The Empty Throne at Canterbury: Questions of Succession, Marriage and the Family at Stake

Thanks to Paul Morin, Regent J.D. Candidate 2013, and current Family Law student, for this excellent blog post.

The Most Reverend Dr. Rowan Douglas Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of all England, and senior bishop of the worldwide Anglican Communion, recently announced his intention to resign from high ecclesiastical office in favor of accepting a position as Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University, a role he is anticipated to assume sometime in January of 2013. Archbishop Williams' resignation comes at a critical time for both the Anglican Communion and the United Kingdom.

Plagued by ongoing ecumenical discord – not the least of which was triggered in 2003 by the ordination of The Right Reverend Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay and non-celibate Episcopal bishop – the worldwide Anglican Communion has struggled to maintain its identity during the past decade as localized schisms and overarching diocese-based realignments have called into question, inter alia, the Communion's position on homosexuality and marriage. Likewise, the issue of marriage expansionism has come to a head in the United Kingdom; the government recently "launched a 12-week consultation on allowing gay couples in England and Wales to marry," and Prime Minister David Cameron, a member of the UK Conservative Party and leader of the now governing Conservative-Liberal Democratic Coalition, openly voices support for expanding marriage to encompass same-sex couples.

While questions linger as to who will next ascend the archbishop's throne at Canterbury, the fate of marriage as practiced in both the Anglican Communion and the United Kingdom remains uncertain. Will the next Archbishop of Canterbury protect and defend marriage? Can a candidate be found who will promise to maintain the sound principles of Anglican orthodoxy and orthopraxy with respect to the family? Might a champion come forth who will openly encourage the governing UK Coalition to preserve the essence of marriage from destructive expansionism? In fact, it would appear that one such candidate has emerged! His name: The Most Reverend and Right Honorable Dr. John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu, Archbishop of York.

Archbishop Sentamu, a lawyer, judge and priest, celebrated as the UK's first black archbishop, was elevated to his present post in 2005. Since his appointment as Archbishop of York, Sentamu has served the Church of England as its second most senior clergyman, and now, he stands as the favored successor to the throne at Canterbury.

The sixth of thirteen children, Archbishop Sentamu was born into Uganda's Buffalo clan in 1949. Following his legal education at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, Sentamu became "an Advocate of the High Court of Uganda", going on to practice law "both at the Bar and at the Bench." Incidentally, it was during Sentamu's tenure as a Ugandan judge that the "murderous regime" of dictator Idi Amin came to power. Sentamu is credited with having "stood up to the dictator in small matters and large." In fact, while Sentamu was presiding over the criminal trial of a man related to Idi Amin, it is said that the dictator "himself rang the court and ordered Sentamu not to convict." Sentamu refused to comply: "I'm sorry, your [E]xcellency, the facts are very clear. We cannot manufacture evidence." Shortly thereafter, Sentamu "was arrested, beaten, kicked (causing injuries that stayed with him for years) and, from his cell, heard people being tortured to death. He believed he was next in line when the chief justice intervened." Following months of house arrest, friends of Sentamu organized enough funds to provide a scholarship for him to read theology at Cambridge University’s Selwyn College, the same academic institute where Sentamu would eventually earn a Masters Degree and a Doctorate. Sentamu and his wife left Uganda "with what they could carry" and traveled to the UK in 1974. It was Sentamu's hope to return to Uganda, but, "when that became clearly impossible, he took holy orders, worked as a college and prison chaplain, a curate, and then [as] a parish priest in south London." (A full and detailed account of Archbishop Sentamu's biography concerning his life and achievements in the UK, detailing his eventual rise to the position of Archbishop of York, can be found here).

