NINETEEN senior bishops, led by the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, have protested in a strongly worded letter about what they describe as the “gross misrepresentation” of the Archbishop of Canterbury in The Times.
Under the front-page headline “Archbishop believes gay sex is as good as marriage”, and the inside headline that said that he believed it “equivalent to marriage”, extracts were published on Thursday of last week from leaked private correspondence, exchanged eight years ago between Dr Williams as Archbishop of Wales and Dr Deborah Pitt, a psychiatrist and Evangelical who had sought his views on sexuality.
In the letters, he reflected on 20 years of study and prayer, which had led him to conclude that “an active sexual relationship between two people of the same sex might therefore reflect the love of God in a way comparable to marriage, if and only if it had about it the same character of absolute covenanted faithfulness.”
Dr Williams expresses his belief that the Bible forbade promiscuity rather than gay sex. He noted Canon Jeffrey John as among academics who had influenced his thinking. He emphasised the distinction between the individual reflections of a theologian and the position a church leader had to take, and regreted the politicising of the issue.
The Archbishop responded to the news report the day after it was published, restating his acceptance of Lambeth Resolution 1.10 as stating the position of the Anglican Communion, “and thus as providing the authoritative basis on which I as Archbishop speak”.
He acknowledged the contributions he had made “as a professional theologian” to the continuing discussion, but made it clear that “no individual’s speculations about this have any authority of themselves. Our Anglican Church has never exercised close control over what individual theologians may say.”
The Bishops’ letter questions the motives and timing of the release of the letters, and deplores the capital some churchmen sought to make out of them “as though they were ‘news’”.
The Presiding Bishop of the Southern Cone, the Most Revd Greg Venables, had described the correspondence as “more evidence of the unravelling of Anglicanism” in a follow-up story in The Times last Friday, headlined: “Dr Williams ‘has made a split inevitable in the Anglican Church’”.
The Bishops’ letter describes Dr Williams’s proposal as “far more cautious in content, and tentative in tone” than the news reports and headlines imply. They draw attention to his statement in one letter that same-sex relationships differ from marriage “because marriage has other dimensions to do with children and society”.
They also refer to his repeated insistence that there is a difference between “thinking aloud” as a theologian, and the task of a bishop to uphold the Church’s teaching.
The Bishops say that Dr Williams’s final presidential address to the Lambeth Conference (News, 8 August) presented clear reaffirmations “in the context of a powerful and clearly thought out address, as the fresh articulation of the mind of the church, not as an opinion which he was bound to express, but from which he privately wanted to dissent”.
They conclude: “He has our full and unqualified support in his magnificent leadership both of the Church of England and of the Anglican Communion.”
Several Evangelical bishops were among the signatories. The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd George Cassidy, said on Monday that the story was “an old thing, and looked pique-ish because the Lambeth Conference had achieved a greater harmony. . .
“Rowan played a blinder at the Conference, showing masterful leadership in a non-pejorative and non-belligerent way. It was very subtle,” Bishop Cassidy said. “This was the last thing he needed.”
The Global South Anglican group described the release of the letters as “a low blow”. It issued a reminder that Dr Williams had stated his position at the Red Sea Encounter in 2005, when he told the conservative group that while he had “in the past raised questions about this . . . the fact remains that the Church is not persuaded. . . I am loyal to the Church which has asked me to serve. . . So, the authority that I accept has to be the authority of the whole body.”
The Bishops’ letter and Dr Williams’s response to the coverage is at www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1930
Does this leaked correspondence matter now?