Marxism and Religion Today
2004 SAMLA Panel
Roanoke, Virginia
12-14 November

Karyn Z. Sproles
James Madison University

Radical Orthodoxy, Environment Activism, and Religious Praxis--or Why I Have a Crush on the Archbishop of Canterbury

Do not cite without permission of the author.


Influenced in its formation by Marxism and post-structuralism, the Radical Orthodoxy movement holds out enormous potential for merging theory and practice. Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury and a leading figure in the movement, is a longtime political activist. As Williams demonstrates, Radical Orthodoxy has the potential to influence how we live (not just how we read sometimes). Similarly, in the United States, political practice harnessed to religious structures has proven effective in making use of current pressures from the right in order to promote a progressive agenda. Even when poised to do so, proponents of Radical Orthodoxy have not always been able to turn theory into practice, but by revealing the parallels between the theoretical framework of Radical Orthodoxy and environmental activist Lynn Cameron's work through the Presbyterian church to restrict emissions from coal-fired power plants, I want to suggest the efficacy of tying religion to progressive politics and post-structuralist theory in order to craft a post-Marxist praxis.

Originating at Cambridge in the 1990s, Radical Orthodoxy is a theological movement in which deconstruction is saturated with belief. The philosophical Jesse Tree of Radical Orthodoxy has its roots in Plato, Augustine, and Aquinas, and its twentieth century branches in the work of Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Ur Von Balthazar (1905-1988), Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault. Rowan Williams, translated and taught Balthazar at Cambridge in the 1980s, influencing his students, among them John Milbank, whose Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (1993), is considered one of   the founding works of Radical Orthodoxy. Along with theologians such as Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward,   Milbank draws a parallel between deconstruction's analysis of the binary oppositions inherent in language and the central doctrines of the Christian church, which insist on the reconciliation of conflicts inherent in notions like the Trinity and Holy Communion. The Trinity depends on the acceptance of God as three in one, in transubstantiation communion bread becomes the body of Christ literally as well as figuratively, and when receiving Holy Communion the participant retains his or her individual identity while at the same time becoming incorporated. Spiritual Mysteries, then, pass through deconstruction as part of their constitution in so far as they are consciously understood to be both in opposition and inseparable. As R. R. Reno explains: "Radical Orthodoxy hopes to recover Neoplatonic metaphysics as an explanation for the glue that holds the world together...Identity is neither a wound in the flux of difference nor a vulnerable citadel to be defended. Dynamism and difference--'I am coming from and going forward [note that the same verb is used for both concepts in Ancient Greek]--constitute identity. The glue is sticky, but it never dries" (39). According to Reno, Radical Orthodoxy "counters the Nietzschean nihilism of foundational advancing a participatory framework, an analogical poetics, a semiosis of peace, a metanarrative that does not require the postulate of original violence" but instead "offers a theory of identity and meaning based on unity and peace" (39). In Radical Orthodoxy, peace is not just an abstract concept that passeth all understanding but also contextualized and political. Catherine Pickstock, for example, proposes taking Holy Communion as a model for a participatory community ( After Writing ), thus urging a reciprocal relationship between politics and religion.

I want to focus specifically on Rowan Williams, not only because he was Milbank's teacher, but because his position as Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the church of England and the International Anglican Communion with 70 million members (including the Episcopal church in America), gives him potentially enormous influence in current theology and politics. Born in 1950, Williams is Welsh, and speaks fluent Welsh, among other languages. He is married and has 2 children. He was Archbishop of Wales (1999-2001) before being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Tony Blair in 2001. From the start of his career Williams was a powerful force in the Anglican church, but he is an unusual choice for its head in part because of his academic background: he taught in Yorkshire (1975-77), Cambridge (1977-86), and Oxford (1986-92), and has published over a dozen books of theology, commentary, and poetry. But the primary reason he is a surprising appointment is his political activism. While Dean of Clare College Cambridge he was also an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and was arrested on Ash Wednesday 1985 "for scaling the perimeter fence of RAF Alconbury" (Shortt 46-47). He is a founding member of the Jubilee Group, a support Network for Anglo-Catholic socialists. He was lecturing on Wall Street, two blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and wrote about his response to the experience in Writing in the Dust (2001). He subsequently denounced the Afghanistan conflict and opposed the war in Iraq. He supports the Liberation Theology Movement in Latin American and insists that theology is inherently political. He campaigned for the ordination of women (allowed in 1992 in England and in 1996 in Wales) and is a vocal supporter of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

