Comment on the Comments
William Oddie FAITH Magazine January-February 2007
Writing about a news story after the event is often a matter of asking how it could ever have been considered news in the first place. Those who comment on the news at the time - leader-writers and other pundits - sometimes spot a non-event or a manufactured news story: but often they don’t, being caught up, either in the excitement of a newly minted story or at the very least in the necessity of producing something - anything - against a looming deadline. Hindsight may or may not be a wonderful thing; but it is nearly always a sobering one.
A perfect example of this phenomenon was the extraordinary press reaction to an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury published by The Catholic Herald just before his visit to the Pope in November. The Daily Mail account wonderfully epitomised the capacity of the popular press to create excitement and conflict ex nihilo, and it is worth quoting at length as a classic of the genre. The headline was ‘Archbishop admits Church may have to re-think women priests’ and the ‘stand-first’ was a masterpiece of cynical effrontery: ‘Dr Rowan Williams insists the reporting of his remarks in a Roman Catholic journal have been [sic] “wilfully misleading”.’ The story’s first paragraph bears out Dr Williams’s protest, being a quite staggering and certainly ‘wilful’ misrepresentation, easilyidentifiable as such:
‘The Archbishop of Canterbury was plunged into trouble today after suggesting that the Church of England may one day sack its women priests.
‘Dr Rowan Williams said that he could “just about envisage” a time when Anglicans “thought again” about women in holy orders. ‘His interview with a Roman Catholic journal ended in an angry row as the Archbishop issued a statement which insisted the reporting of his remarks had been “wilfully misleading”.
‘Dr Williams’s statement said he had denied three times during his interview that he wanted to re-open the issue of women priests. And his remarks on women provoked a backlash from feminists inside the Church of England.
‘One member of the Church’s ruling cabinet, the Archbishops’ Council, expressed “disappointment” with Dr Williams’s apparently lukewarm attitude to women priests.
‘Dr Williams spoke to the Catholic Herald in advance of a trip to Rome for talks with Pope Benedict. His audience with the Pope is likely to be overshadowed by the continuing dispute between the Vatican and Lambeth Palace over the C of E’s women priests and its intention shortly to appoint a first woman bishop.’
So: ‘sacked’ women clergy, out on the street, with all their belongings piled up outside the vicarage door; Rowan Williams ‘plunged into trouble’; a ‘feminist backlash’ (ouch); a ‘continuing dispute between the Vatican and Lambeth Palace’: all vaporous nothings, forgotten with the rest of yesterday’s papers. Everyone, including The Daily Mail, knows (and knew perfectly well at the time) that the C of E cannot go back on what it has done, and that Dr Williams doesn’t want it to. Everyone knew also that there was no ‘feminist backlash’. The most senior Anglican feminist, General Synod member Christina Rees, the member of the Archbishops’ Council referred to by the Mail, simply pointed to the archbishop’s academic tendency to see all sides of an issue. ‘His comments may unsettle somepeople’, she told The Daily Telegraph, ‘but they shouldn’t. I am certain that he supports women priests and bishops. It is in his style to answer in an honest way’. The fact is that Dr Williams was never in any ‘trouble’, over the matter. As for Rome, far from being in any kind of ‘dispute’ with Canterbury over this or anything else, the Holy See is maintaining perfectly friendly relations with the Anglican communion, no longer with any notion that communio in sacris is now an even distant prospect but as a matter of simple good manners. There is no ‘dispute’, bluntly, because nothing of any substance is any longer at stake. All passion is spent; after repeated warnings, first from Paul VI, then from John Paul II, that to ordain women would constitute an insuperable barrier to any futureprogress towards unity, the Church of England ordained them anyway. The result was inevitable: relations between Canterbury and Rome are now perfectly friendly, but operate on an entirely different basis. When Pope Paul and Archbishop Michael Ramsey met, forty years ago, it was with great solemnity in the Sistine chapel. This symbolic occasion was followed by another, at which Archbishop Ramsey received the Pope at St Paul’s Without the Walls, at the end of which the two men exchanged Episcopal rings (the pope had put on a spare for the purpose): the somewhat rash symbolism of this action did not escape the crowd outside the church who, after the Pope’s departure, knelt for the archbishop’s blessing. Such heady days are over now, and for ever: a suggestion from Lambeth Palace that theremight, during Dr Williams’s visit, be a ceremony in the Sistine chapel to mark the fortieth anniversary of Dr Ramsey’s meeting with Pope Paul was politely but firmly resisted; such occasions now carry no hint of symbolic importance or possibility of convergence towards future unity; they are, frankly, a question of the Pope’s maintaining good relations by giving some of his valuable time to a little friendly conversation, a fact tacitly accepted by Dr Williams, who told the Herald that he was ‘just delighted that …
we have been given such generous time in the meeting’.
