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General Synod: Speech in Debate on the Windsor Report

Thursday 17th February 2005

A speech made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

I'm not sure whether it's appropriate for one of the instruments of unity to be speaking in this debate, but I'm very relieved that the Bishop of Durham assured me that my task was primarily musical. You could say that the proposals in the Windsor report attempt to promote me from a piccolo to a tuba, but that's another story.

One of the questions that has been raised about Windsor and raised about many attempts to confront the present difficulties is one to do with unity and truth. I've become very much accustomed to being accused by both sides in this debate of setting unity before truth. And my dilemma, a dilemma which I suspect is shared by a good many people here, is that I'm not sure as a Christian that I'm wholly able to separate truth from unity. For a Christian I believe that unity is what enables us to discover truth within the body of Christ, not simply truth according to my own preferences, my own intelligence, my own resources, but in the richness of life an understanding that is shared in the body. And part of the agony of the situation we face at the moment has to do with those two things beginning to pull apart form one another.

But I still think that it is important that we must not give way to the temptation to say 'truth would be clear if only some people would go away'. And, once, again, on both sides of the debate, that is what I hearing. 'truth would be clear if only those Neanderthal bigots would go away'... 'truth would be clear if only those servile followers of contemporary culture would go away'. I'm not sure that's true; in fact I'm pretty sure it isn't.

But to say that truth for a Christian is not discovered without unity is not to provide a simple solution to our dilemma. We all know – and this surely was around in some of our discussion yesterday, as a sort of unspoken marginal thought – we all know that there are some moments when the church, or parts of the church, take risks. They speak for a church that which doesn't yet exist, so they believe, out of a conscience informed by scripture and revelation. At the Reformation, our church and many others took that kind of risk. and we have to be candid, in our decision to ordain women to the priesthood we engage in something of that sort of risk. The trouble is, that risk really is risk. You don't and you can't know yet whether it's justified. The church is capable of error and any local church is capable of error, as the Thirty-Nine Articles remind us forcibly. So if one portion of the church decides that it must take a conscientious risk, then there are inevitable results to that. There are consequences in hurt, misunderstanding, rupture and damage. It does us no good to pretend that the cost is not real. So I don't think it will quite do say, if anyone does really say this, that a risky act ought to have or can have no consequences.

Of course it does and we are dealing with those consequences now. There is when such a risky act is taken that there is or there will be the church's act or decision. We don't know, and meanwhile the effects are serious and they are hurtful. And part of the cost involved in the repercussions of recent events is, I think, that it has weakened if not destroyed the sense that we are actually talking the same language within the Anglican Communion. Rightly or wrongly, and there will be very different views in this chamber on this subject, that has been what has happened. People are no longer confident that we are speaking the same language, appealing to the same criteria in out theological debates. And the deep lost-ness and confusion that arises from that and the anger that arises from that is something that does not in any sense help the long- term health of the body or our search for truth together in the Body.

That applies also our ecumenical discussions and I hope we can bear in mind today the ecumenical dimension of what we say and what we do. Once again the sense of having or not having a common language, a common frame of reference has been one of the casualties of recent events in the communion and there is every indication that that is not going to get better in a hurry.

And it's in the light of all that that I feel I have no choice but to stand by the Windsor Report and a great deal of what it recommends; to stand by the Windsor Report to the extent that it identifies certain actions as having made our common language, our common discourse almost impossibly difficult, and therefore as having made precisely that honest discussion which so many have spoken so movingly already this morning, harder and more remote. An action that appears to foreclose the outcome of a debate or discussion doesn't actually breed confidence in a common language in a common frame of reference. That is my perception and part of, to be candid, the burden that I bear at the moment.

But there are no cost-free decisions, it seems, in the Body of Christ. And our attention has rightly been drawn this morning, and on many other occasions, to another kind of cost. If the acceptance of the recommendations of the of the Windsor report or something similar to them were to be simply a mask, a stalking horse, for prejudice or bigotry, for collusion in violence, then I think the report would have failed, and worse than failed it would have made us less than the body of Christ. These things are flagged in successive Lambeth resolutions and in the report itself. We are not talking about an attempt to repress debate or constrain conscience. We are attempting, I think, to identify what sort of actions appear to pre-empt such discussion and by so doing to destroy the sense of a common language.

It's been said that the Windsor Report is the only game in town. I think that's probably right. I think that there are very difficult decisions ahead of us next week, and I speak as I do this morning simply to underline the fact that there will be no cost-free outcome from this and that bearing that cost together with others in the Anglican Communion is part of what of what we are being called to today and what we ought to be thinking and praying through during this debate. To put it as bluntly as I can, there are no clean breaks in the Body of Christ.

But the final question which I think has to say with us is something like this. What is it for the Church to be a truly counter-cultural community? It may be for the Church to take a firm stand against the erosion of objective morality and biblical truth, indeed I believe that this is part of it. It may be for the Church to act courageously on behalf of those who are oppressed or marginalised – again I believe that is so. But isn't the ultimate distinctive counter-cultural fact about the church our capacity to live sacrificially for the sake of each other? How we do that, Windsor doesn't tell us; only the Holy Spirit does.

In supporting this motion, as I hope you will, pray that the Holy Spirit will help us see that, above all, next week.

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