Rowan Williams quits before next great schism happens

Eddie Ford demands the immediate disestablishment of the Church of England

On March 16 the 61-year-old Rowan Williams announced that he was resigning as the Archbishop of Canterbury. In this capacity he was both the leader of the Church of England and symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican communion - which has an estimated membership of 80 million.

Williams, who without a hint of irony once described himself as a “hairy leftie”, will be taking up the position of 35th master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University next January - and will step down as archbishop in December. In his announcement, Williams described the CoE as a “great treasure” and a place where many people “sought inspiration and comfort in times of need”. Partly explaining his resignation, Williams confessed that “crisis management” was not his “favourite activity”, but denied that the persistent rows over homosexuality (gay bishops, gay marriage, etc) had “overshadowed” everything he did. But, having said that, he did admit that it had “certainly been a major nuisance”.

Striking a more militant tone, Williams said he did not believe that the church was losing the “battle against secularisation”. Absolutely not. Yes, there may be waning congregations, but that is not because the church is becoming ever more remote and irrelevant - perish the thought. Rather, he argued, it is down to the fact that too many just “don’t know how religion works” - once they did, the seats would start filling up again on a Sunday. Without the Church of England to protect the spiritual well-being of the nation, so we are told, godless anarchy and moral dissolution beckons.


Without doubt, the CoE is a very peculiar organisation indeed. The institution, and it certainly is one, contains a fissiparous range of theological and ideological tendencies stretching from half-mad, Bible-thumping evangelicals, through ritual-obsessed Anglo-Catholics, to liberally-minded Christian progressives - and, of course, subdivisions thereof. Left to their own devices, without the organisational and financial shelter - and constraints - provided by the church, such antagonistic and disparate forces would in all likelihood split in next to no time.

Therefore the departing Rowan Williams has been praised by many more for his diplomatic skills in holding together (just) this conflicting spectrum of forces. So David Cameron complimented him for being a man of “great learning and humility” who “sought to unite different communities” and “offer a profoundly humane sense of moral leadership that was respected by people of all faiths and none”. In the same vein, Ed Miliband - who claims to be a non-believer - tweeted that Williams will be “sorely missed” as archbishop because, apparently, he “did what he said he’d do”: ie, “challenge the imagination of our country”.

More to the point than the talents and prowess of one man, however, is the role of the CoE itself. Its status as the established church means that the UK has an official state religion, privileged over all other faiths. The monarch, currently Elizabeth Windsor, is not only the head of state, but the “supreme governor” of the CoE.

This arrangement results from the historical legacy bequeathed by Henry Tudor in the 16th century, who for nakedly political (and economic) reasons split from Rome and effectively nationalised the church. Or, to put it another way, he ran a nationalised form of Catholicism and remained a theological opponent of puritanism to the day he died - putting many Lutherans and non-Catholics to a grisly death. The rituals, services, liturgy, etc of the ‘new’ Church of England brought into existence by Henry all remained essentially the same, although, as time went on, the church imported all manner of innovations from Switzerland and elsewhere, incorporating aspects of Protestantism. That is, the CoE is a church moderately reformed in doctrine. as expressed in the ‘39 articles’ - essentially its version of confession - but also emphasising continuity with the Catholic and apostolic traditions of the church fathers. Centrally, however, it was constitutionally entwined with the state.

The result of this history is the strange situation where it will be the prime minister, David Cameron - a man renowned for his theological/ecclesiastical expertise and devotion, of course - who gets to select the next archbishop, albeit ‘under advice’. This is a bizarrely convoluted process that was brilliantly satirised in the 1986 ‘The bishop’s gambit’ episode of Yes, prime minister.[1] In short, the retiring archbishop tells the monarch he wants to retire, the monarch accepts the resignation and then the grandly named Crown Nominations Commission begins to oversee the selection of a replacement. The CNC consists of the archbishops of Canterbury and York, three members elected by the General Synod’s House of Clergy, three by the General Synod’s House of Laity, six by the Vacancy-in-See Committee and the chair, who must be an “actual communicant lay member of the Church of England”. He or she is appointed by the prime minister. Furthermore, the prime minister’s office helps supply the commission with information on possible candidates.

After all that, the CNC then chooses two names and sends them to the prime minister for approval. If the prime minister likes the choices, one name is selected and sent to the monarch who - in constitutional theory - has the final say. Though if she were to have a funny turn and reject the prime minister’s ‘nomination’ then we would confronted by a near full-on constitutional crisis. Needless to say, this commission meets in secret, and its deliberations and arguments - a bit like those on the SWP central committee - are kept secret from the church membership.

Historically, the CoE’s privileged role in public life can be seen in many ways. For example, it exerts great influence over education to this very day. We read on the CoE website (underneath the tagline, “a Christian presence in every community”) that it has a “long and successful” history of involvement in education as a “statutory provider” of schooling.[2] Yes, this writer went to a CoE primary school and still remembers the nonsense taught about god creating the world, even if it was not literally made in six days (mine was a very liberal and ‘progressive’ school). We also discover on the website that approximately one million children attend CoE schools and there are about 15 million people living in Britain who went to one. Seeing that 25% (4,605) of all primary/middle schools and 236 (6.25%) of secondary schools are CoE, the church is the biggest single provider of education in England.