It is worth looking a little more closely at the Catholic Herald interview, all the same, since it perfectly epitomises why the Anglican and Catholic mindsets are so wholly incompatible. Freddy Sayers, the Herald’s deputy editor, had asked Dr Williams about whether, in view of the divisions it had caused, women’s ordination had been worth it. Dr Williams was not exactly enthusiastic (he is thought to be disappointed by the quality of the women clergy so far ordained): ‘I don’t think’, he commented, ‘it has transformed or renewed the Church of England in spectacular ways. Equally, I don’t think it has corrupted or ruined the Church of England in spectacular ways. It has somehow got into the bloodstream and I don’t give it a second thought these days, in terms of regular worship’. FreddySayers asked ‘there can be no going back then?’ Dr Williams’s response - the cause of all the Press furore - was reasonably clear: there could, indeed, be no going back. ‘I don’t see how there can be’, he said; ‘I could just about envisage a situation in which over a very long period the Anglican Church thought again about it, but I would need to see what the theological reason for that would be and I don’t see it at the moment. I don’t think, practically, there’s going back. It is a matter of containing and managing the diversity.’ So, not exactly a suggestion that the Church of England ‘may one day sack its women priests’. But not exactly a ringing endorsement, of them, either.
It was not, however, for Catholics, the most interesting part of the interview. It is when Freddy Sayers asks Dr Williams about the effect of women’s ordination on relations between Rome and Canterbury that we see the vast gulf there always was between the Anglican and the Catholic mindsets. Dr Williams makes two points: ‘One, I think someAnglicans are quite surprised at just how high up the scale of theological priorities the women’s issue turned out to be.… it is a bit surprising that it turned out to be quite so important. But of course in the late Pope’s pontificate a whole lot of new considerations about the theology of the role of women came in and were given quite strong priority in a way which made this much more complicated. So I could express the point crudely by saying it isnot just the Anglican Church that has moved: there have been developments in the Roman Catholic Church as well.’
But this is extraordinary. Both Dr Williams’s ‘points’ are based on a simple nonsense. Firstly, there was no excuse for being surprised that the Church should think this an important matter, since the Catholic view had already been made absolutely clear, well in advance, in the form of warnings of the effects this step would have on Anglican/ Catholic relations; secondly, John Paul II said no more than Paul VI had said, more than once: there was no question of ‘a whole lot of new considerations about the theology of the role of women’ entrenching in any way the Church’s prohibition upon the ordination of women to the priesthood. Paul VI wrote to Ramsey’s successor, Dr Donald Coggan, ten years after the famous meeting in the Sistine chapel, in response to an approach from him asking forclarification on precisely this question: ‘Your Grace is of course well aware,’ said Pope Paul, ‘of the Catholic Church’s position on this question. She holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons…. We must regretfully recognize that a new course taken by the Anglican Communion in admitting women to the ordained priesthood cannot fail to introduce into [our] dialogue an element of grave difficulty which those involved will have to take seriously into account’ (my italics). In a later letter to Dr Coggan, he described women’s ordination as a ‘grave… new obstacle and threat’ along ‘the path of reconciliation’. It is surely astonishing to be told now, firstly, that Anglicans were ‘quite surprised at how high up the scale of theologicalpriorities the women’s issue turned out to be’, and secondly that it was all John Paul’s fault.
The really revealing thing about the interview is the way it demonstrates what it is about Rowan Williams that is so fundamentally and unregenerately Anglican, and why - for all his flirtations with Catholic spirituality (the bit Anglicans like, because they think there is no doctrine involved) - he could never have become a Catholic himself: it is thus revealing, too, about the nature of Anglicanism itself and explains, among other things, why the obstacles to reunion are much higher than they seemed in the heyday of the now virtually defunct ARCIC conversations.
The reason Rowan Williams was prepared to flirt with the remote possibility that one day the Anglican church may change its mind about women’s ordination is because, quite simply, there is for him no question that is ever finally closed - in other words, he profoundly accepts Anglicanism’s only immutable and fundamental theological principle: that the purpose of asking theological questions is never finally to discover answers, only to proceed endlessly to the formulation of new questions which in turn can never be answered. The fallacy is that this leads to a more adventurous mindset: in fact it leads to the entire intellectual sterility that marks Anglican theology today. As Chesterton put it in Orthodoxy, ‘A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expectany number of adventures if he goes travelling in the land of authority. One can find no meanings in a jungle of scepticism; but the man will find more and more meanings who walks through a forest of doctrine and design.’