed in terror, and they both know the next step.  The American is faster.  “He was a man,” the solider says, “and I’m going to live with this for the rest of my life.”   It’s easy to send a dot into oblivion, but much harder to send a man to hell.

It’s asked a million times, every day, “why this tragedy,” or “that tragedy.”  Where was God?  Perhaps the question got more intense on September 11th.  For normally we are shielded by a provincial media and fortunate to have avoided war on our continent for nearly 140 years.   But it’s the same questions when terror strikes:  “where was God?” or “What could we have done?” or “Who’s in charge, anyway?”

The archbishop responds, “all I have is words.”

Jesus affirms this:  when we face each other, see each other as bodies, as made in God’s image, as concrete and living beings, as individuals with particular habits, sorrows and joys, He enters our consciousness.  Not through statistics, the numbers that make us like grains of sand, bubbles upon the foamy sea, as collateral damage, but as one person to one person, through the steady of love of those we call by name.  For as the twin towers were about to fall, the dying would call to tell their love in those futile moments, expressing a pointless love in the face of a senseless crime.  They created “breathing space.”

Jesus makes sense only by this: pulling people together, taking one image of love and placing it before the dying, affirming faithfulness through a gratuitous,  powerless pointless love, triumphantly making room for someone else, even though the walls are falling all around and nothing will be salvaged.

And so we, also, are left here to create breathing space, to affirm love, pointless and faithful in the midst of tragedy, where nothing can be salvaged, the towers of our satisfactions and hope falling around us.  Here is where God enters.  It’s enough. It’s not enough.  It’s what we have.