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Radio Interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury

Posted on: October 18, 2003 4:55 PM
Related Categories: Abp Williams, BBC, interview, primates-2003

John Humphrys (JH), a BBC radio broadcaster, interviewed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams (RW), yesterday about the outcome of the Primates' Meeting and its implications. The text of the interview follows:

RW: Undoubtedly there is a huge crisis looming. I think that what we have achieved this week though is at least to find some way of talking through the crisis without instantly jumping into of what appear to be quick solutions.

JH: Well these are the very early days aren't they?

RW: Very early says, yes.

JH: So, where do we go from here?

RW: When and if the ordination of Gene Robinson goes ahead in the United States we shall immediately have some responses around the world I'm sure but what we've done is to give ourselves a sort of twelve month plus thinking time inviting Provinces to reflect on their reactions and also having a central commission in the Anglican Church which will look at the possible implications of a split because there are constitution and legal questions for all the churches involved.

JH: But there doesn't seem any doubt at all that it is going to go ahead does there? Bishop Griswold, the most senior Anglican in the United States said the second coming could occur but I am scheduled to be in New Hampshire on November 2 - no doubt in his mind.

RW: That's right. And I think we have to assume that the Episcopal Church will makes its own decision on that matter.

JH: And that decision will be to go ahead.

RW: It looks like it.

JH: So, therefore, quite apart from the rest of the Anglican Communion, how will the Church of England; how will you respond to that?

RW: I can’t speak for the whole of the Church of England though I've had an opportunity, obviously, to talk to some of my colleagues about this. I think there are two things I'd want to say about that: one is that in the Church of England as it currently is of course, Canon Robinson couldn't have been a candidate for a bishopric and I think there would be great difficulty in licensing him were he to appear in this country to perform a bishop's functions. Secondly though, the whole question of whether, let's say, the Church of England is in Communion with the Episcopal Church in the United States is much harder to decide than with a yes or no answer, because there are a great variety of relationships that make up Communion. So we may want to say there are strains and difficulties, there are problems in receiving the ministry of such a person as Canon Robinson, at the same time wanting to carry on other kinds of relationship.

JH: What about your own personal position here. Do you believe that Canon Robinson should become a bishop?

RW: No I don't because I believe that on a major issue of this kind the Church has to make a decision together and one of the things that has emerged most painfully and with such difficulty in the last couple of days in our conversations is the large number - the very, very large number - of Anglican provinces who feel that, quite simply, a decision has been made which commits them or involves them in some way and yet in which they have had no part at all. And many of these are people who come from rather small and struggling churches to whom it matters quite a lot that they have a voice in a decision which, like it or not, affects them quite directly.

JH: Therefore, we will have a very serious split within the Anglican Communion, will we not, if you as the head of the Church effectively says I will not accept this man as a bishop? Where does that leave the Church?

RW: It leaves the Church with a huge challenge about coordinating its discipline and its legal systems across the world which we've never had to do before. It leaves the Church with a number of very untidy relationships let's say where there may be a number of provinces who will declare outright that they're not in Communion in the long run, thought we would hope to find ways of living with that. Others who would want to continue in an impaired state of relationship. Of course, what complicates matters where the Anglican Church is concerned is that we're not a single monolithic body with a single decision-making authority. Our Communion depends a great deal on relationships rather than rules and it's those relationships that are strained at the moment and will be even more so.

JH: If Gene Robinson were not a "practising" - to use that rather peculiar expression - homosexual, in other words, if he were homosexual but celibate, you would accept him?

RW: I don't want to speculate really on who might be elected to what and what circumstances.

JH: No, I'm not asking you to speculate on that, what I'm saying is remove the name Canon Robinson from this if you like, but what I'm saying is are you prepared, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, to accept as bishops, and indeed priests, homosexuals who are celibate?

RW: The position of the Church and my own position is that a celibate homosexual is always eligible for consideration as a priest or indeed as a bishop but the question is always with a bishop whether such an appointment - such an election - is genuinely the mind of the Church.

JH: So therefore why was Jeffrey John not allowed to become bishop, and I know you will say it's not that he was not allowed it's that he chose to withdraw but he withdrew because he was put under pressure?

RW: The situation with Jeffrey John's nomination was one complicated very considerably by the level of internal dissention in the Church of England over this, but also the level of dismay, incomprehension and difficulty felt by sister Churches across the world and that certainly factored into the discussions that went on at that time.

