Well, he resigned.
Unlike many of those who I admire, I was a fan to the very end. I remained impressed by his erudition and sensitivity. I never doubted that he worked tirelessly to fulfill his thankless responsibilities. The trouble he caused in England was necessary. He often had the right enemies; when the tabloids dissed him, it raised his stature in my eyes.
I admit, I wasn’t that concerned about his decisions about the Episcopal Church and sexuality. In my neck of the woods, my side won the battle. There are openly gay and lesbian clergy; more will become nominated and selected to lead the church; and we are slowly, in due course, writing liturgies for same-sex couples. I see that young people lack the homophobia of previous generations. No gay person in my own congregation, or even in my own diocese, can worry about being disenfranchised by the church. Since my state allows for gay marriage it is only a matter of time before I perform them myself.
Rowan, however, heard voices that I do not hear. Not everyone in the world understands sexuality the way I, nor many of us in the US, do. We tend to see these issues through the lens of individual choice and preference. It reflects more of a sea-change in other parts of the world. And for many in the global south, our focus on sexuality seems like a first world problem. Rowan was aware of many religious traditions that don’t yet understand modern, liberal, secular explanations of sexuality.
We underestimate the worth of those voices. And while they could be wrong, Rowan asked different questions about the consequences: how do we live with one another given our different contexts?
But what did Rowan do which changed the way TEC operated? There was no way he could force the Episcopal church to toe the line. He tried. He hurt our feelings. We can pout all we like because he never gave his stamp of approval, but we should have noticed we’ve still continued ordaining the priests and bishops we like. Our presiding bishop still got to go hang out with other presiding bishops. And so we’re still in the councils of the church. This isn’t Rome.
Certainly, he made mistakes. I believe he should have let Jeffrey John become a bishop, if only to expose how the English choose their bishops. I think he might have been a bit more plain spoken about the real stakes in the communion. It is possible that he did not get good advice, and that he was surrounded by people who were concerned with the machinations of English politics than the fate of the spiritual lives of people in the American church. Sometimes I wish he could have been media saavy – his nuanced, thoughtful arguments were too easily made into fodder for ridicule by the British Tabloids.
Certainly Rowan didn’t understood the dynamics of the American Church very well. And the confusion about his role in England, as the first foreign archbishop, is probably the same on our part. The Episcopalian Church is more congregationalist in its order than we care to admit, perhaps, and the Anglican Church is interwoven with the English establishment in a way that Americans would find hard to fathom. And perhaps spiritually we wanted him to be like the pope who we could ignore at whim (kind of like the way Americans treat Benedict).
But I believe Rowan understood what the long view looked like. The English church will ordain women bishops; they will reject the covenant. These debates needed to happen in the open, over time, in a messy, public, difficult way. There was no avoiding it. Although most of us wanted bold declarations and clarity, the Archbishop seemed to understand the dangers of moving too quickly. I don’t think he idealized caution in itself, but he believed that listening takes a longer time than we like to believe.
Last year an Indian priest visited New York and said to me, “I understand more how the Episcopal church sees the world. I don’t think my context is ready. But I feel much differently myself. And perhaps this will open even more minds.” He said this after the Idaba process brought people of various perspectives together. It was a model of mutual understanding, one which Rowan adapted to keep the Anglican communion in conversation.
I think that we’ll miss Rowan. I’m personally glad he was often misunderstood. It was an implicit, subtle challenge to the media and even to we liberals who work in internet-oriented, market driven time. Perhaps over the long haul, we’ll see that he laid a good foundation for the perspectives of gay Christians to be heard throughout the world, and at some personal cost. We don’t see it yet, but that story will be told. And for all our focus on the issue of homosexuality, he wrote some remarkable, important words and essays that have gotten lost in the din.
So God bless you, Rowan. Thank you for your service.