Unity was more important than truth


The text of a brilliantly scathing open letter from John Shelby Spong to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, can be found here. Spong does an excellent job of documenting a whole litany of examples of Williams's failures of moral leadership on matters of sexuality and women's rights, as Williams continually capitulated to the religious right within his denomination. Spong points out that, for Rowan Williams, "unity was more important than truth." The final four paragraphs of this letter are as follows:

You continue to act as if quoting the Bible to undergird a dying prejudice is a legitimate tactic. It is in fact the last resort that religious people always use to validate "tradition" over change.

The Bible was quoted to support the Divine Right of Kings in 1215, to oppose Galileo in the 17th century, to oppose Darwin in the 19th century, to support slavery and apartheid in the 19th and 20th centuries, to keep women from being educated, voting and being ordained in the 20th and 21st century.

Today it is quoted to continue the oppression and rejection of homosexual people. The Bible has lost each of those battles. It will lose the present battle and you, my friend, will end up on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of morality and the wrong side of truth. It is a genuine tragedy that you, the most intellectually-gifted Archbishop of Canterbury in almost a century, have become so miserable a failure in so short a period of time.

You were appointed to lead, Rowan, not to capitulate to the hysterical anger of those who are locked in the past. For the sake of God and this Church, the time has come for you to do so. I hope you still have that capability.

I think that Spong really highlights the problem of favoring maintaining denominational unity at all costs, even at the cost of standing in the way of moral and social progress. Spong in his letter makes a historical analogy with slavery at one point, and it is an interesting one. Some American denominations were split into two over the issue of slavery during the mid-eighteenth century. When we look back at those divisive times, it is clear that taking a clear moral stand against slavery was the right thing to do, even at the cost of denominational unity. Why should anyone allow the march of moral progress today to be dragged down by obstructionist reactionaries?


PrickliestPear said...

I understand where Spong is coming from, but I also try to look at this from Williams's perspective.

It's easy for those of us in highly developed western countries to affirm that, for example, homosexuals have the same rights as heterosexuals. It's easy and it's obvious.

It's very far from obvious in places like the Sudan, or Pakistan, or Nigeria, or Korea, or Mexico. Williams, as the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, has to keep the people in those places in mind. It would be irresponsible and unrealistic to just say to the Anglicans (or whatever they happen to be called) in those countries, "you have to change your mind about this, now." People don't just change their minds. It's not just uppity conservatives in the US. If he tries to move things too fast, he could alienate the churches in developing countries, and worse, he could provoke an actual schism. Then those churches would find a new leader, someone who is inevitably (by comparison) a radical conservative, and the last thing this world needs is another church with fundamentalist leadership.

The only way progressive ideas are going to trickle down into developing countries is if they remain in communion with progressive leaders. If they separate, they're lost forever. Fundamentalism is like a stain that does not come out.

This is not to say that Williams shouldn't be pushing for the full inclusion of gay people, by any means. Of course he should. I guess I don't really know what he should do. I'm glad I'm not in his position.

Scott F said...


Williams should at least be trying to find a way to lead these other Anglican communions forward. this is where leadership comes in. Is Williams up to the job? Leadership is not something that automatically comes with being "intellectually-gifted." I don't know how the Bishop of Canterbury is selected but the issue of leadership should be high of the list of criteria.

Mystical Seeker said...

I think that remaining in communion with the conservative wing of the church is all well and good, but it takes two to tango; and by their extreme and intolerant actions (such as refusing to receive communion with Katharine Jefferts Shori, it is clear who are the ones who are refusing to remain in communion with whom. It is the intransigence of the conservative wing that is the problem here. If, in order for the more progressive wing to remain in communion with the reactionaries, they will have to turn back the hands of progress on gays and women, then basically the price of remaining in communion with the conservatives is to allow the other side to have their way. And if Rowan Williams sides with the intransigent side in this dispute--the side that is on the wrong side of history--then in my view this does not constitute leadership but rather caving in to the right wing.

Should the anti-slavery Christians have kept their mouths shut about slavery before the American Civil War, because that would have alienated southern Christians?

Mystical Seeker said...

"I don't know how the Bishop of Canterbury is selected but the issue of leadership should be high of the list of criteria."

Scott, not being Anglican, I don't know either, although Spong refers to his appointment by the Queen and Prime Minister. As to what went into the decision to appoint Williams, that is an interesting question. He clearly turned out to be a disappointment to many people.

PrickliestPear said...


I don't disagree that he should be pushing progressive ideas. But I think it's important not to overestimate what the Archbishop of Canterbury can actually accomplish. He's not like a pope. He can't tell other Anglican bishops what to do. Outside of the C of E, his role is largely symbolic.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, by the way, is "officially" chosen by the Queen, but the actual decision is made by the British Prime Minister. In Williams's case, it was Tony Blair. Which is curious, given that Blair is now Catholic.


I never suggested anyone should keep their mouths shut about injustices in the church. But it's one thing for a theologian or a regular bishop or layperson to do that, and something else for a man whose job description as head of the worldwide Anglican Communion practically begins and ends with maintaining unity. I'm not saying what he's doing is right -- on the contrary, I've been disappointed in his performance, as he looked like he was going to be much more progressive at the beginning. All I'm saying is that, when you look at it from his perspective, it's not as easy as Spong makes it sound.