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Expert Comment: Archbishop of Canterbury resigns

Westminster Abbey Wednesday 25 April 2012

Rev Philip Anderson, Anglican Chaplain at Liverpool Hope University

Dr Rowan Williams has sometimes seemed like a stag cornered by dogs. He is a great theologian committed above all to Christian Unity. That very quest has seen the Archbishop hounded by both those who style themselves ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ over the fashionable issues of the day. As is always the case, however, these lazy labels wilfully over-simplify matters.

Every Christian Church has had to find an answer to the question ‘who has the final word in a dispute?’ The English Reformation answered that it was not the Pope, who should be understood as an Italian bishop who had overreached himself. Instead, in ways that sit ill with today’s ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’, the housekeeping of the Church became the business of the Crown.

The Royal Supremacy gave the Crown in Parliament the final word in religious matters, harking back to the days when the Emperor Constantine banged heads together and the Nicene Creed resulted. In England this remains the legal letter, but neither Elizabeth II nor David Cameron have been quick to intervene to impose order on the unruly Established Church, and have no power beyond England.

Since the American Revolution Anglicans more and more have been held together only by love, and a shared faith in the Gospel of Christ, adopting a model of prayerful democracy. Western Anglicans have been guilty of a conceit of ourselves as scholarly, biblically literate, reasonable - superior to those Christians who needed popes or fundamentalism, and bound together by an unparalleled tradition of dignified common prayer.

With hindsight, however, this consensual high noon, lasted for as long as Christianity felt secure in the universe, and the Communion was dominated by the money of a North Atlantic axis. Secularisation in the West, the ‘culture wars’ in the USA, the threat of Islamic violence in Sudan and Nigeria, and the growing strength of the Church in the Global South has shattered the mutual appreciation society, dominated by prelates most at home in the common rooms of Oxbridge or the Ivy League.

The future will be more like the Early Church, and other churches may yet follow the same path - messier, but more egalitarian, with warring bishops, but also more passion for mission, and by God’s grace, a renewed passion for common prayer, which takes pride only in Christ crucified.

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