Archbishop Justin gets handbagged by Ann Widdecombe
Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby made history by becoming the first holder of that Holy Office ever to participate in a live Q&A session on national radio. It was, despite much of the post-interview negative media coverage, an undoubted missiological success. It may have caused a bit of grief for the Archbishop's Director of Communications Ailsa Anderson, and it may have been a testing time for Press Officer Ed Thornton. But if the Archbishop is to be effective in his ministry, he must communicate the Faith succinctly, incisively and frequently by all means possible. And Lambeth Palace staff have to learn to live on the edge with all the comms expertise and sound-bite savvy of a political media machine. Spontaneous Q&A is raw, authentic and well worth doing, despite the personal costs and predictably distorted media reaction. So more, please.
But what shall we call this new media phenomenon? 'Ask the Archbishop'? 'Grill Justin'? 'Quiz Welby'?
Whatever the emerging brand, the Lambeth Palace media operation needs to be swift in its spiritual counter-response to the world's knee-jerk response. It is axiomatic in politics that a lie is half way round the world before the truth has its boots on. When it comes to religion, the world spins whole revolutions in honour of the lie while the truth disappears into the stratosphere.
In an intense and sometimes fractious hour, Archbishop Justin covered a vast array of political topics and social-justice issues, as well as profound theological reflections about Christ and the nature of God.
There has been an array of blogging responses for those who can be bothered to consider the politico-spiritual depths of the exchange (full transcript here). For those who can't be bothered – which will be most of the world – the sound-bite impression from the media coverage is that the Archbishop of Canterbury got a good handbagging from Anglican-turned-Roman-Catholic Ann Widdecombe on abortion and women priests, and was then lured into admitting that the Church of England will not introduce same-sex marriage because it would lead to the mass slaughter of Christians in Africa. These distortions have been lapped up by the world while context, meaning and truth are lost in the ether.
His Grace will not deal with the same-sex marriage issue for two reasons: firstly, he is thoroughly sick of the issue; and secondly, a magisterial response and exposition has been written by eminent theologian Andrew Goddard over at Fulcrum. Do read it, for it is the definitive theological rebuttal to those crass assertions that Archbishop Justin's teaching is "scandalous", "severely mistaken" or "dangerously sloppy".
LBC doubtless admitted Ann Widdecombe into the debate because she is one of the most high-profile defectors to the Church of Rome, her religio-political objective now being to deride wishy-washy Anglicanism at every turn and laud the absolute rock of theological certainty afforded by the successor to St Peter. "The Church of England never seems to know what it thinks about anything," she declared, with all the righteous zeal of an ex-smoker preaching the eschatological judgment of lung cancer. Archbishop Justin graciously later acknowledged via Twitter her "effectiveness".
His Grace would have handled her questions slightly differently, probing why manifestly second-order theological issues such as gender or sexuality - the zeitgeist obsessions of the world - should trump primary theological contentions such as the essence of soteriology, the nature of ecclesiology or the meaning of communion. Does the appointment of women priests really outweigh salvation by faith? If the ordination of women as priests should become a cause of schism and the impetus to abandon the Protestant-Anglican understanding of salvation to embrace the Sacrifice of the Mass, as it was for Ms Widdecombe, what hope is there ever for fuller visible unity?
Are issues about authority in the Church as theological in the same sense as the bigger issues on which there is already clear ecumenical agreement? If they are, how exactly is it that they make a difference to our basic understanding of salvation and communion? And if they are not, why do they still stand in the way of fuller visible unity? Can there, for example, be a model of unity as a communion of churches which have different attitudes to how the papal primacy is expressed?’
The central question, of course, is whether and how we can properly tell the difference between “second order” and “first order” issues. When so very much agreement has been firmly established in first-order matters about the identity and mission of the Church, is it really justifiable to treat other issues as equally vital for its health and integrity?
There are two issues which divide as authority – the nature or indeed the very possibility of the magisterium; and primacy – the extent to which the integrity of the Church is ultimately dependent on a single identifiable ministry of unity to which all local ministries are accountable. The Church of England repudiates the language of rule and hierarchy established by decree, with fixed divisions between teachers and taught, rulers and ruled, advocating instead filial and communal holiness held in a universal pattern of mutual service.
During his conversation with Ms Widdecombe, Archbishop Justin said: "I'm not the Pope: I can't declare infallible doctrine." And later he explained: "We're not a political party: when we do something (which some members don't like), we don't say you've got to quit."
