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???! Hilarious.]
By Theo Hobson
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.