The Bishop Candidate: The Reverend Jerre Stockton Williams, Jr.

Thanks to Mark for noting that a combination of human imperfection, fatigue, single malt scotch and dyslexia had resulted in the deletion of Fr. William’s last name in the original post. This is the corrected edition.

The incarnation of the Word of God means God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ. There is a reflection of the incarnation of the ‘Word’ in all human living. Every act and gesture is a word spoken. We are not platonizing or over-spiritualizing our view of sex when we say that every sexual act, feeling, or emotion has the power to become a disclosure of spirit to spirit. Sexuality is never something ‘by itself’. It is always a meaning incarnate.—Daniel Day Williams, The Spirit and the Forms of Love

Four candidates from the Bishop’s Search Committee have been examined so far in a vain attempt to unveil which two are the “moderates to liberals.” So I began my analysis of the final Search Committee Candidate in the hope that he could be the one lone liberal (maybe the Search Committee just can’t count).

Fr. Williams is the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Kerrville, Texas. He is the son of a noted constitutional law scholar and federal judge. He is also the nephew of one of the twentieth century’s leading Process Theologians, Daniel Day Williams, Professor of Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Daniel Day Williams wrote one of the most influential works on human love and sexuality, The Spirit and Forms of Love. One would expect then, that Fr. Williams would display the type of scholarship reflective of such an intellectual provenance.

Fr. Williams (who is also a lawyer by training) is not a liberal like his uncle. His faith story is a riff on the standard Evangelical conversion account:

I had a profound experience of God’s grace through Jesus Christ and his Spirit. One night I was reading the Sermon on the Mount (some sort of Sunday School assignment), and it suddenly hit me: this is all about motives and I am so far away from where God wants me to be. I mostly did the right things outwardly, but it was always for my reasons: my good grades, my popularity, my achievement, my being in good standing with teachers, my, my, my. Although I did not think of it this way at the time, I was a Pharisee. I was immediately convicted by the gap between who God wants me to be and who I am. Somehow through Christ’s Spirit I was led right into Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and everything clicked. Suddenly I knew, not just intellectually but deep in my heart, that I was not so lovable in God’s eyes, but he loved me nonetheless, and even died on the cross for me.

Please don’t think I am hostile to evangelicalism. For all its flaws, and its tendency to wander off into literalism, solipsism and existentialism, evangelicalism is part of the modern Christian theological mainstream. I consider myself an heir of its tradition, though as a convert to the Anglican/Episcopal way, I have become suspicious of its emphasis on personal experience over theological rigor. A deep study of the letter to the Romans was part of my story too, so I do not have a problem with Williams going from the Kingdom justice of the Sermon on the Mount to the “Romans road” to salvation. (Note to cradle Episcopalians: those are Evangelical code words. If you have to ask, never mind…) What I’m worried about is if he ever came back.

Fr. Williams set off on his journey towards ordination with a clear call, which he heard in the words of Canticle 9: “Make God’s deeds known among the people; see that they remember that his name is exalted!” He still wears a stole embroidered by his wife with those words.

His method of dealing with conflict is first to “deal with any basic, immediate issues that could escalate the underlying conflict. The second and even more important task is to create a surrounding environment where all sides feel supported, and heard. My purpose is to seek resolution and reconciliation between the parties involved….This should and can be done with Christian charity and respect for all of the parties or sides. Of course, all of this is surrounded with love and constant prayer for the Spirit’s presence.”

However, Fr. Williams’ approach to the conflict around sexuality that threatens to rend our denomination does not follow his “purpose to seek resolution and reconciliation between the parties involved.” Fr. Williams is a founder of Communion Partners, a group of Bishops and Priests who are committed “to becoming ‘a part of a “Covenanted” global Anglican body in communion with the See of Canterbury.’” That is a commitment which can and will “escalate the underlying conflict.” The so-called Anglican Covenant has been discussed in earlier posts, so I’m not going into it here. Suffice it to say that, rather than an “instrument of unity,” it is likely to become an instrument of division.

The Communion Partners sent as emissaries a group of seven Bishops to meet with Archbishop Rowan Williams on September 1. (The Dioceses of Albany, Dallas, North Dakota, Northern Indiana, South Carolina, West Texas and Western Louisiana were represented.) That meeting resulted in a report, which contained this interesting request to “Communion-minded members of The Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion”:

We encourage dioceses and congregations, in the spirit of GC09 Resolution B030, to engage in “companion domestic mission relationships among dioceses and congregations within The Episcopal Church.”

Resolution B030 was designed to encourage larger, financially stable Dioceses to have “companion domestic mission relationships among dioceses and congregations within The Episcopal Church, and especially with the member dioceses of the Domestic Missionary Partnership.” Members of the DMP are like mission congregations, they receive support from General Convention to help them carry out their missions until such time as they can stand on their own two feet. If the Communion Partners were interested in helping our mission Dioceses serve the Navajo or Inuit, I would go to their website right now and sign up. But that is not what this is about.

The Communion Partners are using the language of B030 to do something which was not intended in the resolution: “create a clear Communion identity within TEC.” While the Communion Partners may lament the fact, there is already a “clear Communion identity within TEC.” (What is it with the abbreviations, anyway? At best they are annoying, at worst they are a sort of shorthand for “The (apostate) Episcopal Church.” Why not just say it?) As long as the ABC invites the Bishops of TEC to LC then we have a CCIWTEC. Dioceses do not need to bind themselves together in little clusters, like the church in Corinth, where one group followed “Paul, another Apollos, another Cephas, another Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:12). That was divisive in ancient Corinth and would be divisive today, even under the rubric of creating a “clear Communion identity within TEC.”

Father Williams needs to explain why he does not think that The Episcopal Church has a “clear Communion identity,” but yet he is committed to remaining in it? Why in the world would he want to be a Bishop in a Church that has “essentially rejected the teaching of 1998 Lambeth Resolution 1.10 as the mind of the Communion?”

I’m not buying it, but I guess the Search Committee did. Or maybe they just didn’t know how really radical this thinking is. Or what a liberal is. Or why it is so distressing to so many that all we have to choose from is five, Southern, white, middle-aged, conservative male candidates.

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