The Church should be concerned with repentance, love and mutual reconciliation; not pride, power and ever-increasing division. The pattern of Church leadership built upon papal primacy is allied to juridical privilege and the patterns of rule and control to such an extent that it fails to achieve what it sets out to do. Of course, this is a slightly sensitive discussion, but the question of altar fellowship and of mutual recognition of ministerial offices should not be unconditionally dependent on a consensus on the question of primacy.
The historic Anglican via media seeks a restored universal communion which would be genuinely a community of communities and a communion of communions. This is not expressed as a single juridically united body, and therefore one which does indeed assume that, while there is a recognition of a primatial ministry, this is not absolutely bound to a view of primacy as a centralised juridical office.
The corporate reading of Scripture, obedience to the Lord's commands to baptise and make eucharist, or the shared understanding of the shape and the disciplines of what we call filial holiness, do not need any further test, and certainly not any imposed by a universal primate.
And so the Church of England repudiates those Roman Catholic theologians who assert that the ordination of women priests or bishops makes the Anglican Communion simply less recognisably a body doing the same Catholic thing. For many Anglicans, not ordaining women had a possible unwelcome implication about the difference between baptised men and baptised women, which in their view threatened to undermine the coherence of the ecclesiology in question. The same unwelcome implications may be drawn from not admitting women to the episcopate.
The challenge to recent Roman Catholic thinking on this would have to be: in what way does the prohibition against ordaining women so enhance the life of communion, reinforcing the essential character of filial and communal holiness as set out in Scripture and tradition and ecumenical agreement, that its breach would compromise the purposes of the Church as so defined? And do the arguments advanced about the 'essence' of male and female vocations and capacities stand on the same level as a theology derived more directly from Scripture and the common theological heritage such as we find in these ecumenical texts?
Even if there remains uncertainty in the minds of some about the rightness of ordaining women, is there a way of recognising that somehow the corporate exercise of a Catholic and Evangelical ministry remains intact even when there is dispute about the standing of female individuals? In terms of the relation of local to universal, what we are saying here is that a degree of recognisability of 'the same Catholic thing' has survived: Anglican provinces ordaining women to some or all of the three orders have not become so obviously diverse in their understanding of filial holiness and sacramental transformation that they cannot act together, serve one another and allow some real collaboration.
It is this sort of thinking that has allowed Anglicans until recently to maintain a degree of undoubtedly impaired communion among themselves, despite the sharpness of the division over this matter. It is part of the rationale of supplementary episcopal oversight as practised in the English provinces, and it may yet be of help in securing the place of those who will not be able to accept the episcopal ministry of women. There can be no doubt, though, that the situation of damaged communion will become more acute with the inability of bishops within the same college to recognise one another's ministry in the full sense. Yet, in what is still formally acknowledged to be a time of discernment and reception, is it nonsense to think that holding on to a limited but real common life and mutual acknowledgement of integrity might be worth working for within the Anglican family? And if it can be managed within the Anglican family, is this a possible model for the wider ecumenical scene? At least, by means of some of the carefully crafted institutional ways of continuing to work together, there remains an embodied trust in the possibility of discovering a shared ministry of the gospel; and who knows what more, ultimately, in terms of restored communion?
At what point do we have to recognise that surviving institutional and even canonical separations or incompatibilities are overtaken by the authoritative direction of genuinely theological consensus, so that they can survive only by appealing to the ghost of ecclesiological positivism? These issues may all seem, to the eyes of a non-Roman Catholic, to belong in a somewhat different frame of reference from the governing themes of the ecumenical ecclesiology expressed. If the non-Roman Catholic is wrong about this, we need to have spelled out exactly why; we need to understand either that there are issues about the filial/communal calling clearly at stake in surviving disagreements; or to be shown that another theological 'register' is the right thing to use in certain areas, a different register which will qualify in some ways the language that has so far shaped ecumenical convergence.
These are political matters which there is no point in approaching theologically, which is quite possibly why Ann Widdecombe finds them so very attractive.
For those of us who are not Roman Catholics, the question His Grace would like to put to Ms Widdecombe and her co-religionists, in a grateful and fraternal spirit, is whether this unfinished business is as fundamentally church-dividing as our Roman Catholic friends generally assume and maintain. And if it isn't, can we all allow ourselves to be challenged to address the outstanding issues with the same methodological assumptions and the same overall spiritual and sacramental vision that has brought us thus far?
As Archbishop Justin said: "I’m not a Pope and I can’t say what the Church is going to do. It’s something we decide collectively, the Church together and we’re beginning that process."
It is good for the Archbishop to be handbagged by assertive women. But he needs to develop a way of responding robustly by swinging his manbag.