Comment: Opportunist blunder further splits Church of England


Opportunist blunder further splits Church of England

It would be difficult to imagine a greater blunder for Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, than his latest one. Whilst his statement that aspects of Islamic Sharia law will inevitably be incorporated into British legislation has been misrepresented for sensational effect by sections of the capitalist press, making the statement shows a major misunderstanding of how ordinary people, church goers and others in Britain view the issue of Islamic law, and how a sensation-seeking mass media would portray it.

Roger Bannister

More significantly perhaps for the Archbishop, it shows how little he understands the divisions in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion (the C of E worldwide).

Rowan Williams’ statement was undoubtedly opportunistic. Falling congregations, church weddings, baptisms and confirmations all bear witness to the declining influence of the Church of England in society.

Yet, as a result of the first Gulf war, Afghan and Iraq wars, 9/11, the continuing crisis in Palestine and the ‘terrorist threat’, media and public attention have focused on the issue of Islam. Rowan Williams sought to exploit this to shore up the position of religion generally, and the C of E particularly, in society.

But the furore following his statement took him off-guard, not least because the governing body of the C of E, its General Synod, was meeting within a week of his pronouncement, and the Lambeth Conference, the international Anglican Communion’s governing body, meets later this year, raising the possibility of moves to force his resignation. The C of E is currently split between ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’.

The liberals, attempting to adapt the traditional teaching of the church to advancing scientific knowledge in order to appear relevant to modern generations, reject a literal application of biblical pronouncements, whereas the conservatives attempt to apply the Bible literally.

The conservatives are strong in affluent, middle class parishes in England, and worldwide in the Anglican churches in former British colonies in Africa and Asia.

Prior to his enthronement in December 2002, Rowan Williams was trumpeted as a liberal, but within months his liberalism was challenged over the appointment of Canon Jeffrey John as the C of E’s first openly gay bishop. The C of E’s attitude to gays is deeply hypocritical, despite there being many ‘closet’ gay clergy within its ranks.

Whilst the Church believes being gay is an aberration from God’s will, ordinary lay members are allowed to be gay, but gay clergy have to be celibate! Jeffrey John fitted the bill, an acknowledged gay with a celibate lifestyle, but his proposed elevation to bishop provoked an outcry from the conservatives.

Initially Rowan Williams backed John, but the middle class conservative parishes threatened to withhold their contributions to church funds if he was consecrated bishop. Faced with this threat, Rowan Williams backed down and blocked John’s advancement, and is seen by many ever since as little more than an empty windbag.


It was Karl Marx in the nineteenth century who stated that the C of E would more readily part with the 39 Articles (the statements of faith on which the Church is based), than 1/39th of its income, and Rowan William’s behaviour in the Jeffrey John case shows how true this is!

The Anglican Communion is already deeply spilt on the gay issue. The consecration of a gay bishop in the American Episcopalian Church has led to talk of schism, and for sections of the American church to place themselves under the authority of non-American, conservative bishops. Rowan Williams’ latest pronouncement can only create further division.

In a number of countries, particularly in Africa, the Church co-exists with substantial Islamic communities where Sharia law is viewed with suspicion by Christian communities. In his haste to bolster the flagging status of the C of E in England, Rowan Williams apparently forgot this, at the same time uniting the warring factions of the Church against himself.

Whilst it is unlikely that calls for his resignation will succeed, further damage has been done to his church by this latest blunder.