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The Archbishop of Canterbury's Shadow Gospel

The Archbishop of Canterbury's Shadow Gospel

By Theodore L. Lewis
February 7, 2011

This review is from: Shadow Gospel: Rowan Williams and the Anglican Communion Crisis (Paperback)

This book is a must read for any concerned about the future of the Anglican Communion, that world-wide grouping of churches under the auspices of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It has implications for other churches as well.

There are grounds for concern about the Communion, certainly. Statistics show declining attendance and serious financial difficulties for The Episcopal Church, its largest component in the United States, and similar problems for its components in England, where it originated, and in other countries of the west. And it has become riven by a sharp division, nominally over homosexuality but fundamentally over biblical authority, to the point of threatening its dissolution. Yet the Communion's beginnings back in the 16th century showed much promise. It undertook to combine key elements of the Reformation, notably its focus on Scripture, with much of the heritage of the pre-Reformation church, as in its governance by bishops. Moreover, its member churches in the so-called Global South, in Asia, Latin America, and especially Africa, in recent decades have experienced explosive growth. Thus the question arises of why it should have come to its present crisis.

An answer often given is that the Anglican churches in the west have taken on board the secular culture around them, to the point that they no longer have much distinctive to offer to the world. But Raven goes beyond this to focus on the role of Williams, the present Archbishop of Canterbury. He maintains that it is Williams' failure to uphold the traditional Anglican norms, notably the authority of Scripture, that has alienated the Anglican churches of the Global South, which constitute the large majority of the Communion's active members and most of which adhere to these norms. Moreover, his failure stems from his theology. In showing the connection between Williams as Archbishop and Williams as theologian, Raven has made a cardinal contribution to the discussion.

In showing this connection Raven has of necessity given an account of Williams' theology. This is no easy task given the subtlety and complexity of Williams' thought. And the relative brevity of Shadow Gospel has precluded going into much detail. Nevertheless Raven has made a persuasive case that in his drawing on the philosophies of Wittgenstein, Ricoeur, and above all Hegel, Williams has subordinated Scripture to process as the final source of truth, and thus he considers that the discussion of the issues, among them homosexual practice, confronting the Communion must be ongoing and not subject to closure--this to the dismay of Global South churches and traditional Anglicans elsewhere, seeing as they do Scripture as definitive. Raven's account of Williams' support of homosexual causes prior to his becoming Archbishop, so far unrepudiated, is also impressive.

Shadow Gospel Is not entirely easy going. Not only is Williams' thought complex, so also is the thought of the philosophers he draws on, as are the connections of the one with the other. But Raven's central thesis as outlined above stands forth clearly enough. And a book of this importance would be overlooked at one's peril.

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