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Pope Benedict and Rowan Williams: A Study in Contrasts

Pope Benedict and Rowan Williams: A Study in Contrasts


By David W. Virtue DD
February 11, 2013

The resignation of two world religious figures - one the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the other the leader of the Anglican Communion -- highlights two very different men with two very different theologies, worldviews and visions of how the church universal ought to look in a rapidly evolving and changing world.

Pope Benedict XVI, a profoundly conservative figure whose papacy was overshadowed by clerical abuse scandals, has said that he will resign at the end of the month. The pope continued to say that due to his increased weakness accompanying advanced age - he is 85 - he feels that he is unable to carry out the duties of his office. He said he had come to the certainty "that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry."

His surprise announcement caught everyone, except a few insiders, by surprise including American Catholic leaders who appeared stunned when they heard the news. Benedict was elected by fellow cardinals in 2005 after the death of John Paul II. He is reportedly the first pope to resign in six centuries. The code of canon law does allow for the resignation of a pope. In accordance with church tradition, a conclave of cardinals will be convened to select the next pope. Press reports say that the conclave will likely take place in mid-March.

By contrast, Dr. Rowan Williams Archbishop of Canterbury, a mere 61, announced his retirement in March 2012 to take effect at the end of the year, some nine years before mandated. He will take up an academic post as Master of Magdalene College. The normal retirement age for Church of England bishops is 70.

Not only does a quarter of a century separate the two men, but centuries of theology do as well. When he was Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the head of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was known as God's Rotweiller. He maintained that pose throughout his tenure as Pope asserting that Catholicism is "true" and other religions are "deficient;" reinforcing that Anglican orders were Apostolicae Curae, that is, invalid, based on an encyclical by Pope Leo XIII which claimed they were deficient of intention and form. He has also said that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak, calling for its re-evangelization and that Catholicism is in competition with Islam. He also strongly opposes homosexuality, ridding gay seminarians dubbed the "Pink mafia" from US seminaries. He also rejects the ordination of women priests and embryonic stem cell research. While Vatican II and the Jesuits ripped the heart out of the Roman Catholic Church, Ratzinger significantly restored it.

During a visit to Washington, Benedict addressed the sexual abuse of minors by clerics scandal that has rocked the U.S. Catholic church in recent decades. He said the abuse of minors by members of the clergy is "evil" and "immoral". It has to be eradicated in a broader attack on the degradation of modern-day sexuality.

Under Williams, an already divided Anglican Communion became even more divided. He proposed a Covenant to keep the communion together. It now lies in tatters. The long struggle to prevent a schism over women and gay bishops and same-sex unions has gone badly, making realignment of the Anglican Communion inevitable. His Affirming Catholicism failed to take hold in the communion. His speeches and sermons, couched in riddles and convoluted language structures, is in direct contrast to the Pope who speaks straightforwardly and clearly in English, which is his third or fourth language. In truth, the less understandable Williams's utterances became, the more frustrated orthodox Anglicans became.

The 72-million-strong worldwide Communion has been threatened with division for several years. Progressives, liberals and revisionists are pushing the boundaries on sexuality and women bishops, while conservatives are pushing back and forming new alliances. Williams's book, The Body's Grace, only cemented orthodox Anglicans views that he is truthfully on the "other side" on sexuality issues and has never fully embraced the Biblical prohibitions on sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

His prevarication and failure to safeguard his Anglo-Catholic wing resulted in the Pope offering a safe harbor of an Ordinariate for traditionalists who could no longer stomach the theological innovations of the Church of England and, more specifically, the Episcopal Church. Ironically, a former Episcopal bishop was selected to lead the worldwide movement for Anglicans wishing to become Roman while retaining some of their liturgical traditions.

When Williams announced his retirement, reviews were mixed across the Anglican Communion. Liberal bishops and archbishops praised Williams' tenure. Nearly all conceded that he has been a leader at a difficult time in the Communion's history. Broad church Anglicans reflected on the difficulty of his leadership, liberals in the US blasted him for not being liberal enough on sexuality issues while Global South archbishops took him to task for not exercising leadership. His lack of clarity on sexuality issues and not bringing western pan Anglican liberal leaders like Katharine Jefferts Schori to heel -- over her less than orthodox views on the Deity of Christ, homosexuality and what she euphemistically called "God's mission" which excluded any talk of The Great Commission to save souls - has been particularly troubling to the Global South.

One African Anglican leader hammered Williams' leadership.

In a blistering attack, not seen in modern memory, the Metropolitan and Primate of the Anglican Province of Nigeria ripped the Archbishop of Canterbury saying his sudden resignation announcement will leave behind a Communion in tatters, with highly polarized, bitterly factionalized, issues of revisionist interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, and human sexuality as stumbling blocks to oneness.

