What seems to have crystallised as the key to Archbishop Rowan Williams’ somewhat early resignation from his job as head of the global Anglican Communion is the issue of sexuality. Over the last ten years a great deal of heat and not much light has been generated around this question in Anglican circles. We have seen socially conservative Anglicans continue to realise and idolise the heteropatriarchal symbolism of traditional Christian theology while socially liberal Anglicans, in contrast, stress its prophetic nature at the same time remaining individualistic in their visions of freedom. African clergy sense the force of former colonial relationships at work in criticism of their stance on gay clergy and marriage, while gay Christians feel viciously stripped of their humanity and similarly betrayed. It is no wonder, that his latest attempt to promote the spirit of cooperation and the Gospel through a global covenant having failed, Rowan Williams felt a wish to move on. Reconciliation, in this context, seems an impossible task.
Yet as more than one commentator has noticed, an interesting fact about all this internal Anglican sound and fury is that it has continued to be focussed on essentially ‘domestic’ issues. Though Rowan Williams has certainly spoken out in the last ten years about economic questions and matters of foreign policy he has remained an outsider looking in; one generally well-respected person commenting from a largely personal perspective, rather than the head of the Church militant advising the prime minister on policy and expecting to be heard. Although the Roman Catholic Church is a far bigger affair, much the same can be said both of it and its leadership. As Professor Naomi Goldenberg said in this blog recently, even this limited role as social commentator is always at risk of ‘being delegitimated in relation to the category of religion’. In fact the fate of the Archbishop provides a good illustration of what she writes about vestigial states, caught up as he is in this acrimonious and most unloving dispute over custom and law pertaining to the ‘family’ both as a social institution and in relation to the Church’s own economy or inner arrangements.
To apply Professor Goldenberg’s analysis to this situation, Anglican Christianity, at one time, a fully integrated element of government, is now increasingly cordoned off from day to day influence by the deployment of the discursive category ‘religion’, that is defined in terms of its own insignificance in relation to the ‘secular’ state. Meantime and in some ways as a consequence of this cordoning off, the ideological character of the foregrounded and ‘secular’ state operates increasingly across the Western world by means of its own closed and self-referential system of economic and managerial justifications. Not really open to criticism, the secular state has acquired a normative status. So it is a matter of simple common sense that the Prime minister is not advised by an Archbishop guilty of ‘partisan posturing’ who should be cheered when he defends Christians but sent back to school when he suggests the Church might actually have something to say about social justice.
Applying Professor Goldenberg’s analysis, the Anglican church as a vestigial state will probably continue to be eager to take on ‘whatever social, cultural and/or managerial functions the recognized state cedes to them’. So the wrangling over gay bishops will probably continue. Perhaps it is a good thing that the Christian Churches as a whole do not function non-vestigially in British society any more, and certainly, for Archbishop Williams it must be something of a relief not to wield that kind of power and responsibility. At the same time, it is also important to recognise that just because it calls itself ‘secular’ this in itself does not exempt the British nation state from criticism of its own decidedly ideological stance on matters from the special relationship with the United States and the future of the NHS, to the role of ‘religion’. One has to ask, what is it about Christianity and the Christian Churches that our so-called ‘secular’ government is so keen to hide from sight?