THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 150
Piggy in the middle
[For archived material please go to tonycrosscolumn.org.uk]
Archbishop Tutu has been talking again! And as usual his theme is a very sound one: why on earth is the Anglican Communion so obsessed with sex (homosexuality) when there are so many urgent and important issues crying out for attention.
This is not a new approach by the Archbishop but it is a very welcome one because it brings some sanity back into the whole disastrous affair. Referring to the debate about the gay Bishop of New Hampshire in America Archbishop Tutu has apparently said, in an interview with the BBC Radio Four, that the Anglican Church has appeared to be extraordinarily homophobic in the handling of the whole issue. Such a statement from a respected Churchman, who is famous throughout the whole world, is like a douche of cold water over fevered combatants who see themselves as locked in battle. Why on earth could they not agree to kick the subject into touch for ten years while it is studied and reflected upon?
Such a view ignores the strength of feeling in conservative evangelicals and therefore will solve nothing, however correct the sentiments expressed!
This leads me on to consider the situation of the Archbishop of Canterbury in all of this mayhem. He is the piggy in the middle. On all sides of him there are conflicting voices. He is pulled by other Archbishops on all sides. Yet he remains in the middle of it all, apparently preserving his own sanity and, more importantly, his sanctity.
So perhaps now is the right time to take as objective look as possible at the Archbishop and his central position. Perhaps now is the right time to try to decipher how he manages to remain calm and poised in the midst of such a conflagration.
The first point to note is that he came into the job fully realising the enormous importance of the dispute that was already in full course. It was no surprise to him that there were two opposing groups, with everyone else having with a view. The conflict was already decades old. It already showed that it was about more than just homosexuality. It must have been obvious to him that deep forces of restlessness were stirring in the various national churches. The depth of opposition may not have been fully apparent to him, although my guess is that he appreciated just how deep the antagonism would be.
So when he came into it all, he came in with his eyes open. In which case we should not feel that he was in any sense ‘caught out’ by what has happened. My guess is that he fully realised the depth of the rift that was coming into public view, and that, nevertheless, he felt that it was God’s call to take on the job in front of him.
It may be that the concerted effort by some conservative evangelicals to prevent him taking up the post, and to remove him from it as early as possible, was to some extent unexpected. The fact that he issued a statement declaring that he would be impartial was not a panic measure - clearly it was his basic belief that that was the correct position to take in any conflict between different parties in the Communion.
It is perhaps right at this point to consider the criticism - persistently put out over several years after he took up the appointment - that he should be more definite in his views. In other words that he should come down on one side or the other. A number of liberal and secular voices have suggested that if he had taken a stand earlier against the conservative evangelical viewpoint, then that would have directed the whole business along better lines. I very much doubt whether it would have done anything of the sort. All it would have done is to accelerate the opposition and lack of cooperation of those who oppose homosexuality.
There could have been two consequences. The first is that the conservatives could have broken out from the Communion - something that has still not happened even yet. Secondly, it would have deprived the whole of the Anglican Communion of a central calm and unbiased person who would act as pivot for the whole affair. Both of these consequences would have been injurious to the Communion worldwide and to the secular world that watches from the sidelines.
When the Archbishop took up the job he fully understood exactly what he was getting himself into. And he determined that he had to be the central point of calm and sanity - the still calm point on which the whole cyclone would pivot.
This he has done. Over and over again he has refused to enter the lists on either side. He has put aside his own opinion and resolutely acted as impartial referee and guide. He has neither argued for or against the views of the two main contenders. And in the process he has incurred severely critical articles from the secular press and from Churchmen inside the Communion.
The one intimation from him on the subject of the dispute that I can remember was when he made some comments following a Larkin-Stuart lecture in April 2007 in America. In those comments he talked of Romans, chapters one and two, and said (my summary!) that Paul’s argument was not, as frequently suggested, against homosexuality. This however, he said, gave no comfort to either the liberal or conservative cause since the whole point of Paul’s rhetorical gambit is that everyone in his imagined readership agreed in thinking that the same-sex relations of the culture around them to be obviously immoral as idol-worship or disobedience to parents.
The Archbishop came into the job fully aware of what he was taking on, and he decided that his proper role was to be piggy in the middle, siding with no one and, as the phrase goes, holding the ring.
Can such a course be criticised? Any role can be criticised - especially with hindsight! But it has to be said that the role he assumed is one that I believe is in accord with the highest traditions of his position. It is a godly role to take and I believe the assessment of history will be that he chose the right role in the circumstances. Whether it will result in what the Archbishop wants is another matter.
What might the aim of the Archbishop be in this situation? What would he like to see happen? Surely we can take a stab at this? Would he not if asked say that what he wanted is first and foremost for all the Christians under his leadership (as first among equal heads of national churches), in their various churches around the world to be in loving and open fellowship with each other? That is, that they will not let this dispute divide their essential communion together either as Christians or as Anglicans?
Secondly would he not want to restrain those who were in ‘advance’ of the others? If what they wanted to do would upset others in the Communion would he not counsel that they should slow down their advance along the disputed line?
And would he not wish to set up machinery to ensure that all future contentious issues are dealt with at an early stage by discussion and prayer rather than by claim and counter claim? That was the fatal mistake of those who led the Church of England in the early nineties.
But if the aims of the Archbishop are unachievable - what then? And this may be exactly where we are today.
Surely the Archbishop has to go on trying to bring the warring parties together in the hope that love and reason will eventually enable the two sides to sit down together and work out a way forward with which they are both content?
Statements like the one by Archbishop Tutu -excellent though they are - do not really advance the situation much. They are good and need saying but they don’t solve anything. It is always possible that they will have an effect on some of those Christians who are fiercely against any compromise. What Archbishop Tutu says is eminent good sense. Lets hope that it is seen by and influences some towards reconciliation.
But suppose that no reconciliation is possible. Suppose that the Communion continues to frays at the edges and begin to crack open? And surely it is doing that right now? Well, then probably the Archbishop is waiting for the Lambeth Conference to crystallise opinion and be the point of decision for at least some of the hundreds of bishops and archbishops who will gather.
Until that time no doubt the Archbishop will go on praying and working for peace and reconciliation. And no doubt he will go on refusing to step away from his self-elected role of piggy in the middle. That role is a sacrificial one. He is open to misunderstanding by almost everyone - but especially by those who feel very strongly one way or the other. He will go on keeping his own views to himself. He will go on working for the unity of the Communion, no matter how many people become disillusioned with the concept.
The leadership the Archbishop is offering is one of classic Christian self sacrifice. He has so far refused to take the initiative by declaring one side or the other to be in the wrong. He refuses to be the one who takes the action that will directly cause the irreparable break between those who disagree with each other so profoundly. The time may - and probably will - come for a change in his mode of leadership - but it is not yet. The greatest test of his policy and his leadership lies in the next twelve months. He needs all our prayers for the task ahead.
I think our Archbishop is an extremely brave and self sacrificial Christian. I think he has shown and is showing a remarkable degree of patience. He could only proceed as he has because he is a man of prayer and of deep spirituality. The accusation of his being too academic for the task in hand, and the criticism of him being wibbly-wobbly, are unjustified in my opinion. We are extremely fortunate to have him at the helm. He is God’s man for the hour.