Socialist Worker

The Anglican Church is a mass of tensions

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 1874

The dilemmas of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, were beautifully summed up in an interview he gave last weekend. In an interview with John Humphrys on the Today programme, Williams came close to saying that the war against Iraq had been immoral. Then, terrified by the implication of this statement, Williams' officials demanded that this portion of the interview should not be broadcast – and the BBC agreed.

Williams has been hiding elements of his own beliefs since he took over as head of the Church of England. His personal creed is fairly liberal and tolerant. But key sections of the church are conservative and bigoted. Williams either has to face splitting the church or has to persuade his fellow-thinkers that they must give in to the right.

So, Williams instructed Canon Jeffrey John that he must not take up the position of Bishop of Reading because reactionaries objected to an openly gay man being a bishop.

Such retreats are commonplace among religious leaders. They reflect a working out of the pressures which religions face. On the one hand they must reflect something of the beliefs of their followers. In South America and some other parts of the world many priests have been courageous defenders of the poor and have called for fundamental, even revolutionary, change.

But such beliefs can bring confrontation with earthly rulers. So the upper levels of churches generally adopt conservative attitudes. These include cruel and repressive views about sexuality.

In the Catholic church (whose leaders are even more reactionary about sexuality than Anglicans) this has led to centuries of distorted lives and thousands of twisted individuals among the priesthood. Hence the terrible toll of child abuse, persecution of unmarried mothers and so on.

Williams has decided that in order to hold the Church of England together he will make deals with two powerful elements among Anglicans. One section is the evangelicals who believe in the literal truth of (parts of) the Bible and derive from it an unbending hellfire religion. Although they make up only about a quarter of the church, they provide 40 percent of its funding. The other section is the reactionaries in the African church. There is nothing inevitable about African churches being bigoted. The South African church (think of Desmond Tutu) reflects something of the liberation views of the anti-apartheid struggle.

It accepts gays, speaks out against the war on Iraq, and condemns the greed of the bankers and the multinationals. The Nigerian church is very different. It has some 17 million of Anglicanism's 75 million members. It was formed out of a complex interaction. The most powerful factor was imperialism, which imposed Christianity in Nigeria.

But there was revolt against imperialism from some Africans inside the church. They demanded that Africans must determine their own future and that the African church should receive equal treatment with the churches of the more powerful nations.

Christian missionaries had imposed a strict form of Anglicanism in Africa and social conditions today help some of its beliefs to survive. In a world which imperialism and capitalism has made chaotic and terrifying, the church provides stability. It might be a harsh set of rules but at least it is a guiding star in a dark night.

Its message of self reliance also appeals to sections of society. Yet all the time the conservative views of the evangelicals and sections of the African church are challenged by many people's own lived experience. Great tension results.

This is why Rowan Williams censors himself, why he runs away from his own beliefs and why there will be more bitter rows to come in the Church of England.


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Sat 25 Oct 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1874
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