Williams's ability to influence religious and political debate was tested when the American Episcopal church consecrated Gene Robinson in November 2003 as the church's first openly gay bishop. Although Williams is an activist, his responses to issues within the church are initially theological and closely argued through scriptural analysis. Along with Milbank, Williams holds that "faith is not alien to reason, but its intensification" (Shortt 35). Thus, Williams deconstructs the binary oppositions of a theological argument to uncover the enabling assumptions of each position. On the question of whether or not women should be ordained, for example, Williams's response to the commonly made point that women should not be priests because the Disciples were all men is that the Disciples were also all Jews, but we do not require all priests to be Jewish. Ultimately, Williams concludes that what is essential in the incarnation of Christ is his humanity, not his manhood, and thus there is no obstacle to the ordination of women, and by implication lesbians and gay men.

Williams made a full statement of his support for homosexual priests in "The Body's Grace" (1989) a memorial lecture sponsored by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. Williams supported his position with scriptural authority arguing that "the Bible...condemns hetero sexuals who engage in homo sexual acts for gratification" even as it emphasizes physical love as an important part of creating intimate bonds between two adults (Shortt 50). Dismissing the position that homosexuality is perverse because it does not lead to conception, Williams defines perversity as "sexual activity...without the dangerous acknowledgement that my joy depends on someone else's as theirs does on mine" (Shortt 51). Williams insists that, simply from the standpoint of logic, someone who supports the use of birth control cannot oppose faithful gay partnerships. Williams acted on his convictions by knowingly ordaining a gay man living in a committed partnership with another man. However, after his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams wrote to the Anglican bishops that he would "abide by the mind of the church as reflected in the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution upholding traditional norms" even though his private view remains that it would be appropriate for the church to adjust its "teaching on sexuality" (August 2002, Short 51).

Williams responded to the uproar caused by the consecration of Gene Robinson as a bishop in the American Episcopal church, by calling a meeting of Anglican leaders that proposed a Commission to examine the consequences of Robinson's appointment. [The Commission's report is due to be published in October, so I will be able to share their findings and Williams's response at our panel discussion at SAMLA.] In his statement on Robinson's consecration, Williams chose his   words carefully to show that he has been attentive to the responses of the entire Anglican Communion while not overtly denying his own convictions. This care could be seen as diplomatic or as misleading. He is struggling to initiate a civil dialog when he asserts: "It is clear that those who have consecrated Gene Robinson have acted in good faith on their understanding of what the constitution of the American church permits." But it is also clear that his focus is on the disruptive consequences of this act when he continues: "But the effects of this upon the ministry and witness of the overwhelming majority of Anglicans particularly in the non-western world have to be confronted with honesty" ( ). Much as he supports the ordination of gay clergy, it appears that he is more unhappy about the threat this poses to the church when he says "The divisions that are arising are a matter of deep regret; they will be all too visible in the fact that it will not be possible for Gene Robinson's ministry as a bishop to be accepted in every   province in the communion."

While Williams's refusal to use his position in the church to support a cause he had previously championed does not necessarily suggest that Radical Orthodoxy is all talk, it does raise the concern that as much as proponents of Radical Orthodoxy insist on the politics of theology, they will not be able to move from theory to practice. In addition, as a longtime admirer of Williams, I was dismayed by what I believed at the time to be a failure of leadership. I have a more complicated interpretation of Williams's position now, and I will return that in my conclusion. First I want to look at what seems to me to be a more successful use of a religious institution to further political activism in the example of Lynn Cameron's work to restrict coal-fired power plants, which, I think, does indicate a way in which theory can be turned into action.

As an environmental activist, Cameron targeted coal-fired power plants because they are the world's largest unregulated source of mercury and sulfur dioxide and the U.S.'s largest source of carbon dioxide, which is the greatest contributor to global warming. Working with a small group of Presbyterians in the Shenandoah Valley concerned with environmental issues, Cameron built a local coalition in one of the most conservative areas of the South, and ultimately succeeded in persuading the General Assembly of the Presbyterian church USA to pass a resolution calling for regulations on coal-fired power plants (June 2002), which had previously been exempt from restrictions due to a loop hole in the original legislation. Cameron then contacted the over three dozen Presbyterian members of Congress, putting them in an interesting position, since, given the current religious climate, it would be very difficult to openly flout one's church. She is currently working with other environmental activists who want to pass similar resolutions in their churches, including the Episcopal church. Cameron's use of religious conservatism to push members of Congress into supporting environmental goals exemplifies a strategy for making use of the dominant culture for progressive ends.

