Despite a pre-Canterbury history of gay-friendly writings, as Archbishop, Williams has always refused to take sides in the liberal/conservative split. This infuriates both sides, because ideologues tend to be more upset about your lack of presence on their team than they are your siding with the enemy. Thus, Williams' attempts at reconciliation have been to no avail. Remember, it was not the mushy appeasing Britain that stopped Hitler, but the Britain that took a side. And it was not the pastors who begged Dr. King to wait who found civil rights success, but the man who wrote Letter from Birmingham Jail and later spoke to the "fierce urgency of now." Ideologues are not placated by moderate diplomacy – remember, if you give a mouse a cookie. Arguments are only matched with other arguments. Now, I do believe that dialogue, respect, and reconciliation are important, and woe to the man who refuses to listen with an open heart to his critics, but walking the via media doesn’t mean sitting still. You’re still walking. Values can still be taken, positions can still be held.
Dr. Williams seemed to wake up to this fact last week in his response to GAFCON’s demands of a new Anglican structure where their minority numbers have the power. After years of hemming and hawing and dancing around the issues of Scripture and homosexuality, he finally spoke to the players in a definite way:
GAFCON's proposals for the way ahead are problematic in all sorts of ways, and I urge those who have outlined these to think very carefully about the risks entailed…
It is not enough to dismiss the existing structures of the Communion. If they are not working effectively, the challenge is to renew them rather than to improvise solutions that may seem to be effective for some in the short term but will continue to create more problems than they solve.
But while Williams rejected the positions of GAFCON, he did not reject its spirituality. This same letter embraced many of GAFCON’s 'tenets of orthodoxy,' and made it clear that Williams’ vision for the church does include conservatives:
If those who speak for GAFCON are willing to share in a genuine renewal of all our patterns of reflection and decision-making in the Communion, they are welcome, especially in the shaping of an effective Covenant for our future together.
The letter finished with a Scriptural call for patience.
This is the first time Dr. Williams has directly addressed the proposals of either the left or the right, and his letter was hailed across the Episcopal blogosphere. I was wary at first – I embraced the letter, but not necessarily the Archbishop. How could we be sure, with the Lambeth dialogue fast approaching, that it was not a one-time deal? Enter the Church of England’s General Synod (like our General Convention). The Synod voted to allow female bishops (hurrah!), but unfortunately took no steps to provide counsel or shelter for minority conservatives (boo!). Like others, Dr. Williams was in favor of the female bishops, but wanted to provide some sort of arrangement for the potential defectors. His sermon to the Synod again managed to take a position while embracing all with the love of Jesus Christ. It is a beautiful, moving sermon, and I encourage you to read the whole thing, or watch the video. Forgive the long excerpt, but there’s not a word of it I can cut without losing some of its power.
'What would Jesus do?' is a good question to ask, but, 'Where would Jesus be?' is just as good, and, 'Who would Jesus be with?' is a question the Gospels force on our attention again and again.
In the middle of all our discussions at synod, where would Jesus be? Jesus is going to be with those who feel the waterlessness of their position: with those traditionalists feeling the Church is slipping away from them, the landmarks have shifted, and they don't know how what they've taught and heard and what they've been taught can be life-giving for tomorrow. He'll be with those in a very different part of the landscape who feel that things are closing in, that their position is under threat, that their liberties are being taken away by those anxious and eager to enforce new ideologies in the name of Christ. He would be with those who feel that their liberty of questioning is under threat. He would be with the gay clergy, who wonder what their future is in a Church so anxious and tormented about this issue.
Where will he be? He will be with those members of the Synod staff and the staff of the University of York; the people in the Press Gallery, who are trying to keep their minds on their business while dealing with any number of complex personal issues, who may be inflicted by private anxieties, griefs and losses, who will never be noticed by those who take them for granted as they go about their businesses. He will be all over the place. He will be with people we don't much want to sit with, because that's a place he always occupies. He pipes for them, and they will dance, because in their unprotected-ness they are able to meet him at a level any of us can't. Where will Jesus be? In whose company? The company of those who feel lost; have lost; and who are just beginning to see that lost-ness is the beginning of wisdom. It's in that lostness they're beginning to let go of the law that is in their members, the compulsion to take hold of and script and control their future.
Into this darkness comes Jesus to release us in our prison and make us, as the Prophet says, 'Prisoners of hope'. 'He comes to be with us so that we may be where he is'.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has found his voice. He stands with the left, but continues to welcome and respect the right. This, as well as the direct opposite of standing with the right but welcoming the left, is the true via media.
Mark Harris, of Preludium and Anglican Communion Redux, called the sermon "a smash hit." Jonathan Wynne-Jones of the Daily Telegraph penned an article entitled, "Dr Rowan Williams stands tall in the Church," writing,
After six years in the post, this could well become a defining moment for Dr Rowan Williams - the time when the real Archbishop appeared before his Church… Today, however, he grew in stature as the sermon went on, emerging by the end of it as the leader that the Anglican communion so desperately needs - compassionate yet direct and vulnerable yet firm.
James at The Three Legged Stool also weighed in:
This is the Welshman we used to know – bold and not afraid to express his convictions. Are we seeing the pre-Canterbury Williams arise from the flames now that the people with whom he sided against The Episcopal Church have turned their sights on him and the Church of England?
One can speculate as to the reasons for the change in Dr. Williams' approach. I have been told that while he himself is pro-gay, his staff is anti-gay. Perhaps, then, there has been some staff turnover. Or perhaps he is angry at the insults many of GAFCON's leaders hurled his way, and this is his retribution. I prefer to believe that God has been holding him back until now, so that his previous silence would give his words that much more weight. Whatever the reason, the transformation is certainly a welcome and blessed one. I pray that it continues through both the Lambeth Conference and its aftermath.