‘On the edge of a precipice’—Archbishop Welby’s doomsday warning to a feuding Church

Posted by Kendall Harmon

In his most stark comments yet about divisions over issues such as homosexuality, the Most Rev Justin Welby said the Church is coming perilously close to plunging into a “ravine of intolerance”.

He even drew parallels between the crisis afflicting the 77 million-strong network of Anglican churches and the atmosphere during the English Civil War.

And he likened the collective behaviour of the church to a “drunk man” staggering ever closer to edge of a cliff.

Read it all and the sermon text being cited is there.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalArchbishop of Canterbury --Justin WelbyAnglican ProvincesGlobal South Churches & PrimatesInstruments of UnityLambeth 2008Sexuality Debate (in Anglican Communion)Same-sex blessingsWindsor Report / Process* TheologyEthics / Moral TheologyPastoral Theology

14 Comments
Posted August 22, 2013 at 6:30 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. carl+ wrote:

With all respect due to his opinions - I’m not sure which is worse - his misunderstanding of the English Civil War; or the misapplication of it to the “straw men” to whom it is addressed.  Does he really believe that the issues at stake in the current unpleasantness are accurately presented as a “chasm”?  Surely this is hyperbole, and not ignorance.

August 22, 8:34 am | [comment link]
2. CSeitz-ACI wrote:

Even those sympathetic to Obama note the inverted leadership style, whereby one constantly describes and points to neuralgias afflicting us. What fails to be registered is what specific role he has in resolving matters, and why he feels his own hands are tied or his own office so limited in creativity or clout, to make a difference. I hope we will see in the new ABC something more than description, and instead something more in the area of hard work to bring about resolution—whatever the fallout might be.

August 22, 8:53 am | [comment link]
3. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Perhaps, carl+, but a very brief homily like this tends to raise more questions than answers.  I have different problems with ++Welby’s assessment of the state of the Church in this tantalizingly short yet suggestive sermon, but the fact remains that by itself it’s not fully clear what he really means.  However, I give him credit for being much more direct and plain-spoken than his predecessor.  I do find his analogy of the “drunken man tottering on the brink of the precipice” a vivid and compelling one, only I don’t think that devastating critique applies equally to all Anglican leaders.  Certainly it’s not appolicable to the faithful and sober-minded Global South primates who have increasingly distanced themselves from the disgraced ACO and the useless “Instruments of Unity” that are now more part of the problem than part of the solution.

The question I’d like to put to ++Welby as a follow-up would be this: Which Anglican leaders did you have in mind with that “drunken man” analogy, and precisely what are they intoxicated with??  If he were to point his finger at the self-deceived leaders of TEC and the ACoC and say that they are intoxicated with the false gospel of inclusivity/relativism, then I’d wholeheartedly agree with him.

David Handy+

August 22, 8:59 am | [comment link]
4. Pb wrote:

This is the Obama technique of referring to to extreme positions taken by those other than himself and then place himself in the position of fairness and reason. I agree that we need to know what, if anything, he plans to do other than describe the problem.

August 22, 9:31 am | [comment link]
5. Pb wrote:

This is the Obama technique of referring to to extreme positions taken by those other than himself and then place himself in the position of fairness and reason. I agree that we need to know what, if anything, he plans to do other than describe the problem.

August 22, 9:31 am | [comment link]
6. Catholic Mom wrote:

It’s pretty clear who he applies the “cliff” metaphor to—everyone who does not walk the “narrow” bridge between different tendencies, both of which, in his view, are disastrous.  So…pretty much everybody but him.

Like a drunk man walking near the edge of a cliff, we trip and totter and slip and wander, ever nearer to the edge of the precipice. It is a dangerous place, a narrow path we walk as Anglicans at present. On one side is the steep fall into an absence of any core beliefs, a chasm where we lose touch with God, and thus we rely only on ourselves and our own message.  On the other side there is a vast fall into a ravine of intolerance and cruel exclusion.  It is for those who claim all truth, and exclude any who question. When we fall into this place, we lose touch with human beings and create a small church, or rather many small churches – divided, ineffective in serving the poor, the hungry and the suffering, incapable of living with each other, and incomprehensible to those outside the church. We struggle with each other at a time when the Anglican Communion’s great vocation as bridge builder is more needed than ever.

August 22, 9:52 am | [comment link]
7. Ross Gill wrote:

I think there’s a question that needs to be asked: Is division something to be avoided?  At some levels the answer is yes, of course, if followers of Jesus take seriously their Master’s prayer that they all might be one.  But when it comes to the core fundamentals of what faith in Jesus involves I don’t see how it can be avoided when serious differences arise.  And when it comes down to it, that is what the disputes dividing the Anglican Communion are all about.  We should even expect division to occur just as we heard Jesus say in last Sunday’s gospel reading (Luke 12:49-56).

August 22, 10:57 am | [comment link]
8. Jim the Puritan wrote:

I would agree with him, in that a primary reason for the Anglican Communion’s woes, now as it was then, are spiritually corrupt bishops who are not Christians.  Just two recent examples include a presiding bishop who criticized Paul for casting a demon out of a possessed woman and said the woman had a right to be possessed by Satan, and another retired archbishop who says he would rather go to Hell than Heaven.

August 22, 1:43 pm | [comment link]
9. Sarah1 wrote:

On the other side there is a vast fall into a ravine of intolerance and cruel exclusion.  It is for those who claim all truth, and exclude any who question. When we fall into this place, we lose touch with human beings and create a small church, or rather many small churches – divided, ineffective in serving the poor, the hungry and the suffering, incapable of living with each other, and incomprehensible to those outside the church.

[roll eyes]

Drama queen anyone?

