Paul Vallely: Will anyone now listen to the Archbishop?

The unpalatable fact is that the running is made by evangelicals who want to redefine the old broad church
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The Independent Online

Has Rowan Williams blown it? At a time of crisis, an archbishop of Canterbury can in the eyes of the media, as one wag put it, do one of three things; he can "crack down", he can "dither" or he can "call for unity". Yesterday most reports opted for the third option in describing of Dr Williams's presidential speech to the General Synod - where he tried to calm waters still foaming from the failed attempt to appoint the church's first avowedly gay, if sexually non-practising, bishop.

To give Dr Williams his due, he knows how preposterous his Church looks to the rest of society. To most people the row over Canon Jeffery John's hokey-cokey as the in-out Bishop of Reading is a soap opera that, as the Archbishop admitted yesterday, is both ridiculous and fascinating - rendered all the more amusing by the fact that its blazing rows and mysterious plots come courtesy of a cast of unlikely characters with extraordinary titles and bizarre costumes.

He is also shrewd enough to realise how badly he himself has come out of the affair: an advocate of gay clergy who approved Dr John's appointment and undertook personally to consecrate him - only to change his mind in the face of an orchestrated campaign of bullying by anti-gay evangelicals and conservatives who threatened to bankrupt the Church of England and create schism in the Anglican Communion. Faced with the challenge of institutional leadership, Dr Williams revealed himself as, at best, a poor strategist who committed himself to a position he couldn't defend or, more ungenerously, a pusillanimous figure who tried to wash his hands of responsibility by announcing that it was "an appointment I have neither sought to promote nor to obstruct". Thus does the outside world, at any rate, see things.

Yesterday, however, he was doing what he is best at. "Does the Church of England exist?" asked the synod members in a reflection that was philosophical rather than political. Recent events had brought home that there are many different Churches of England, he said in a speech that spoke of the C of E as a "mosaic of groups" and "a company of unlikely people".

The trouble was that those groups speak and listen mostly to those who share their worldview. With the result that they all believe that they are persecuted minorities and all insist on megaphone communication - talking through third parties, to the media, indeed to anyone except those people inside the church with whom they most disagree. There is, he said, "no possible reconciliation while we are stuck in this mindset".

What it needed instead was an "ordained leadership that is capable of making and servicing connections between lots of different styles of church" and that understood that the "real Church of England" is the one that is visible "where the parish priest chairs the school governors in the estate, sits with the asylum-seeker to help them complete an official form, negotiates the grant that will allow the crypt to be developed for a drop-in centre, organises the distribution of goods from a farmers' market or the rota of lifts for a pensioner".

At the end he got a standing ovation. Delegates went off to the coffee bars saying things like "we have been called to think more prayerfully about ourselves". The trouble is, as the Archbishop said in his address, theology isn't much good at solving problems in the real world. His oblique style and scholarly approach may allay the troubled synodical waters, but it will probably not have much impact on those who have ignored his calls for ceasefires in the past.

At the heart of the problem is the question of what binds the disparate trends in an Anglican communion that, as the years go by, seems to have less and less in common either in style of worship or in doctrine, or at least in interpretation of it. "What makes a church," said Dr Williams, "is the call of Jesus Christ, and our freedom and ability, helped by grace, to recognise that call in each other". But what also makes a church is agreement about a range of common doctrines, dogmas, practices, and notions of authority - if there were not key divisive issues there would be one universal Church rather than a series of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, non-conformist and other churches. There is only so far that you can go with talk about "impaired communion" and "dispersed authority" before the binding elastic pings.

What Dr Williams issued yesterday was not so much a call for unity as a call for tolerance. The problem is that asking for tolerance is just another way of restating the liberal agenda. In the Church, liberals may value tolerance but evangelicals prefer "truth". And the unpalatable fact is that the running in the C of E is being made by evangelicals who want to redefine the old broad church on a much narrower template of scriptural literalism. It is hard to see that they will find in Dr Williams's vision of the "real Church of England" enough to hold the church together.

And then there is the question of whether his vision is enough to coax outsiders towards any sense that Christianity has anything to offer to contemporary culture. "We have a special relationship with the cultural life of our country," he said yesterday, "and we must not fall out of step with this if we are not to become absurd and incredible." There are many who think it is too late to prevent that.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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