Monday, August 4, 2008

Theo Hobson On the Death of Liberal Anglicanism

from The Guardian

The death of liberal Anglicanism
The Anglican church has sacrificed liberalism in order to achieve unity. Now it's just a slightly nicer version of Roman Catholicism

What has the Lambeth Conference accomplished? It has impressed Anglicanism more strongly with the spirit of its leader. Despite the boycott, it has given his vision new authority. A few years ago it looked like Archbishop Rowan Williams was an essentially solitary figure, doing an impossible tightrope dance. The weird thing is that he has persuaded mainstream Anglicanism to join him on the high wire. He has said: "My intensely awkward position is representative of the church at large" – and the church has agreed. Perhaps it has no other option, but dissolution.

A few years ago it seemed that Williams was asking liberal Anglicanism to make an impossible sacrifice. He was saying, "Let us bite our liberal tongues, for the sake of unity. Let us suffer the accusations of appeasing the homophobes, for the sake of unity. Let us put our desire for an inclusive church on hold, for the sake of unity. Let us be patient." It seemed outrageous. Surely most British Anglicans were committed to gay rights, and would not agree to compromise? Surely the liberals would not allow the identity of Anglicanism to be determined by the evangelical hard line on homosexuality? Surely this would do intolerable violence to the traditional openness of this church? It seemed axiomatic that the evangelicals were a minority movement – a pushy and growing one, but still a minority movement.

Yet liberal Anglicanism failed to make a stand. There were obviously lots of angry noises, but they didn't add up to anything. Amazingly enough, Williams' call for patience was generally heeded. The nature of liberal Anglicanism quietly shifted. It became meek before the rise of evangelical orthodoxy.

Is it still possible to be a liberal Anglican? Not in the old way. Liberal Anglicans have to follow Williams onto the high wire, to some extent. By staying within an institution that has taken an anti-liberal turn, they collude in his act. In other words, liberal Anglicans have been Rowanised. They buy his long-range hope for reform that the church as a whole can accept.

Why has this happened? Why hasn't a tougher liberal Anglicanism emerged that says that the truth of liberalism must not be sacrificed to "unity"? If Christian unity is so important (it would say), then surely the break with Rome was a mistake – surely Anglicans should repent of it right now. Isn't this version of Christianity one that tries to incorporate liberal principles? Why is such liberal Christian rhetoric more or less absent among Anglican clergy?

The answer, as I see it, is that institutional religion is not very compatible with liberalism, at the end of the day. It is addicted to some degree of authoritarianism, legalism. The Church of England concealed this, for centuries – thanks to its cultural establishment it was a fairly liberal Christian institution. But that era's over. It now follows the logic of Roman Catholicism – liberalism is a threat to unity.

As Giles Fraser writes in the Church Times, Christianity is an anti-legalistic religion. It emerges from a rejection of rigid moral rules. The current neo-conservative shift in the church ignores this – it "is all about the creation of a set of rules that will systematically make gospel faith all-but-impossible for Anglicans in the 21st century".

Maybe liberal Anglicans are waking up to the fact that liberalism and institutional Christianity are not gently compatible, as they were told by lots of well-meaning Anglican thinkers. That tradition is admirable, but it is dead. Williams is a deeply admirable man, but he has no vision for Christianity's renewal in the context of liberal culture. He is offering a slightly nicer version of Roman Catholicism – an international communion whose unity trumps all other concerns.

So a fairly stark choice has emerged: stay within Anglicanism, and be part of its post-liberal realignment. Or seek a new sort of Christian culture, accepting of liberalism, free of the old power-itch. Leave the ruins of Christendom behind, and build afresh, on new foundations.

Thoughts? I have very mixed feelings about all of this. Part of me feels TEC should vote with it's feet - taking the sanction of failing to comply with the moratorium and making a statement that says, this is bigger than the WAC. But then, of course we wouldn't be at the table for the things that the WAC is doing that actually matter - defeating poverty and violence against women - in it for the long haul, as Ann+ says.


James said...

First, thanks for posting this.

I, too, have mixed feelings about this article. I do not, however, agree with the premise that liberal Anglicanism is dead. It's not. THings will take a little slow down for a while, but TEC, the ACoC, the Welsh and Scottish churches are going to follow Jesus. It's just a matter of a couple of years until Wales or Scotland consecrate an honest gay bishop.

