Williams' Advent Letter
The bottom line on Williams' Advent Letter? It's good enough to work with, and better than might have been hoped. Its worst parts have more to do with--it seems to me--Williams' personal idiosyncracies.
On the positive side, as TEC already holds to the Quadrilateral and to the supremacy of Scripture, much of Williams' section 2 should be read as a friendly attempt to shift our debates and disagreements to ground where the topic is not so much homosexuality as hermeneutics. Doesn't his attempt to move the debate along deserve our firm support? And doesn't it bode bode well for TEC in the long term?
Williams continues to hold that the word of Lambeth '98 1.10 expresses the mind of the Communion--surely a tendentious stand. He may seem obtuse in his tenacity--but wait. Lambeth resolutions can flip around with the wind; they are established on the basis of mere aggregates of transient opinion. And Lambeth '98 demonstrated how supermajorities can be assembled on the spot via combinations of manipulative rhetoric and lobbying. Thus, the incendiary parts of Lambeth '98 can be contradicted with some effort in good time.
There is precious little of substance to Williams' stand other than obstinate adherence to the latest ecclesial fashion--decided merely by majority rule--and his stand appears steadfast only because the occasions for contradiction pass at ten year intervals. We tend not to be that patient--left or right. Williams' tenacious hold to Lambeth could eventually cut TEC's way, and his emphasis on Scriptural authority can be taken as a positive development.
It is more difficult to credit his mention of Bishop Robinson again by name:
Thus it is not surprising if some have concluded that the official organs of The Episcopal Church, in confirming the election of Gene Robinson and in giving what many regard as implicit sanction to same-sex blessings of a public nature have put in question the degree to which it can be recognised as belonging to the same family by deciding to act against the strong, reiterated and consistent advice of the Instruments of Communion.
Robinson is not addressed as bishop, but as an individual with a scandalous sexuality. He is being treated here as the exception, subjected to the unique authority of the Archbishop as a means to securing the Communion's unity: a sacred man or, in another conceptual framework, a scapegoat. Williams should know better, judging from his writing on Girard. I have no idea if he is familiar with Taubes, Schmitt, and Agamben as well; even so that would not help his case. He has done this sort of thing to Robinson before and shows no sign of letting up--a merely personal tick?
Moreover, he picks a gratuitous fight with TEC by questioning the legitimacy of its episcopate:
It raises a major ecclesiological issue, not about some sort of autocratic episcopal privilege but about the understanding in The Episcopal Church of the distinctive charism of bishops as an order and their responsibility for sustaining doctrinal standards. Once again, there seems to be a gap between what some in The Episcopal Church understand about the ministry of bishops and what is held elsewhere in the Communion, and this needs to be addressed.
"Once again"--ordaining Robinson seems to be the other case. This is what theological
postliberalism can look like--Williams' ignorance of the very type of power politics in which he
himself is engaged. A grotesque ignorance of TEC's history: our relatively unique episcopate is no accident, and his special pleading with the circumscription "not about some sort of autocratic episcopal privilege" seems willfully perverse. As if episcopal autocracy were the only available
disjunct driving the formation of our polity! The Enlightenment, and the notion of a republic ordered with intrinsic checks, did not arise in a vacuum but out of the failure of premodernity to--among other things--regulate its indulgence in the rituals of power politics. TEC's polity arose in the recognition--the self-recognition--of a potentiality for disordered desire at the level of social structures. It is ironic Williams' very questioning of this polity shows the need for it.
Going over the Archbishop's latest missives, I found myself reading not with the expectation of cogency, but with respect for--even fear of--his power. Who reads or listens to the Archbishop with the expectation of finding a convincing line of reasoning or a persuasive articulation of some as-yet largley unseen picture?
What is important is rather that he wields an enormous amount of power with regard to both left and right, and whichever way the wind happens to tumble him about, he will end up having enormous influence. Whole provinces stand or fall, form or are finished off on the basis of what he says and does not say--and it seems his style of communicating has only intensified the spectacle of Communion-wide focus on his every nod and arched eyebrow.
What does the habit of such a focus do to a community? It is not as if there are principles to be found underneath the words that guide what he asserts with some formal argumentative force. The power of this office is wielded without a set of discernible reasons, but with great reliance on the relevance of the person of Williams and his contingencies, as well as a rhetoric of persuasion based on fear.
Still, this letter is good enough to work with. We would probably do well not addressing Williams' personal idiosyncracies head-on; they are not that important, and we need less wrangling. We already know, for instance, he does not view--even in this letter-- TEC or any province as a real church, he treats Robinson as a scapegoat, and he questions the legitimacy of our episcopate. While it would be tempting to take these views on, we would probably do better ignoring these oddities.