The Magazine

Is God in the Details?

The Archbishop of Canterbury looks backward.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Why Study the Past?

The Quest for the Historical Church

by Rowan Williams

Eerdmans, 129 pp., $15

"GOD WILL NOT ALWAYS be a Tory," Lord Byron once assured a dispirited correspondent. This should comfort at least one side in the debates now raging within the Church of England--particularly the several hundred Anglican priests who vow that they will defy their bishops' ban on same-sex marriage and take advantage of the Civil Partnership Act to marry their partners.

It will not budge the primate of Nigeria, who has warned that if the C of E connives at such partnerships, it risks expulsion from the worldwide church. Meanwhile, 400 Anglican clergy have already left the church over women priests, setting the church back £26 million in hardship payments. And more defections are expected, now that women bishops are in the offing.

With church unity in tatters, and the word implosion in every other headline, it is amazing that Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, has managed to sit down and write such an engaging book. Why Study the Past? is a lively summons to both liberals and conservatives to learn from the past and turn their polemical swords into ploughshares. At the very least, it should introduce some civility into their debates.

In his quest for the historical church, Williams leads his readers to the 4th century, when the old Roman world had entered its dotage and a spry new Christian faith was taking its place, and to the Reformation of the 16th century, when reformers charged that the church had become untenably corrupt and a new reformed church was needed. In both periods, the great question was what constituted the church's true identity. Williams contends that, by looking at how the two periods tried to answer that question, contemporary Anglicans might be able to sort out their differences.

To put his quest in some critical context, readers might wish to get hold of Henry Bettenson's anthology, The Early Christian Fathers (1956), Charles Norris Cochrane's Christianity and Classical Culture (1940), one of W.H. Auden's favorite books, and Christopher Haigh's English Reformations (1993), all of which are available in paperback. None is cited by Williams, but they complement or challenge what he has to say in many respects.

Apropos the study of history, Williams insists that it is "dangerous and stultifying . . . [to] make any part of the past a mirror for our own preferences and assumptions." This echoes an instructive aside in Julian Barnes's witty novel, Flaubert's Parrot (1985), where the narrator observes:

What a curious vanity it is of the present to expect the past to suck up to it. The present looks back at some great figure of an earlier century and wonders, Was he on our side? Was he a goodie? What a lack of self-confidence this implies: the present wants both to patronize the past by adjudicating on its political acceptability, and also to be flattered by it, to be patted on the back and told to keep up the good work . . .

No historians have been guiltier of this sort of self-justifying history than Protestant historians--the Whig historians Macaulay and Froude wrote some of the most biased history ever written--so Williams is right to counsel against it. He takes the case of the Gnostics, a heretical sect of the early Church, to illustrate his point. The Gnostics were against episcopal hierarchy and biblical literalism but they were also for predestination based on class and the evil of women and the flesh. As Williams says, contemporary Anglicans will need to think twice before they present them as "forerunners of a liberal and enlightened faith fitted for the contemporary market."

It is a mark of Williams's intellectual probity that he doesn't sidestep the problems facing his church. Indeed, there is an almost reckless honesty about the book. After conceding that the ordination of women and homosexuals is making mincemeat of Anglican unity, he says that the question Anglicans should ask themselves is not whether such innovations promote inclusion or pluralism but whether they "make sense of the commitments that make sense of martyrdom."

This is nicely nuanced, but it settles nothing, and the archbishop admits as much when he says, "Perhaps the most uncomfortable suggestion that might arise from these thoughts is that we may not know the answers to some of our contemporary and agonizing dilemmas without some quite specific and concrete challenge that could come from an authority claiming ultimate and sacred authority." For an archbishop of Canterbury to make such a concession is rather remarkable. The absence of any agreed authority has always haunted the church--whether in its Protestant or its Anglo-Catholic formulation--and Williams deserves credit for looking at how that exacerbates current controversy.