JH: But isn't that a degree of hypocrisy here because, as I understand it and please correct me if I am wrong, the Church of England seems to be saying it's alright for people - individual human beings - to be homosexual, indeed even to express their homosexuality through sexual acts, but not for priests of the Church of England.

RW: I think that the position that the Church of England has held in the document on Issues in Human Sexuality for the last ten years recognises that public ministry imposes certain constraints and that, if you like, a minister, a bishop, a priest or whoever, is never appointed, never works, in the abstract but works within the expectations that a congregation may have, works within the expectations that the wider Church may have. Therefore issues that what, in conscience, may be possible for lay people, are seen as rather different from those who have the responsibility of carrying the public voice of the Church, so to speak.

JH: So is there a contradiction then between your own private conscience and your position as the head of the Church?

RW: My belief has always been that on this, as in any other matter, if the Church were ever to change its view it would have to be because the Church, as a whole owned it not because any one person's conviction prevailed.

JH: I'm not sure I quite understand that answer. Does your conscience tell you that homosexuality, let's try and put as simply as this: does your conscience tell you that homosexuality is a sin?

RW: I have theological views on this which are in print and I have raised certain questions as to whether the tradition ethic is acceptable in every way. However, those are views which, are simply known as an individual, the Church has to make a decision overall on this, otherwise the results are yet more divisive and yet more unjust.

JH: But don't you, as the head of the Church, have to set a very, very clear moral lead here?

RW: Here, my task is to say what the stand of the Church is - the policy of the Church is - and also, as a teacher in the Church, to sustain and, I hope, nourish debate and discussion as it goes forward.

JH: But as a Christian, as a moral human being, do you not have to be very clear about this and say what you believe?

RW: I've said what I believe! I will, in the pastoral context, attempt to listen as hard as I can to what the needs are of any person who comes to me in that circumstance but also as my particular way of being a Christian, if you like, is that I've been called to this office in the Church. In that role I have, as I say, to make sure that as many people as possible are held in the conversation which contributes to whatever change there may be, if there is change.

JH: But you surely cannot have been happy with having to put pressure, I say having to put pressure. You chose I assume to put pressure on Canon Jeffrey John to withdraw from the bishopric of Reading?

RW: Working in a context where there is always a wider view that has to be taken in that of any individual is costly and I think anyone who has been involved in discussions about this issue and its practical and personal effects feels the cost of that.

JH: That sounds a bit like a politician's answer if you'll forgive me for saying so.

RW: That is a politician's question if I may say so.

JH: Well was it? What I am saying to you in very simple terms is you hold certain beliefs and you do not believe homosexuality is a sin. You are faced with a man who, by all accounts is a good man, a good Christian and a good priest. His own bishop says he believes he ought to be the Bishop of Reading. You believe that in yourself as well in your soul, in your heart, as well and yet pressure was put on this man to withdraw.

RW: The appointment of a bishop is, as I say, a matter that affects a huge number of people, not only locally but worldwide and judgments about who should undertake that office are never about, if you like, a reward for good personal behaviour. They are also about how the ministry is received and what the effects of the decision are and if I may bring it back to the events of this week, what we have had to say corporately this week with great difficulty is, if this decision is taken these are the consequences. Now that isn't easy, that isn't at all easy but if that's the case that has to be part of a decision-making process.

JH: But what is easy, surely, is to accept that the Church, above all, and the archbishop who heads that Church, should set a very clear moral lead.

RW: The statement that came from the Primates' Meeting this week, which I endorsed as did everybody else, makes clear that we stand where we did as a Church on the resolution of the Lambeth Conference in 1998. It also notes that part of that resolution commends the report of the study group in the conference and values especially its emphasis on the need to listen to the experiences of homosexual people as made in the image of God and the acknowledgement for the need of ongoing study, Now, that's to say that there are many people in the Church who don't regard this as a closed question and that they have a place in the Church which is taken absolutely seriously.

JH: What is more important: the unity of the Church in the long term or individual morality?

RW: What's more important in the long term is, of course, what the unity of the Church is for: that is mission and proclamation to the world. Individual morality is emphatically a part of that and yet in witnessing to the wider world what we have to do is to try to consider what we can do and say together without some feeling completely squashed or excluded by that process. Now, the paradox here is, of course, is that there are two groups that feel as if they are excluded by a process, by some of what goes on. One group, of course, is the homosexual community here and elsewhere. The other group is those from as I've said small and struggling Churches, often in the developing world who feel excluded, overruled and ignored in some of the discussion that's gone on. Therefore, we don't have a morally black and white situation of how the Church responds.