Review: Charles F. Raven, Shadow Gospel

Article by   December 2010
Rowan Williams and the Anglican Communion Crisis (Latimer Trust, 2010)

The Latimer Trust (www.latimertrust.org) has a long history of publishing some fine booklets on the history and theology of Reformed Anglicanism.  Many of us outside the Anglican fold are grateful, both for the good literature it produces, and for the insights it gives us into how Reformed Anglicans are addressing the current issues which face their church.

The newest book to emerge from LT is Charles F. Raven, Shadow Gospel: Rowan Williams and the Anglican Communion Crisis.  In this work, Raven presents an account of the last decade or so of Anglican history, and weaves his narrative by connecting the theology of Rowan Williams to the policies he has pursued as Archbishop of Canterbury.  He locates the central dynamic in this story as being the tension between pre-Canterbury Williams, the man who gave the pro-gay Anglican lobby its intellectual rationale and ballast, and Canterbury Williams, the man who has appeared (to his critics - both liberal and conservative) to have tried to follow something of a vacillating middle path in an attempt to hold the church together.  Around this central narrative, Raven also offers insights into the growing numerical power of the conservative Anglican churches of the southern hemisphere, the massive financial power of the liberal ECUSA (now TEC), and the practical and structural realignments that are taking place within the Anglican church as a result of the inevitable struggles which such imbalances bring in their wake.   At the end of the book, one is left with a picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury as a somewhat impotent and lonely figure, overtaken by events. I hate to feel pity for someone - it always seems so patronizing - but it is hard not to feel sorry for Williams the man by the end of this sorry tale.  After all, he had the great misfortune to come to power just as the whole thing was starting to go south - both metaphorically and, in the case of Anglicanism, literally as well.  Indeed, one can imagine him being asked by a reporter `You were big once, weren't you?' and him responding, in true Norma Desmond style `I am big!  It's the parts that got small.' 

The book is excellent and well worth reading for a number of reasons. First, Raven's account is fascinating in the way it connects Williams's theology to his policies as Archbishop, casting him not so much as a classic liberal as a neo-Hegelian, for whom the very process of institutional discussion, with the synthetic resolution of antithetical positions, is the hallmark of what it is to be orthodox. This is the `shadow gospel' of the title: a philosophy expressed using the language of orthodoxy, but which has no real gospel substance to it.   

According to Raven, this is why Williams is able to distance his public action (highly equivocal, as in the case of Jeffrey John) on homosexuality from his private convictions (the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals is legitimate). This is a fascinating thesis, but I did wonder at points if this was not an over-reading of Williams's actions.In a position of leadership in an institution that is racked by controversy and cracking at the seams, Williams has acted like the inexperienced politician-administrator that he is; and it might be pure crisis management pragmatism that has driven his policies. To lead is to choose; but Williams, according to this account, has seemed unwilling to do so at key moments.  As far as the Hegelianism goes - we have no need of that hypothesis; bumbling pragmatics serve just as well.

Second, as an outsider to the Anglican church, I found the book enlightening in the remarkable way that Raven brought home the depth of the crisis which she faces. My Norma Desmond reference was entirely appropriate: Canterbury is slowly but surely losing control, being marginalized by a wealthy American church dominated by liberals, and southern hemisphere churches dominated by conservatives.  Williams can soldier on, pretending that he carries weight in his denomination, but it is increasingly clear that neither left nor right either respect him or look to him for reliable leadership.

The book also provoked a number of questions in my mind. First, why is homosexuality the big issue?  As Raven points out at several junctures, it is the issue around which the current crisis has coalesced; and homosexuality is in this context symptomatic of a much deeper crisis in the authority of scripture and its relationship to ecclesiology. Yet, as an outsider, it would seem that the ordination to office of men who deny cardinal doctrines of the faith, and even their consecration as bishops, would also represent precisely the same crises; and these have been happening for years, with no disciplinary action being taken. What makes homosexuality so special?

This then raises a second point: antipathy towards homosexuality is certainly consonant with biblical teaching; but just because something is consonant with biblical teaching does not mean that the reasons or motives which lie behind it are necessarily biblical. I went to a rugby-playing all-boys grammar school in England in the late 70s/early 80s. Anti-homosexual sentiment was rampant; but neither myself nor my friends were motivated by biblical ethics, merely by the anti-gay attitudes of the broader culture. The same kind of anti-homosexual sentiment is not uncommon in African cultures today (witness Mugabe's Zimbabwe; and recent events in Kenya).  My question, then relates to the reasons why homosexuality has become the point of conflict in the Anglican communion, when, say, denial of the resurrection by office-bearers was not such. Is it really because it flies in the face of biblical teaching?  Or is it because it is culturally distasteful, even as the idiom for expressing such distaste looks quite biblical?  The agitation of the African bishops over this issue is clear from Raven's narrative, and we should be grateful that this has finally strengthened the resolve of British Anglicans to make a stand; but the one unexpected result of reading the book was that I was left wondering how truly biblical in motivation and content some of the conservatism from the southern hemisphere is. That, by the way, is a genuine, not a rhetorical, question.

Raven's book goes some way to answering the question as to why homosexuality is the watershed: clearly he and others regard this current debate as a decisive point because there are earnest attempts being made to change church law relative to this matter. In other words, the formal identity of the church as an institution is set to change. I have some sympathy with this argument; but I am still left wondering whether a church that has long since stopped prosecuting ministers for publicly rejecting the teaching of the 39 Articles, and has even promoted them to the highest positions of authority, has not functionally so reinterpreted its own laws as to have arguably changed a long, long time ago. If such is the case, then the debates on homosexuality are dangerously vulnerable to accusations of being motivated by selective orthodoxy and homophobia.

All in all, this book should be read by every thoughtful Christian who wants an intelligent insider account of what is happening in Anglicanism at this crucial time. As one with many friends inside the Anglican communion, I think that I now have a better understanding of what they are facing; and, even as I disagree with them on a host of important fronts, I am better equipped to pray more intelligently for them in the coming struggles.

For those who want a further critical handle on Rowan William's theology, you should obtain two other booklets from Latimer Trust: Garry Williams [no relation], The Theology of Rowan Williams; and Mark D. Thompson, Too Big for Words: The Transcendence of God and Finite Human Speech. We owe the Latimer Trust a great debt for making such consistently excellent material available.

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