On pitying the archbishop

WilliamsAtLambeth.jpgPaul Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has written a lengthy and sometimes well-informed profile of Rowan Williams for the March issue of The Atlantic. He makes some noteworthy errors, writing that Williams was “elected archbishop of Canterbury in 2002 by the other bishops on a wave of enthusiasm like the one that would later carry Barack Obama into the White House, rooted in surprise that such a person -- brilliant, decent, happily married, forward-looking -- had reached the top without selling his soul.”

Williams was indeed received with enthusiasm, but he was appointed rather than elected. It is amusing, though, to see an American writer reverse an error of many British journalists, who forget that bishops of The Episcopal Church are elected rather than appointed.

Elie shows no signs of having spoken with a conservative. So, for instance, he mistakenly accepts Giles Fraser’s gossipy speculation that conservative Episcopalians built coalitions with African Anglicans mostly in response to the nomination of Jeffrey John to become a suffragan bishop for Reading. Those coalitions actually began forming six years earlier, in the run-up to the Lambeth Conference of 1998.

Worse, Elie takes at face value Fraser’s attempt at knowing the motivations of conservatives, which he of course assumes are sinister:

Fraser says those in America and England cared nothing about the views of the bishops of Africa until they saw the chance for an alliance against the progressives. They took up the ordination of gay bishops as a wedge issue, and made a show of unity; they claimed that a pro-gay agenda was a new form of imperialism against the global South. “They drafted the Church of Nigeria, with its numerical strength, as a way of raising a ruckus over it. They got the white man’s guilt going. The Internet sped it along.” And it worked. “Rowan backpedaled,” Fraser said. “He asked Jeffrey John to resign.”

Elie makes a fairly convincing case that Archbishop Williams stands by what he wrote in “The Body’s Grace,” which he delivered as an address the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in 1989. Elie devotes inadequate attention to the archbishop’s frequently expressed distinction between writing “The Body’s Grace” as an academic and working for the Anglican Communion’s unity as Archbishop of Canterbury.

Elie, as a Catholic layman, shows a surprisingly glib attitude toward his church's leaders and historic teaching. He refers, for instance, to Pope Benedict XVI making remarks in a "notorious address," as if the pope had engaged in hate speech:

Over time, many of these strictures have been eased, if only informally -- through readings of the Bible that acknowledge it as a selective, time-bound document, say, or through a view of sex that acknowledges all the good things about it besides procreation. Some thinkers have sought to argue that the prohibitions against homosexuality are theologically unsound. Others have sought to show them as petty compared with Jesus' concern for oppressed peoples in the Gospels (which have nothing to say about homosexuality). Traditionalists, in response, treat homosexuality as part of a slippery slope -- arguing that any easing of the prohibitions against gay sex will undercut the broader Christian view of sexuality, disfiguring not only the institution of marriage but "the nature of man … created in the image of God," as Pope Benedict put it in a now-notorious address in December.

Elsewhere, Elie writes as though the Catholic Church's primary response to homosexuality is to change the subject. This is grossly unfair to a church in which a ministry like Courage exists.

Elie also engages in a pointless apples-and-oranges comparison of how many Muslims and Anglicans are at prayer at midday (presumably a weekday) in the City of London. Elie should realize that Anglicans are not committed to the same midday prayer disciplines as Muslims. From Elie's narrative, one could easily gain the impression that only Fraser's parish shows significant life, and then because of its liberal stance on sex. Apparently Elie has never heard of Holy Trinity Brompton and its many satellite congregations. (For what it's worth, the archbishop's wife, Jane, teaches at St. Paul's Theological Centre, which is based at Holy Trinity Brompton.)

Elie begins his piece with a man's patronizing remark, at a West Village party honoring Gene Robinson, that he pities the archbishop as a prisoner of the office that he accepted. Elie's piece fails precisely when it reflects such a parochial attitude toward anyone -- whether it's Rowan Williams or bishops in Africa -- who acts as though North America's obsession with sex need not dominate the life of the Anglican Communion.

It's frustrating to see such elegant writing diminished by a one-sided perspective.

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