By Sam Tomlin
Societies throughout history have generally chosen one side or the other in the way they approach their citizens: unity or diversity. Most of history until Modernity has valued the unity above the diversity with diversion from what they believed was truth often resulting in persecution and often death. With Modernity came the vitally important introduction of toleration for opposing viewpoints to our own.
Last week, Rowan Williams decided to move on from his role as Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest clerical position in the country. The task of Dr Williams has been somewhere in the middle of the above approach to governance. To unite a church which has almost as opposing views on issues as it is possible to have (or so it would seem), is a formidable task. The disagreements of the liberal and conservative wings of the Anglican communion are well documented. Gay marriage and women bishops are the most talked about issues, but interestingly Williams’ biographer identified neither as his greatest challenge to mediate on, but the issue of ‘how the church makes up its mind on [such] disputed questions’. And there is reason to believe Williams’ response held the form of a Christian doctrine coming from the first few centuries of the church.
Christians are not monotheists (one God); they are also not polytheists (many Gods). They are technically Trinitarians – the Trinity is a conception of God from earliest Christians which holds the one-ness of God in perfect tension with the three-ness (there is not one God, there are not three, but paradoxically there are both). There is a debate within Christianity which discusses the question whether this is truly the exact reality of God (literally, three ‘people’ which are also ‘one’), or whether it is simply how we experience her/him; this is beyond the scope of this blog. What is relevant, however, to the recent news that Williams will be stepping down is the social implications of this framework.
The idea that at the very heart of the universe there is a God who is in relationship within himself (Father, Son & Spirit), has implications for human life. Firstly that if humans are made in the ‘image’ of God (Genesis 1.27), that means the highest point or aim of human life is not wealth, knowledge or status, but relationship with others (the ‘three-ness’). But, and crucially so, although there is diversity, there can also be unity, which does not nullify the ‘different-ness’ of the division between the individuals, but holds them in such tight union that they are in fact one.
Beyond liberal democracy’s mandate to tolerate those with different views from ourselves (which can tend towards an attitude of ‘believe what you like, as long as it doesn’t affect me or cause me pain, that’s fine’), Williams attempted to cling to Jesus’ command to love enemies, approach them with humility, respect and a keen desire to actively listen to their points of view. This, of course, is a task with which the church has more often than not failed cataclysmically, not only today, but throughout history. This was shown just two days after the announcement on BBC’s The Big Questions, where the traditional liberal and conservative wings of the church were at each other’s throats again. In fact it took a Muslim cleric to speak the wisest words into the debate, reminding the Christians of what the church should, and has at times, been (from 20.18 on the clip). With deep humility and love he exclaimed how he, ‘wished that we, as Muslims, could unify our ranks the way you have managed over centuries.’
Williams’ personal convictions on issues of gay marriage and women in ministry were relatively clear from the beginning. Although Giles Fraser disagreed with the description of ‘liberal’, it would be fair to say that liberals in the church a decade ago were quietly (or not so quietly) delighted that one of their own had been given the job. Rather than pushing an agenda, however, Williams dedicated himself to the Trinitarian model of listening and valuing what everyone had to say in the debate, not in the sense often perpetuated in government (NHS??) of ‘listening’ to those whose views with whom we disagree and then ignoring them (the infamous ‘listening exercise’ or ‘pause’), but wanting to have all views contribute in the debate. This is shown by the lack of firm decision on the major issues within the Anglican communion. It is held together by a thread, but Williams chose the relationship rather than the issues, as the most important. This is not to belittle the issues, of course they are important; but debate had to take place within the premise of unity. What unites the communion (belief in a God of love) is greater than that which divides them.
Perhaps this is what makes the job one of the hardest in the country and will be the main challenge of Williams’ successor: keeping a group of people in the same ‘organisation’ or under the same roof. Not by trying to get them all to believe they really are the same and should be the same, or by saying you can be as ‘different’ as you like, as long as you don’t harm each other that’s fine. It’s a job which needs to encourage and facilitate people (not force) to exist together in active love and humility. The communion is, of course, still hanging on by a thread, and may snap at any moment. Even Williams’ most ardent supporters would not suggest he did not make mistakes, and at times did take a side on issues beyond the ‘mediator’ role. But the fact remains the communion is still together after his decade in the role, and this, I believe, needs to be praised. It is the author’s view that the church, which has criticized him widely from all sides, will only see the value of his tenure in the years after his departure.