Can an Archbishop Change His Mind?

John ArmstrongHomosexuality

It was reported in yesterday’s London Sunday Telegraph that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has changed his view regarding accepting homosexual practice in the the Anglican church. He now says homosexuals should change their behavior if they want to be welcomed into the Anglican Church. Williams has increasingly distanced himself from his one-time support of homosexual relationships and stressed that the tradition and teaching of the church has in no way been altered by the Anglican Communion’s consecration of its first openly homosexual bishop within the very liberal Episcopal Church USA..
Homosexual advocates are correct to conclude that Archbishop Williams has become increasingly conservative on this issue. This new direction has sparked accusations that Williams has performed an "astonishing" U-turn on the issue. These revelations surfaced in a newspaper interview last week in which the archbishop denied that it was time for the church to accept homosexual relationships, suggesting rather that it should be welcoming but not inclusive. Williams told a Dutch journalist: "I don’t believe inclusion is a value in itself. Welcome is. We don’t say ‘Come in, and we ask no questions.’ I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviors, ideas, emotions. Ethics is not a matter of a set of abstract rules, it is a matter of living the mind of Christ. That applies to sexual ethics."

Some twenty years ago Rowan Williams wrote a scholarly essay in which he defended homosexual relationships. What happened to the Archbishop’s thinking on this issue? He says, "That was when I was a professor to stimulate debate. It did not generate much support and a lot of criticism–quite fairly on a number of points."

What really happened here? We don’t know for certain but frankly it appears that Williams has been convinced by the arguments in the unfolding debate itself, and by his pastoral responsibility for the unity of the whole church, to back a resolution that says homosexual practice is incompatible with the Bible. When Williams was consecrated as archbishop a few years ago I wrote that we should give him time to see how he would actually lead the worldwide Anglican Church. Many conservatives wrote him off at the time. But time has proven that Williams is willing to change his mind and take a difficult stand on an issue that is central to biblical Christian ethics.

I suggest that now we should do two things: 1. Pray for Archbishop Williams. He will need more courage and grace to lead faithfully in the coming months. 2. Recognize that leaders can and do change their minds, and sometimes, thank God, for the better. Not all thought on this controversial issue is intractable, especially when leaders are willing to listen and think deeply about the importance of their views to Christ and his people around the world. I have a strong sense that this change in Williams’ view happened for several reasons, one of which was the presence of important scholars in the church like N. T. Wright, the bishop of Durham. It appears that Tom has had a huge impact on Archbishop Williams’ thinking. I would also suggest, to my various mainline renewalist friends, that this case provides clear evidence that God can and does answer prayer in these moral battles. We should very quietly rejoice and then keep pressing the struggle for fidelity to bibical authority, especially in private conversations. And we should show other leaders how Rowan Williams has responded, urging them to do the same. Who knows? The Lord might hear our pleas for the church and “restore again the years the locusts have eatten.”