It's going to happen. It is impossible to halt the work of God.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say "vote with our feet", exactly. I would rather say, "vote with our mission partnerships", as I have just said at my home on the web.

As for Hobson's analysis, good on him!

Leonardo Ricardo said...

Fortunately I think the "highwire" won't be a very steady "balancing act"...the clowns are still trying to distract us and kick us in the butt but it's not over until the fat lady sings...frankly, dear Theo, I'd look for the next BIG act in the center ring...hint: it's about leaping lions and tigers who no longer responding to the ABC's cracking of the whip!

James said...

I must learn to finish my thougt before I hit publish.

We must stay as long as we can in the AC. We have a monumental witness for the the oppressed and for thoes who are justice minded. I wrote the other day taht I wish we would walk, but we can't. Too many people depend on our staying.

Jane R said...

As Giles Fraser writes in the Church Times, Christianity is an anti-legalistic religion. It emerges from a rejection of rigid moral rules.

I really, really, really wish liberals or progressives or whatever we want to call ourselves didn't use facile anti-Judaism to bolster our case. (We should also ban the use of "Pharisees" from our vocabulary except when we contextualize the term very carefully. But that is another rant for another day. Bear with me.)

Institutional religion is not very compatible with liberalism, at the end of the day.

Depends what kind of institutional religion (Reform Judaism is doing fine and so is the United Church of Christ, and TEC and the AC may not be doing as badly as some think) and how you define liberalism -- which may be a bigger quibble of mine here. I'm not so sure "liberalism" is what all this is about. Let's try "discipleship" or some other term. We're not talking about just liberal ideology here (I hope we're not), we're talking about the difficult and joyful way of following Jesus. If it is "liberal" to admit --while following Jesus-- that there are other ways besides ours to live a holy life, then we may be talking about liberalism. If it is "liberal" to view the difficult and joyful walk with Jesus as a walk that includes fully all who wish to walk on the way, whomever they happen to love and however they happen to define their gender identity, fine. But I don't find the term "liberal" too helpful these days -- or the term "conservative" for that matter.

Leave the ruins of Christendom behind.

Not a bad idea. Also easier said than done. We will have to be steadily self-critical along the way, because of the human tendency to enshrine institutions. (I've seen this in allegedly egalitarian grass-roots group, so it's everywhere.) There is also a prior human need simply to build institutions. We can't wander around without structures. What kind of structure is of course the issue. (Um, didn't we found TEC on a model that included strong lay participation as well as bishops? Isn't there an issue to examine there?) There are plenty of ways to build unity and plenty of ways to organize oneself as a church and plenty of ways to pass on the tradition to future generations. So we've got to define unity and tradition and and and...

And "liberal" is too narrow a category to deal with all that.

Am writing this a bit more hastily than I would wish, but perhaps it will be useful to someone. Thanks for posting this piece. I think it's provocative, if incomplete. Also -assuming we buy Hobson's terminology-- it's always dangerous to pronounce something dead.

Frankly, I think we all need a vacation from things Lambeth. I'm suspicious of firm conclusions after an intense event has just happened and all the participants have been so deeply immersed in it. No one can have long-range perspective in so short a time span.

I also tend to think that predicting the future is a waste of time. It never happens the way we think it will.

Also, I'm getting irritated at the constant leaving out of the Global Center folks and am cooking up a little essay about them.

I do buy the bit on today's Episcopal Café (can't remember who wrote it) about how there were two different tracks at Lambeth. I don't think Hobson takes this into account at all.

cany said...

I don't know what's going to happen other than, 1) So. Cone/Gafconites/FOCA will continue to pilfer, 2) some US dioceses will continue as usual, 3) causes a heckuva prob. for GC 2009 and, 4) more litigation.

In other words, same as now.

Anonymous said...