Archbishop Nicholas D. Okoh noted that when Dr. Rowan Williams took over the leadership of the Anglican Communion in 2002, it was a happy family. He is leaving it with decisions and actions that are stumbling blocks to oneness, evangelism and mission all around the Anglican world. Okoh went so far as to say that it was like being "crucified under Pontius Pilate".

The leader of the world's most populace Anglican Province - over 20 million - said the lowest ebb of this degeneration came in 2008, when there were two "Lambeth" Conferences -- one in the UK, and an alternative one, GAFCON in Jerusalem -- that saw more than one third of the Anglican Communion's bishops as "no-shows" at Canterbury. The trend continued recently when many Global South Primates decided not to attend the last Primates' meeting in Dublin, Ireland.

The Nigerian archbishop said that because Williams did not resign in 2008 over the split Lambeth Conference, he should have worked assiduously to "mend the net" or repair the breach, before bowing out of office. Okoh also blasted the covenant proposal saying it was "doomed to fail from the start", as "two cannot walk together unless they have agreed".

Okoh concluded his rip by saying that the announcement did not present any opportunity for excitement. "It is not good news here, until whoever comes as the next leader pulls back the Communion from the edge of total destruction."

No such words will be uttered by an African Catholic prelate about Pope Benedict. He took a consistently hard line, never wavering on theology, ecclesiology or Culture War issues like abortion and contraception saying the West had capitulated to the "culture of death".

"In our times, we need to say 'no' to the largely dominant culture of death. We say 'no' to this culture to cultivate a culture of life." Pope Benedict urged people to rediscover their faith. Pope Benedict denounced what he called the anti-culture of the modern world, comparing it to the decadence of the ancient Roman Empire. "[There is] an anti-culture demonstrated by the flight to drugs, by the flight from reality, by illusions, by false happiness...displayed in sexuality which has become pure pleasure devoid of responsibility."

No such exhortations were ever uttered by Dr. Williams. His words, sermons and exhortations invited reflection, but there were never condemnations of sin or calls to repentance and faith. He toyed with the Bible like a high wire tight rope walker, making it mean whatever he wanted it to mean in the cultural moment. The Pope's resignation is a sign of his humility (leaving before he dies); Williams's departure is a sign of his failure to hold the communion together and to stay in the job for another nine years, which would have been hell for him, a hell he did not want or need. Better let someone else take it over and go down with it. Williams's total failure to heal the deep divisions within the Anglican Communion will be his legacy.

It is not without its significance that the Church of England has chosen an out and out Evangelical in the school of archbishops like George Carey and Donald Coggan to lead it, making Archbishop Justin Welby, at least for the moment, a darling of the Global South. Time will tell if he can rein in the liberal West and still retain their admiration. What is needed now, wrote Rod Thomas chairman of Reform, "is someone who will hold firm to Biblical truth in areas such as human sexuality in order to promote the gospel and unite the church in the face of militant secularism."

Whereas the Pope railed against post-modernism, atheism and secularism, Williams said little or nothing, instead praising the need for social networks, more good works and for a sense of community while blasting multi-national corporations for their rapacious greed and more. In a culture wars spat over the wearing of a cross by a BA employee, Williams called the cross a "religious decoration", a "substitute for faith" mocking the need to wear it. The British Press said he simply helped secularists. Whose side is he on, they asked?

Homosexuals and secularists railed against the Pope out of their own fears revealing in truth their fear of monolithic Catholicism. They fear him because he adheres so strongly to traditional Christian teaching and champions principles they abhor. The same group did not vent their spite and vitriol on the Archbishop of Canterbury because Williams has been so cowed by the forces of secularism that he no longer poses any threat to their bleak vision, noted one British commentator.

T. E. Hulme famously said, "An institution is only finally overthrown when it has taken into itself the ideas of its opponents." This seems to me to be a good description of the response of the Church of England to the pernicious assaults of militant secularism. The Church has been thoroughly penetrated by the mindset of its enemies, said one British blogger.

What better time to preach the Good News than when there is a sense of defeatism in the face of the incoming tide of secularism as congregations dwindled and parish churches closed? Williams lost that moment. The question future historians will ask is: did he ever have it?

The Roman Catholic Church now faces something of a crisis. Will it elect a clone of Pope Benedict XVI or someone more moderate? The question for the Anglican Communion will be if Archbishop Welby is up to the job of breathing new evangelical life into a moribund Church, and maintaining the respect and support of the Global South while confronting Western pan Anglican liberals like Jefferts Schori and Fred Hiltz with their apostasies and heresies. Only time will tell.


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