Justin Welby pleases no one

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke today in the House of Lords on the legislation that could legalize same-sex marriage in England. It is noteworthy that he even spoke. There was some thought that the bishops in the House of Lords would just abstain, though I think that would have generated as much comment as anything they could and did say. It is the perils of Establishment that the archbishop should be compelled to speak on this issue and at this time.

Given what was known about him when he took office—namely, that he is a self-described “conservative evangelical”—he said some things that were surprising:

It is clearly essential that stable and faithful same sex relationships should, where those involved want it, be recognised and supported with as much dignity and the same legal effect as marriage.

But then he expressed his ultimate opposition to the legislation, for reasons that have much to do with the nature of the particular legislation under consideration.

It is this opposition (creatively reinterpreted by some headline writers) that has seized the initial headlines and has already light up my various social media streams with negative comments. But I imagine that in the not very distant future there will be people from the opposite end of the spectrum who start hitting him for what seem to be positive comments about same-sex relationships.

The end result? I think this is a speech that will please no one. Neither liberals nor conservatives in the church will have to look hard to find reason to be outraged. (Being outraged has lately become a cottage industry in the church, as in our politics.)

As I read the speech, I thought back to Rowan Williams, who similarly managed to please no one during his tenure in Canterbury. Perhaps that’s just the nature of the job and the peculiar nature of episcopal ministry, in which you are not just attempting to advance an agenda (as political leaders are) but serving as a “focus of unity” in the body of Christ, an entity that is like nothing else that exists in the world. But when these exigencies meet the real world of politics, the result is the vitriol that is quickly sprouting around the Internet.

It made me think back to this sermon the archbishop gave some weeks ago.

He concludes by saying:

In the end it is not up to us. We put everything we can into it but in the end it’s God’s call. And that’s very, very good news. So we don’t have to believe in ourselves, in our processes, in our inspiration, let alone in an archbishop of Canterbury.

Amen to that.

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