I believe it is too early to sound taps on the Anglican Communion. I do think that, if he is not careful, ABC will bring about what he is trying to avoid. You can't appease those who want to go back to the Middle Ages. They have already declared the ABC irrelevant. If the "liberals" go that will most of the wealthy provinces. He will be left with a few who are willing to go along. But, as I said, I think it is too early to tell.
Some good things seemed to come out of Lambeth. The blogs of the Bishops sounded very hopeful to me. I think that Maslow's hierarchy of needs is an important point here. In many parts of the world, there is no guarentee of the basics: food, water, shelter, and personal safety. Without those, things like full inclusion have no real meaning. So the church needs to also focus a lot of attention on those needs. It sounded to me like there may be some good things, bishop to bishop, diocese to diocese that will broaden the focus from "sex" to all of the needs of humanity. That is something we "liberals" can definitely get behind. This may be the way we have to go.

Rodney said...

I have come to the conclusion that the best sacrifice TEC can make is to relinquish it's connection to Canterbury. The world gains nothing by our compromising our baptismal ecclesiology. In fact, our witness to the worldwide faith community is probably stronger if we are willing to simply say no to the ecclesiastical terrorists.

If TEC agrees to Williams' demands (and let's face it, that is precisely what they are even though he has no right or authority to ask it of us) then it places clergy like me in an impossible bind: my baptismal vows in conflict with my ordination vows. How in the world can we ask people to participate in their own oppression?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the anon. above was mine. I can't seem to get my password to work.


Anonymous said...


Try establishing a new password at your google account. Works every time!


Ann said...

Seems to be a sense among commenters (and I agree it may be too early to tell much) 1. ABC and WCG are hell bent on institutional answers 2. Indaba offers another way of walking along with our messy ideas.
Xico posts here from the Global Center.
Katie Sherrod posts here, "Where the Anglican Communion lives."

Ann said...

And yes - I think I will stay -- keep on keeping on.

JCF said...

* I think Hobson is off-base---at least, at THIS point.

* That said, it's time to start lobbying GC (esp. the HofB NOW): no throwing LGBTs under the bus for 10 MORE YEARS (9 more, after GC 2009), on the vain hope of getting another Lambeth invite in 2018! (Or a Primate invite in 2009, for that matter)

* Keep on, keepin' on... God give us strength!

Ann said...

The Pluralist does not agree with Hobson here

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure who I agree with. So, I'll just speak for myself and for the people amongst whom it is my privilege to live.

I'm going to beg you y'all's indulgence to be an adopted plain speakin' New England swamp yankee about all this. "The Church is the people." Go ahead, dispute it if you can. I don't think you can. End of rant.

Pam said...

What will happen? I don't know but it seems to depend - do the Bishops of TEC identify more with the Anglican Communion or with TEC? For me, there is no contest. I joined the Episcopal Church the fact that it was part of the AC was nice but of little real importance.

I hope that our TEC Bishops find their first responsibility to their members - gay, straight or in between.

I hope that msny of our Bishops will feel as +Andrus
"Archbishop Rowan in his final presidential address, given just after we received the reflections document noted that, “There will be some who cannot abide by these moratoria, and in this they signal that there are steps to deeper unity they cannot take; or it may be that they conceive of deeper unity in other ways.” I take this to be a profound and generous idea. In not abiding by the moratorium on same-sex blessings I take it as incumbent on me and on us in the Diocese to actively labor to both understand the position of those to whom that moratorium is important, and to convey the reality of our life together to the world. I must redouble my efforts at inhabiting a deeper unity."

But, in reality, I have little hope that our Bishops will find standing by their belief in inclusiveness is more important than the ensuring they get along in the AC.

They remind me a bit of a boss I once had who always said "I only fight the big battles" -- but, strangely, no battle was actually big enough for her to fight.

Anonymous said...


I'll take that as a challenge (I like challenges), and I'll assure you that, 'though I'm a "boss" and know which battles to fight, when I hear voices like yours, I know that I am reassured that I am fighting the right one. Stop being subservient. Step up to the plate and take charge of your situation.

Sorry for being so direct, but dependency makes me more and more crazy the older I get.

It's *your* Church.

Blessings, deep blessings....

Mark said...

But then, of course we wouldn't be at the table for the things that the WAC is doing that actually matter - defeating poverty and violence against women

I would agree if someone were actually able to prove that we can do this better through the AC than through redirecting our own funds directly into relief and intervention.

So far no one has even offered to do so.