For communists the established church represents a violation of elementary democratic principles, which can only rest on the basis of secularism. By which we mean a state of fundamental equality between all faiths/denominations and non-believers: no-one should be privileged or enjoy special access to state power. Hence we in the CPGB demand the immediate disestablishment of the Church of England - the state should have no say in how it finances itself or appoints its leaders. Like trade unions or political parties, the church itself should decide who gets to be its leader - not the prime minister or any other state official or body.


Williams has been dogged by two issues almost since the beginning of his term of office - the ordination of women and openly gay bishops, plus the related issue of gay marriage. On these matters, Williams has opted for a fudge in the name of church ‘unity’. Some admire him for this, while others detest him.

Thus the question of women bishops came explosively to the fore in December 2009 when an open lesbian, Mary Douglas Glasspool, was elected as suffragan bishop in the diocese of Los Angeles. Leaders from 20 Anglican provinces, meeting in Singapore in April 2010, declared that the election and intended consecration of Glasspool “demonstrated, yet again, a total disregard for the mind of the communion”.

Inevitably, traditionalist reactionaries within the church have threatened a schism over the issue. There will now be a general synod in July to give final approval to the introduction of women bishops, but with one important sop to the ultra-conservatives - they will be allowed to have ‘special’ priests if they object to the presence of a woman official. Or to use a more accurate term, the traditionalists will now have the right to special bigot bishops - a diplomatic ‘solution’ devised by Williams.

Then there is the even more incendiary question of gay bishops and same-sex unions. In 2002, the Anglican Church of Canada’s diocese of New Westminster voted to allow the blessing of gay couples. Then in August 2003 the episcopal diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay priest, Gene Robinson, as a bishop. This came shortly after a similar controversy in England, when a gay priest, canon Jeffrey John, was appointed to become the suffragan Bishop of Reading. Eventually, however, John agreed to withdraw in order to “avoid division”. In 2004, in the aftermath of Robinson’s election as bishop, John was installed as Dean of St Albans.

Naturally, the traditionalists were outraged - and again in 2005 when the CoE affirmed that lay homosexuals who have entered into civil partnerships are still eligible for the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and communion. Responding, the Anglican Church of Nigeria issued a statement proclaiming its “commitment to the total rejection of the evil of homosexuality, which is a perversion of human dignity” - it went on to “encourage” the Nigerian House of Representatives to approve a new bill that seeks to impose a five-year sentence upon anyone convicted of being openly gay or practising gay sex.

Rebelling against the perceived ‘pro-gay’ sentiments of Williams, the traditionalist boycotted the 2008 Lambeth Conference and set up an alternative - holding the Global Anglican Futures Conference in Jerusalem. Representing about half of the 80 million practising Anglicans worldwide, especially those from Africa, they declared a state of “impaired communion” with their western counterparts.

Desperately, Williams planned to heal this schism by getting all constituent churches of the Anglican communion to sign up to a treaty or covenant which would stop them from ordaining openly gay clergy without central consent. But for the covenant to mean anything, it would have to be approved by a majority of the dioceses in the Church of England. 17 have so far rejected it and only 11 approved. It looks likely that five more will reject it soon, which would kill the scheme entirely. Which way forward for the church then? A final schism?

Presently, the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Williams is the Ugandan-born archbishop of York, skydiving enthusiast John Sentamu. And he is not just the bookies’ favourite - he is also the preferred candidate for rightwing Tories and conservatives within the CoE, who are now busily lobbying for a more traditionalist archbishop. Someone who, in the words of Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, would “stand up” for the “traditional values” that the “vast majority” of Christians - so she believes - would “identify with”.

You can see why reactionary forces within the Tory Party would plump for Sentamu. He has come out strongly against gay/same-sex marriage, ranting at one point that Cameron would be acting like a “dictator” if he “forced” through gay marriage - apparently it is not the “role of the state to define” what marriage is, which for him is a sacred institution “set in tradition and history”.[3] Though opposed to same-sex marriage, Sentamu is on the record as saying he does believe in “civil partnerships”, which are “not the same”. Yet, he noted, “that difference does not mean one is better than another”. Surely not the message that most of his traditionalists supporters want to hear - which is that heterosexual marriage, and no other form of partnership, is the natural moral foundation of society.

A government consultation on gay marriage has been officially launched this week, allowing three months discussion before legislation is drawn up. Same-sex couples would be able to marry in registry offices, but the laws on wedding ceremonies that allow only a man and woman to marry in church will remain untouched. Civil partners will have the option to convert their relationships to a marriage. Additionally, the proposed new marriage law will also allow people who undergo sex changes to stay married - at present they must legally divorce.

For communists, it is a basic democratic right that gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, etc should be accorded the same rights in society as heterosexuals. As for the church and state, the sooner divorce proceedings begin, the better.


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bishop’s_Gambit.

2. www.churchofengland.org/education/church-schools-academies.aspx.

3. The Daily Telegraph January 27.