Reflecting on Rowan Williams: The Archbishop Who Almost Walked on Water

The announcement last week that Rowan Williams would step down as Archbishop of Canterbury has of course spawned a whole variety of reactions, responses and reflections. For example, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church thanked him "for his erudition and persistence in seeking reconciliation across a rapidly changing Anglican Communion" and the Archbishop of Nigeria compared him to Pontius Pilate.

Welcome to My Big Fat Anglican Family!

My own reflections on this latest plot development in the ongoing saga of "As The Anglican World Turns" have been deeply influenced by my experience of being in Canterbury for Lambeth Conference 2008 as part of the Inclusive Communion Lambeth Witness team.

On the last day of the 2008 Lambeth Conference -- during his final Presidential Address and at the Press Conference following -- Rowan Williams managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of the victory of a conference that was arguably on the verge of finding a new way forward in faith for those committed to walk together in spite of their differences.

Like Peter, who the gospel writer Matthew tells us, started walking on the water toward Jesus and only began to sink when overcome by doubt and fear, Rowan Williams, after two weeks of a miraculous "walking on water" Lambeth Conference, sank like a stone in the last two hours.

Williams had the chance that summer in Canterbury to keep walking on water ... to step out in faith and try something that some say is impossible: to find a way forward as a communion of faith refusing to be divided by the differences that challenge it. But by pushing his preference that the American and Canadian churches abide by the moratoria on blessings of same-sex unions and the consecration of any more openly gay bishops, he undid in a two-hour span a good percentage of the good work that had been accomplished over the two-week conference.

For at the end of the day -- and against all odds -- the mind of the bishops gathered in Canterbury in the summer of 2008 was to live with the differences they had spent all that time discussing rather than let them be exploited into the divisions the schismatics have been insisting they must be. They offered a great whiff of hope to the end of the inclusion wars and a vision for the beginning of a new way of being communion together.

And instead of embracing that nothing-less-than-a-miracle new way of being -- instead of walking on the water toward Jesus -- Williams retreated into fear and doubt and threw down a gauntlet to the Americans and Canadians -- challenging them to make a "Sophie's Choice" between the full inclusion of their provinces in the Anglican Communion or the full inclusion of their LGBT baptized in the Body of Christ.

I wrote at the time that he should be ashamed of himself. Four years later I look back at that moment -- with less anger than disappointment -- as the beginning of the end of his episcopate. I look at it as the moment when he chose, as Henri Nouwen named it, the House of Fear over the House of Love -- and as the moment when he was blackmailed into bigotry by those insisting that we could not possible walk on water as a Communion without the sacrifice of the full inclusion of the gay and lesbian baptized.

Scripture tells us what happened to the foolish man who built his house upon the sand. The Archbishop of Canterbury had the opportunity at Lambeth 2008 to act like the wise man he is and build the future of the Anglican Communion on the solid rock of honest differences and not on the shifting sands of global Anglican politics. Jesus promised us that "the truth will set you free." The Communion deserves nothing less than the truth -- and so does the Gospel.

And the truth is that the sacrifice that will hold the Anglican Communion together is not the sacrifice of the gay and lesbian baptized but the sacrifice of a false unity based in dishonesty. It is nothing less than rank hypocrisy that the Archbishop of Canterbury was willing to lay at the feet of Canadian and American Anglicans the blame for divisions in the Communion when the only difference between what's happening in our churches and in his is that we're telling the truth about it.

Because the truth is there is an ontological difference between feeling excluded because you're disagreed with and being excluded because of who you are. Brother and sister Anglicans walking away from the table because they've been disagreed with is a painful thing. The church walking away from the gay and lesbian baptized is a sinful thing.

There was a cartoon in "The Church Times" when we were at Lambeth Conference. It was set in an automobile show room and the banner announced a new model for 2008: The Anglican Moritoria. Beneath the picture of the car -- sitting on blocks, rather than tires -- the cartoon said:

It's much safer than the other models.
Doesn't go forward and doesn't reverse; just stays where it is.

And staying were we are may be "safer" -- but it will not bring about that Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven we keep praying for -- it will not turn the human race into the human family -- and it is not the Good News we have been called to proclaim.

And the good news was that next year when the Episcopal Church met in its General Convention in Anaheim, we stood up to say -- once and for all -- that gay and lesbian Anglicans are not for sale as bargaining chips in this game of global church politics -- that the sacrifice of their lives and vocations in this church is too high a price to pay for institutional unity -- and that we are done having our mission and ministry held hostage to the dysfunction of our beloved Big Fat Anglican Family.

We chose to walk on water. We chose to step out in faith in response to the one who says "come" and to believe that miracles can happen. We chose to walk on water knowing that even if the strong winds blow and the naysayers nay we belong to the One who will catch us if we fall as we move forward in faith into God's future.

And so today, as I reflect with others on the resignation of Rowan Williams, I do so weighing the cost I watched him pay on that last day at Lambeth with the promise I've seen realized in the mission and ministry of those who have continued to walk on water -- not just here in the Episcopal Church but across the Communion ... as the CofE edges toward women in the episcopate and as the ill-conceived Anglican Covenant edges closer and closer to rejection.

Archbishops they do come and go ... and it's only polite to wish them well on their new endeavors as they leave. Meanwhile, that arc of history is long AND it bends toward justice. Which rates a "thanks be to God" ... and (if it wasn't Lent) an Alleluia!