Without that proof, we'd do better to cut overhead - supporting the AC - and establish ourselves.

James David Walley said...

It strikes me that the author of this article, being from the U.K., automatically translates "Anglican Communion" as "Church of England."

Liberalism may be ailing in the CofE, but I don't think the same can be said for places west of the Irish Sea coastline or north of Hadrian's Wall.

Lionel Deimel said...

As I have said before, there is no way to save the Anglican Communion (in any form worth saving, anyway) unless we are willing to walk away from it. We don't require an institutional Anglican Communion to do good works abroad. Anyone who concludes that the Anglican Communion has, on balance, been an asset to TEC in recent years needs to relearn arithmetic.

It is time to stand up for the via media. Many of the insurgents in TEC have been radical Protestants. Rowan has shown himself to be radically Catholic, and he would sell out his mother to achieve peace and unity. His manipulation of the Communion with all his commissions and committees is shameful.

It is time to say we won't play his game. Why are we afraid to be thrown out of a burning building?

Ann said...

Susan Russell reflects as she flies home here

Ann said...

Having lived through battles big and small (anyone remember having to wear hats in church?) -- I think one needs to fight injustice where one finds it and has some access to make a difference. Every organization has sexism, racism heterosexism, etc --- TEC and the AC is no different. Walking away just leaves the field to those who would continue the oppression. Look at the work of Episcopal Relief and Development for an example of being able to go where others cannot. Each project requires a cross section of the community - men and women - to over see it. It is the starfish story - but it is all I know.

Pam said...

Dear Scott:

Sorry to have a personal conversation but, I need to disabuse you of your assumptions and then silently drift away back to lurker land. Of course, that was the situation with the former boss (oh so many years ago). We did need to fight our own battles knowing that support from above was not likely to come. You really do need to know a bit more about me before using the term subservient. It is inapt and one that I have never had directed toward my behavior before. Always nice to have a new experience.

Ann said...

Reverend Boy --Another voice for staying here. HT to FranIAm.

Kurt said...

I think that Theo is wrong. He’s just too pessimistic. Liberal Anglicans do have to organize, however. We have to make our presence felt, not only in the bastions of liberalism (such as they are), but also in places like Nigeria, Sydney, and the Middle East. These conservative, evo areas must have at least some disaffected liberals who can be organized, aided and supported. So, let’s do it!

Rowan Williams has Lambeth, the evos and right-wing catholics have GAFCON. One thing that we liberals should do, I think, is to have our own international network focusing on liberal Anglicanism. Perhaps call our own international conference. A good place to have it would be in South Africa. Canada, the USA, Japan, most of Latin America (except for the Cone), Scotland, New Zealand, Australia (minus Sydney) etc. would probably make a good showing that there is a liberal Anglicanism that is accepting of all people. It would, I think, be helpful to organizing the liberal “faction” within Anglicanism.

Ann said...

The Chicago Consultation is one effort at organizing progressives. They will be meeting again in the Fall and in the Spring to organize towards General Convention.

Mark said...

I'm sorry, but I don't find the example of ERD to be convincing that we need the AC to continue good work. It simply does not back that up in any real way.

As for changing the institution from within, this institution is an immovable impediment in its own change. It's not realistic to expect that we can change it from within, because - as evidenced by the incredible timidity of most of our bishops at Lambeth - the institution changes those sent into it.

Finally, once again, there is nothing to evidence - and I am listening, believe me - that the AC is any substantive aid to Christian mission, or that there are any benefits to outweigh the clear liabilities inherent in the current leadership in the AC. Williams, and through him, Canterbury, has become an instrument of disunity.

I'm just not buying that this is the continuation of a dynamic life together rather than an atrophy arising from the unwillingness to grow, expand, and separate. The AC cannot help us to fulfill our ministries, from what I've been shown, and is actively blocking them.

Grandmère Mimi said...

TEC should do the right thing and ignore the moratoria, but it should not walk. We should wait for the eviction notice.

JCF said...

What Mimi said (and what Kurt said: don't mourn, organize!)

Jane R said...

Mimi,there you go, being direct and sensible again.

Amen, and let's ban obfuscation. (And if you don't know what obfuscation means, that's part of my point.)