Friday, March 16, 2012

Thank you, Rowan Williams.

Two Wednesdays ago, I sat around a table full of friends collected in the Parish Hall for our weekly Lenten Study.  In this small group format, I usually begin by asking each person to introduce themselves and answer a short "get to know you" question.  That Wednesday, I took my question from the headlines - Peyton Manning had just been released from the Indianapolis Colts, for whom he has played the last fourteen seasons - so I asked the question, "Can you tell us about someone you admired in a seemingly unchangeable role who, against everything you thought was possible, suddenly found his or her role unalterably changed?"

My own example was Magic Johnson.  My childhood hero.  I was a week-and-a-half shy of my eleventh birthday on the day he announced he was retiring because he had a disease called "HIV."   None of us knew what that was, and I remember well the fear and uncertainty the other players felt around him.  Some refused to play with him.  Though he would play in the 1992 Olympics and come back briefly during the 1994-95 season, the enduring feeling for me was one of abruptness - and incompleteness.

Twenty-one years later, I'm reading the Facebook wire this morning and another rock of stability makes an unexpected change: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury since 2003, is retiring at the end of the year in order to take the position as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in 2013.

Now, a lot has happened since 1991, and I'm thirty-one, not eleven.  Long gone are the illusions of permanence that are hallmarks of childhood.  Loss, death, change - these are more than abstract words to me these days; they are realities I have felt.  What's more, as a Christian, I know loss, death, and change to be realities not untouched by the Reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Change finally brings death even to death:

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die. (1)

Of course, I don't mean to call Rowan Williams' retiring a death.  Indeed, it probably feels to him like a great return to life in some ways, after the sacrifices of his position as Archbishop over the last decade.  I pray that it does.  Still, the Church will feel his loss as he steps aside.  Which is also to say the obvious: those of us who have called the Anglican Communion home over the past ten years have much today for which to be profoundly grateful.

Which brings me back to Peyton Manning.

Two Wednesdays ago, when the world was wondering where Peyton would go next and who would replace him and all of the other things that make for good scuttlebutt on sports radio, ESPN's Rick Reilly wrote a short piece entitled, Thanks for the Memories.  It began:

Thank you, Peyton Manning.

This might be the beginning of something better. Might be the end of everything good. But before we slog into what happens next, where you'll go, what you'll do, we owe you a thank you for what you've done and who you've been.

There will be lots of things that make for good scuttlebutt on the Anglican front in days ahead: who will replace him, implications for the Communion, all the rest, but I am thankful for the wherewithal to be grateful for Rowan's ministry today.

Peyton expressed, at his parting press conference, the minor identity crisis he was experiencing: he had been a Colt for almost the entirety of his adult life, he explained.  I feel a bit the same just now: Rowan Williams has been the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion for the whole of my priestly journey.

The year that Rowan took up the See of Canterbury, I was a senior at Wheaton College in the midst of discerning my own call to ordination.  The consecration of Vicki Gene Robinson was on the horizon, and the Anglican Communion was beginning to feel the first shakes of polarization.  I remember well how the resulting tensions shaped aspects of the discernment process for those of us who were in it.  Likewise, I remember well some early conversations with Father Matthew Gunter, who oversaw parts of my discernment at St Barnabas while I was at Wheaton.  Specifically, I remember confessing to Father Matt that it wasn't obvious to me that faithfulness belonged to either of the extremes that were beginning to divide the Church - extremes into which many of us were feeling pressure to accept.  Indeed, it seemed that the camp in which one found oneself revealed too little of how one got there to be helpful to the way of faith.  As we talked, Father Matt spoke of a middle way not of undecided compromise (2) but of a decided insistence on Christ as the center and the resulting willingness to humbly go the long way around, to look for and find Christ present even in sides in apparent opposition, and to insist on the language of theology, which of course is simply the language of prayer.  These conversations gave me confidence that the way of the cross could be tangibly entered and explored.

Not long into these talks, Rowan Williams' name came up.  By his writing and leadership, I quickly came to experience him as a person equally committed to the long way around (frustratingly so to his critics) and always to Christ and the cross.  As in my conversations with Father Matt, I found in Rowan a gentle leader walking the middle way not for lack of conviction but precisely out of the conviction that the mystery of the faith is not an extra to be discarded for the sake of expediency; on the contrary, the mystery of the faith is the Crucified and Risen Christ Himself, and this mystery is beautiful and daunting, and we do not master the mystery, but we pray that they mystery will come in time to master us.  Rowan consistently modeled and encouraged entrance into the beautiful, daunting mystery: the way of the cross as the path open to us.

I am eternally thankful for that.


(1) John Donne's poem, Death Be Not Proud.

(2) Of course 'the middle way' is common Anglican-speak, but it is so often misunderstood, I think.  As I read George Herbert at Duke, for example, I remember discovering to my surprise that he his writings on the Eucharist and Christ's presence related to the Eucharistic prayers did not advocate a spectrum between Catholic and Orthodox positions along which anyone was free to find her mark; on the contrary, Herbert seemed to be arguing that the Anglican reticence to name a single "moment" did not represent an open field of possibilities but rather represented an intentional silence, a purposeful restraint based on the assumption that the matter that mattered most had been joyfully resolved: Christ is present.


  1. Nicely said...American football, basketball and the Anglican Communion are special to many Episcopalians.

  2. Sweet one Jonathan! That one was a 3 pointer. I liked reading the Post.


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