Luke's Christmas Story: It is Not How He Was Born, But Who He Was that Matters

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 17 December 2003 0 Comments
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If you were the Archbishop of Canterbury how would you try to keep the Anglican Communion together? Given the growth of the Church in Africa and Southeast Asia, do you think the quest for unity is a waste of time?


I have studied the lives of effective leaders for a long time. Unfortunately, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is not destined to be one of them. The first prerequisite of effective leadership is that you must have the courage of your own convictions. Rowan Williams has been an advocate for a church open to women and to homosexuals for his entire ministry. His behavior as Archbishop of Canterbury indicates to me that he is willing to act against this conviction for the sake of something called unity. Unity achieved by abdicating justice and compromising equality is a shallow and worthless goal.

If the Church in Southeast Asia and Africa is culturally not ready to treat women with equality or gay and lesbian people with both justice and inclusion, does a leader validate their ongoing prejudices? Or does a leader challenge them to grow into new possibilities? Suppose the issue were slavery? Would a leader place unity, achieved by maintaining the violence of slavery, over justice and truth for people of color? I think not. I find this Archbishop's behavior embarrassing.

When Rowan was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, I rejoiced because he was, in my opinion, by far the best of the available choices. I had great hopes for his career. He has been, however, a constant disappointment. His letter to his fellow primates announcing that he would operate under the non-binding homophobic resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference was the most serious abdication of effective leadership I have ever observed. His desire to be accepted by Third World leaders overwhelmed his principles and sacrificed his powers of leadership.

His shameful withdrawal of support from Canon Jeffrey John, when he was appointed Bishop of Reading in the United Kingdom, after having originally given this able person his approval, indicated to me that he would never stand on his convictions if there were sufficient opposition. A leader who abandons principle loses integrity and people learn quickly that this leader is not to be trusted. His panic, revealed in his calling together the primates of the Anglican Communion in an emergency meeting in the face of my Church's confirmation of the election of Eugene Robinson in New Hampshire, coupled with his public hand
wringing and grieving about the "threat to unity" that this election created, was an abysmal display of weakness. History will record Eugene Robinson's election as bishop as a giant step into a new consciousness worthy of rejoicing. History will also note the wimpish and petty role Rowan Williams played in a critical moment of history when a new consciousness confronted a dying definition. Rowan will surely learn that one cannot stop an emerging consciousness.

Does this kind of abdication of leadership in the quest for unity win support from those who are unable or unwilling to change? No, that never happens. They only become emboldened with their newfound power and their prejudices become even more entrenched. Their ability to grow and change is minimized. They have made virtues out of their prejudices and are looked upon as heroes by the uninformed.

The new insights into homosexuality will finally catch up the Third World and they too will enter the 21st century. But the reputation of this reticent and weak Archbishop of Canterbury will not be capable of being repaired. Leadership once compromised is hardly ever recoverable. That is a pity for Rowan Williams has great ability. He just does not have the strength of character to allow that ability to be used. My seminary or theological college had as its guiding principle, "Seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will," I wish the Archbishop of Canterbury would embrace the truth and the necessity of
living out such a motto. I fear he does not know how to do so.

-- John Shelby Spong




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