The irony of his hyperbole about the conservatives’ “cruel exclusion” is that the symptoms which he lists are precisely those brought about by people like him and the unwillingness to enact appropriate church discipline within the Anglican Communion: “create a small church,” “many small churches,” “divided,” “ineffective” . . . yep, all those things are a consequence of TEC’s rampant and grotesque heretical acts, and the Anglican Communion leadership’s utter refusal to discipline and order the Communion.

Nothing gets better.  It all only gets worse, as the years flow by and people like Archbishop Welby refuse to enact church discipline.  No amount of bleating, and throwing up straw men and red herrings, and attempting to “cut it down the middle” will help the *actual* chasm that exists between the two mutually exclusive and antithetical gospels represented in the Anglican Communion and the teachers of those two gospels.

The good news about Archbishop Welby is that the more he talks, the more that the leaders of the Anglican Communion who believe the Gospel recognize that he cannot serve as their leader.

August 22, 3:06 pm | [comment link]
10. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Second thoughts after my earlier post (#3),

After more time reflecting on the ABoC’s homily, and reading some of the comments above, I’d like to revise my stance toward it, in a much more negative direction.  I agree that ++Welby’s attempt to portray himself as a moderate, urging “extremists” on both sides to pull back from the cliff before the AC completely disintegrates institutionally, is the same sort of counter-productive fiction that his predecessor attempted, and which can only produce the same results: prolonging the agonizing process by which the AC self-destructs.

So I’ll revert to some of my characteristic themes that I’ve harped on repeatedly here at T19.

Oil and water just don’t mix.  Never have, never will.  You simply can’t “reconcile” them.

Theological unity (or at least coherence) trumps institutional unity, not vice versa.  However, institutionalists are loathe to admit this.  Although ++Justin Welby is more conservative than +Rowan Williams, this sort of speech amounts to rank institutionalism, of the same kind that RW pedalled.  It’s a dead-end.  We can’t keep going down that futile road.

Richard John Neuhaus was right:  “Where orthodoxy is optional, sooner or later it will be proscribed.”  That really says it all.

David Handy+

August 22, 4:38 pm | [comment link]
11. BlueOntario wrote:

Fr. David, I think you’re spot on regarding institutionalism at the price of theological coherence driving the Archbishop’s actions and this homily. As Sarah points out, the consequences are here, now.

August 22, 7:38 pm | [comment link]
12. Mark Baddeley wrote:

The three things I noted was:

1. What was missing - any mention of Jesus, any indication of the content of these ‘core beliefs’ that we cannot afford to lose, any suggestion that Christian faith involves ‘core practices’ (like sexual morality) that we cannot afford to distort.

2. The big fear appears to be that if we don’t take the middle road the institutional church will end up small (or a series of small churches), and hence no longer in a position to help the poor. The model of helping the poor offered (not exclusively, but given prominence) is the way in which the CoE could start a national conversation on economic structures to help the poor. This seems to be a perspective particularly suited to a state church which is worried about losing its ability to speak to politics and even sometimes initiate some political discussions.

3. The passage from Romans 14 (like the chapter as a whole), which of the three texts listed appears to offer the most support for the sermon, is to do with issues that do not involve core beliefs or core practices. In those issues non-judgementalism and unity are to be the standards.

But does Archbishop Welby think that the Apostle Paul would have penned Romans 14 if faced with the crisis facing the Anglican communion? That in the face of two different gospels, two different Gods, two different views of Scripture, two different views as to what love and faithfulness looks like in sexual practice and ecclesial practice, he would have penned Romans 14?

Or would he have penned something more like Galatians or Colossians or 1 Corinthians?

Or does he think that debates over these issues are not debates over ‘core beliefs’ and ‘core practices’?

August 22, 11:48 pm | [comment link]
13. CSeitz-ACI wrote:

What would be useful to know is who inhabits the ‘ravine’ in the ABC’s thought. Do the primates and bishops of Egypt, Burundi, Kenya, Indian Ocean, Nigeria—who are attending the conference at Wycliffe College next month—inhabit this? I should think not. But do they hold to core beliefs? Of course they do. This is the problem with the level of abstraction present in such a model where one posits a ‘middle way’. What is this ‘middle way’ and is it a fiction used for rejecting things (‘extremism’), or does it take specific form? If it takes a specific form, what does it look like and why does one not name it and seek to promote it on these terms?

August 23, 2:23 am | [comment link]
14. Catholic Mom wrote:

This whole metaphor is incredibly muddled—and probably somewhat intentionally so.

For one thing—the two sides of the ravine don’t actually line up the way he tries to make them.  It is not, in fact, those who are so open-minded that they reject all core beliefs vs. those whose core beliefs are so precisely articulated that there is not the slightest room for even mildly nuanced differences.  In fact, both sides have very strongly held core beliefs and both sides, within those core beliefs, allow for some significant variation.    The core beliefs just happen to be different and the methodology by which those beliefs were derived is different. 

Further, it’s not clear that there are only two sides to the cliff.  In fact, Anglicanism is already split into at least two smaller sub-churches (maybe more).  And, correct my ignorance if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that it’s always been that way.  My understanding of the Elizabethan Settlement is that it essentially said “we’ll call all those who use the same Prayer Book and conduct the same liturgy and place themselves under the same bishops a “Church” and we won’t do the Inquisition thing of trying to find out what anybody actually believes.” 

I’m not sure that this was a totally great idea, although I see how it served to solve the religious crisis of the time.    But it certainly contained within itself the germ of its own destruction.

August 23, 10:26 am | [comment link]
15. dwstroudmd+ wrote:

inadaba done him in? or
‘niceness”?

August 23, 9:19 pm | [comment link]
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