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General Synod: Debate on Clergy Discipline (Doctrine)

Saturday 10th July 2004

A speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the General Synod in York.

Thank you Mr Chairman. It's always very difficult in a situation where we're immediately aware of particular controversies to retreat and look at general principle. And at the moment it may be rather difficult to imagine that the church could ever be concerned about anything other than sex or surplices, given the particular configuration of offences that seem to be envisaged here. But I hope that we can think more broadly, more evangelically, if I may so put it, about the purposes of such a proposed measure. The question I think we ought to be asking is a question about whether this does or does not serve the integrity or credibility of the church in the long run. And if we believe that if such a measure serves integrity and credibility, that we then we should vote for it and see what happens. And I believe that such a measure can serve the integrity and credibility of the church if we do indeed step back in this way.

Certain things really are incompatible with Christian profession. And I don't think we ought to let ourselves forget that. It's twenty something years, I think since the world alliance of reformed churches declared a theological justification of apartheid was a heresy. It would be, I think a very incredible and inadequate Christian church which did not have the resource to say something like that. There's an issue also about the nature of our responsibility to one another in the church and the way in which what is said by one is felt to commit, and indeed affect in other ways, others.

I'd like also to pick up a point very briefly that the Bishop of Rochester touched on. Case law can be a benign fact in the history of a church; it can sometimes be helpful in calling the bluff of idle or vexatious complainants and I think we can bear that in mind as something affecting the general credibility and integrity of the church. And it's broadly for those reasons that I think I shall want to vote for this to go to the next round. And I'm grateful for the work that's been done by the group which has produced this report.

The two reservations I'd like to enter at this point, hoping that they will go into the continuing process have to do first with a rather obvious point already touched on by Professor McHenry and flagged in the proposed amendments. That is, the obvious question of whether the hurdle is high enough in all cases. I and I imagine some others here could imagine others here could imagine without too much difficulty certain PCCs we have known and loved where the assembling of a two-thirds majority would not be as difficult as it perhaps ought to be. I speak from some experience here from a province which did have a doctrinal canon along these lines. And I think that the point made by Professor McHenry about consultation with the Bishops so that there was a corporate element to any discernment by an individual bishop is of great help.

But my slightly more serious and persistent worry is about what we mean by ritual and ceremonial. I suspect, you see that the thrust of what we have here is really about liturgical order, that is the principal of liturgical order, the principal of what being answerable for what is said and very broadly done in church in accordance with what the church at large determines. I would see that as slightly different from what the words 'ritual' and 'ceremonial' immediately suggest to me and to many people. And I feel that the potential there for idle and vexatious complain is enormous, whether from the ultra-conservative or the ultra liberal. And I think we're going to need a little bit more clarification in that area before we can simply pass this through as it stands. But I would, going back to where I began, say once again that I'm happy to see this go to the next round of exploration and discussion on that fundamental question 'is this something which makes our church credible? is this something that serves our common integrity?' and remind you that, as I've said, there is a question about our answerability to one another in the church which has to find some sort of expression in law; not of itself as I'm sure many people on the platform will be glad to hear me say, but if itself, a bad thing. Thank you.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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