Married with two grown children of his own, Archbishop Sentamu looks to marriage as a "clear social structure that has been in existence for a very long time," one that cannot be redefined at the mere whim of the State because "it is not the role of the State to define what marriage is." According to Sentamu, marriage is "a relationship between a man and a woman" and, although having supported the UK's sanctioning of "civil partnerships" in the House of Lords, he denies that the government has the power to include civil partnerships within the definition of marriage. Sentamu explains: "If you genuinely would like the registration of civil partnerships to happen in a more general way, most people will say they can see the drift. But if you begin to call those 'marriage,' you're trying to change the English language." (For a short video of Archbishop Sentamu’s comments on marriage and for more quotes, visit this page).

Yet, notwithstanding his views on marriage, Archbishop Sentamu has stressed that one should not confuse anti-marriage expansionist efforts with the condemning and persecution of homosexuals. By holding to a traditional definition of marriage,“[t]hat does not mean you diminish, condemn, criticise [sic], patronise [sic] any same-sex relationships because that is not what the debate is about.” Indeed, in 2009, Sentamu condemned (from afar) the introduction of a Ugandan law that proposed to punish homosexual behavior with life imprisonment, calling the bill "victimizing." As reported by the BBC, Sentamu asserted that "the Anglican [C]ommunion [is] committed to recognizing that gay people [are] valued by God." As such, the proposed Ugandan law seemed to be "a diminishment of the individuals concerned." Thus, for Sentamu, while marriage expansionism must be resisted, such resistance should not be viewed (or wielded) as a weapon whereby the inherent ontological dignity of those who support marriage expansionism is sacrificed or demeaned.

Archbishop Sentamu's views on family and the importance of inter-family relationships came to the forefront in 2007 during his address to the House of Lords concerning a proposed "Human Fertilisation [sic] and Embryology Bill." Sentamu critiqued various provisions of the proposed legislation on the basis that, taken as a whole, it "[c]reate[s] a false dichotomy which seeks to place 'the welfare and needs of the child' against a child's need for a father." Attacking what he perceived to be "an unhealthy seam of rampant individualism," Sentamu warned against government action that would, in effect, give way to "a right[s]-based mentality" which looked to a "presumed . . . right for people to have a child 'by any means necessary'," thereby taking "precedence over the welfare of the child."

Unsatisfied with the all-but disingenuous touting of parental rights that served as a thin-veneer for the legislation's consumerist motives, Archbishop Sentamu mused that the "competing individualist arias of 'I, I, I' and 'me, me, me' provide the mood music for an individualism that posits the right of a wannabe parent over the welfare of a child." However, the greatest threat raised by the legislation, as perceived by Archbishop Sentamu, had to do with its perverse incentive against the family structure: "There is all the difference in the world between a child who finds himself in a single parent family through bereavement or breakdown of parental relationship, and those who find themselves in this situation by design. And this is precisely what the Government proposes in this bill: the removal, by design, of the father of the child."

While there is no way to know for sure whether Archbishop Sentamu will be the next clergyman to occupy the archbishop’s throne at Canterbury, his ardent support for marriage and his dedication to sound family principles make him one of the more appealing candidates. However, the fate of marriage within the Anglican Communion and the United Kingdom remains to be seen; there can be no denying that Archbishop Sentamu's ascension may only serve to galvanize the tensions already at play in these religious and cultural struggles. And yet, the mere possibility that a true, unabashed champion of marriage might actually become the symbolic leader and unifying head of over 80 million people across the world is not only encouraging news, but sufficient impetus to dare to hope that we may soon find ourselves at the turning of a great cultural tide toward family restoration in the Anglican church.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, Bravo Paul Morin! Nicely done and I can hear your voice in the post. I really appreciate the archbishop's point of view and his ability to separate out the argument against the expansion of marriage and the treatment of homosexuals as human beings with value in the eyes of God. That opinion is not expressed enough in Christendom, in my opinion, and without that balanced viewpoint, we polarize the issue unecessarily. Of course the issue is polarizing because of the strong views on both sides; but beginning with respect for the parties involved allows people to at least talk about the issue without the discussion disintegrating into unhelpful and even distructive levels. I hope Sentamu is able to be the vigilant, reasonable and kind leader for the Anglican church that he appears to be - a champion of biblical marriage AND a biblical view of how to treat other people.