The Office

I know many people who are worried that Rowan WIlliams has gone off his theological chump. Since he had written firmly and eloquently on behalf of the full participation of gay and lesbian persons in the leadership of the Body of Christ before his elevation to the archepiscopate of Canterbury, but now advances a different perspective on licit and illicit relationships, some of my friends take him as a callow vacillator who abandoned principle in order to advance to the most prestigious job in Anglican Christianity (short of being by God’s grace Monarch of England). I’m reluctant to think him so base a careerist; contrariwise, I have several times wondered whether he might not construe his new role much as did Thomas a Becket — as an office to which, by accepting, he agrees to subordinate his own interests and convictions. (“Oh God, I hope not!” sighed one interlocutor.)

I wish the Most Reverend Dr. Williams, with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, were deploying his considerable theological wisdom and rhetorical skills to direct the Anglican Communion in a direction different from its present course. But if he’s getting up morning by morning to ask himself how the Archbishop of Canterbury must rightly serve God and the Anglican Communion — rather than what he, Rowan Williams, could do to effect ends that he knew were right — I think I’m pretty sympathetic with him. I believe in “the office” as an expression of vocation distinct from the full expression of personal convictions. “The office” exemplifies a social identity in which we participate, the exercise of which we affect (obviously), but which we do not possess, to manipulate as an instrument for our purposes.

(Parenthetically, I don’t suppose that everyone who disagrees with me or Rowan Williams therefore must think of offices solely as nexuses of power that avail to satisfy self-interested policy goals. There’s shades of difference, by all means.)

Now, as a follow-up reflections: I doubt that demystifying and disenchanting “the office” effect the same gesture. On my hunch, “the office” provides something of a bulwark against the bare-knuckled brawl of power and will; it can surely be used in manipulative ways, but that’s the gesture of someone who already disbelieves in the distinct responsibilities of “the office.” And I wonder whether, if we leave behind an ideology of office, we don’t swing the door open to the puerile sorts of egalitarianism (because each of us presumably has some positive qualities, because we stand equal before the throne of God, therefore everyone’s opinion and standing should be treated equally in all circumstances”). But maybe this just catches me on a grouchy day.

Court says:

Wait, wait! I’m confused. If the office is independent in identity of the office holder then what difference does it make who is elected to the office? If Rowan Williams, a proponent of women clerics and gay and lesbian rights, is elected to the office of ABC, an office traditionally not supportive of women and gay and lesbians, and he supplants his views and beliefs to espouse the office’s views and beliefs then why don’t we just elect a monkey to that office? It would be much cheaper, I think. I thought the idea of us being independently thinking and discerning individuals, capable of bringing something new to an office, was one idea behind humanity. That we could use our unique relationship with the divine to discern God’s call for us, and possibly, for the church. Isn’t that why we spend so much time trying to discern God’s plan, praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our proceedings, so that God’s will can be done here on earth, perhaps even through the office of the ABC?

Perhaps, and most probably, I misunderstood your post, but it seems like the office should not have its own independent identity capable of being impressed upon all who hold said office. Rowan Williams may have supplanted his beliefs for the sake of unity or peace (such as they are), but I hope that it is not that the office rules the man.
Your confused seminarian friend,

Christopher said:

Because your relationship is considered licit, Williams does not affect you in the same way it affects gay people, so it is frankly easy for you to be kind in the direction he has taken, but that direction may in fact do quite a lot of harm, and I trust the Church too is under God’s judgment, and finding unity by treating some fellows poorly will in fact have an opposite effect pouring only more wrath upon the earth, if you will. As is often the case, while I appreciate your thoughtfulness, your words tend to come across whenever dealing with institutional matters and gays as those of a privileged man in which moderation works pretty comfortably; they look just like we all do, not as objective or more reasoned, but as confirming one’s own temperament and instincts through reasonable discourse, the reason arising after the emotional/temperamental choice has been clear. Because of the harmful affects, quite bodily in fact, that my partner and I have faced from liberal and moderate heterosexual supporters in the Church, I’m suspicious of this type of “reasonableness” and reminded of Dr. King’s chastizing of the same. As is so often the case, we gay folks have to often pastor ourselves given the present discourse and rhetoric of the Communion not simply from Williams, but from moderates and centrists whose care for the institution is such that they are willing to have us talked about as inferior, second-class, singled out for challenge, and so forth as the very necessary part of the Good News.

Williams is still first and foremost called to be a pastor. I would not go to this man ever for pastoral care given his recent comments and his willingness to bring all to the table except the people he talks about. The so-called listening process at this point really comes across as a way to pretend that the Communion somehow is dealing with us as fellows in Christ–it is not, and we need to quit the lie. I’ve seen too many times the harm comments like Williams’ do to folks in the gay communities to simply say well he’s playing out an office now. He has a responsibility to bring his distinctiveness and learning to that office, challenge others for the sake of the Gospel, and to pastor impartially irrespective of persons. Williams has not done so, and has rather at every turn blamed gays for the present problems of the Communion, even singling out Robinsons by name as “the gay bishop” in one of his too many addresses about us. He is not impartial, nor neutral, but has actively decided and his decision is often to the detriment of gay people. As a gay man, he has rather presented a heterosexual malspel, remained unwilling to name those who persecute us in the name of Anglicanism while naming quite critically directly those who would make way for us, TEC and ACinC, and so from here he ha flogged God’s queer sheep and I am reminded of Ezekiel 34 in Williams ongoing subtle blaming the victim rhetoric and not so subtle challenges to gay people that he has not laid the same emphasis on straight people. My remarks can be found here:

Offices can allow one to not have to face how one does harm to others by pointing toward just following orders or the needs of institutions or how the office must be lived out regardless of one’s personal thoughts on the matter. Williams has done harm, and I would challenge him that he too has need in conversion of his attitudes, behaviors, emotions, habits, and outlooks on and at gay Christians. A worry about a puerile egalitarianism is no excuse for not examining how our offices and those who fill htem carry with them less than pastoral possibilities, and in the present climate Williams has no business pastoring gay Christians as far as I can tell, and I doubt I’m alone in that assessment. And I wonder if his apologists or those who would reinforce the office above all else have any business doing so either.

Christopher, your points are well taken; I acknowledge my privilege (and Williams’s), and I do not by any means claim to be objective, and to the extent that I’m comfortable at others’ cost, that’s a grave problem. That being said, I’m not sure that your strong criticisms preclude attention to “office.” As you say, “A worry about a puerile egalitarianism is no excuse for not examining how our offices and those who fill htem carry with them less than pastoral possibilities” — and you justly call attention to a way that Williams’ response to his situation constitutes a failure to exercise his office. Thanks for reminding me.

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