Cameron is a "strategic environmentalist" (to borrow a phrase from Gayatri Spivak) who does not theorize her methods, but a deconstructive analysis of the role of religion in politics could have resulted in realizations that would have suggested a similar strategy. Cameron's understanding of the forces of self-interest led to her use of religious pressure to influence members of congress. Her work exemplifies the way in which Radical Orthodoxy could work its way off the page and into politics. And, although I did not think so at first, I also think Williams's seeming lack of response to the outrage expressed by some members of the Anglican Communion at the ordination of Gene Robinson is also a radical political gesture.

In "Liberation Theology and the Anglican Tradition" (1983), Williams wrote: "Theological certainly is inseparable from commitment to a particular human project; theological truth is inseparable from the durability of that project. There is no other kind of absoluteness in our history" (13). In this essay, following Juan Luis Segundo, one of the leading figures in the Latin American Liberation Theology movement, Williams argues that, as a community, we should be dedicated to "the consistent living out of a radical, inevitably political, but also reflective, prayful and sacramentally oriented Christian discipleship" (14). As Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams sees his first and most important responsibility as stewardship of the Anglican Community. When Robinson's consecration threatened the community with schism, Williams acted to prevent the church from becoming divided. In this, despite my personal disappointment that he did not use this opportunity to further the position he holds on the matter, I believe he was acting in a manner that has far greater and more lasting ramifications.

In refusing to use his position to further a cause he personally and theological supports, Williams weakened the position of the Archbishop. By sharing power, seeing his role as representational rather than papal, Williams restructures church hierarchy. He retains his individual voice, but he clearly places it as one among many--and a minority voice at that--and overturns the patriarchal structure of the church in a move that is more radical than intervening on any one specific issue alone could ever be. I now see Williams position as, like Cameron's, strategic, since the Anglican Community has a long history of debate compromise and reform, holding the Community together maintains the possibility of transformation, whereas schism would reify the sides into fixed binaries. If he had taken a stronger position, Williams might well have damaged the cause he wishes to support. While it takes enormous strength to appear weak, retaining a strong church also strengthens Williams's political voice outside the church, where he continues to criticize the Blair government, notably for its role in Iraq. By promoting the united instability of the Anglican Communion, Williams thus illustrates Radical Orthodoxy's celebration of inherent conflicts: the function of his office is to nurture and protect and increase the Anglican Communion while the function of his scholarship is to achieve the divine through rational analysis. Williams's deconstructive theology exposes the ideologically maintained false assumptions at the heart of doctrine and social practice while retaining a faithful witness and reverence for scripture, and as Archbishop of Canterbury he quells the discord that erupts as a result of events he urges in his own theological analyses. Taken together, the theoretical model exemplified by Williams and the more immediately practical results achieved by Cameron suggest the potential for Radical Orthodoxy to respond to politically volatile issues at the interface of religion and society. Williams and Cameron both recognize and make use of the dominant culture's deference to religious values to intervene in national politics, taking Liberation Theology's understanding of the ideological nature of belief into a post-Marxist religious praxis that actually exists.

A Radical Orthodoxy Bibliography

Hughes, John and Matthew Bullimore. "What is Radical Orthodoxy?" Telos . Spring 2002. 183-190.

Milbank, John, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, eds. Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology . New York: Routledge, 1999.

Milbank, John. Theology and Social Thought: Beyond Secular Reason . London: Blackwell, 1993.

---. The Word Made Strange . London: Blackwell, 1997.

Pickstock, Catherine. After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy . London: Blackwell, 1997.

Reno, R. R. "The Radical Orthodoxy Project." First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life . February 2000. 37-44.

Sharlet, Jeff. "Theologian Seek to Reclaim the World with God and Postmodernism: The Subtle Passion of 'Radical Orthodoxy' Emerges as an Intellectual Force." Chronicle of Higher Education . June 23, 2000.

Shortt, Rupert. Rowan Williams: An Introduction . Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 2003.

Ward, Graham. Barth, Derrida, and the Language of Theology . Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Williams, Rowan. "The Body's Grace." Lecture sponsored by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. 1989.

---. "Liberation Theology and the Anglican Tradition" in Politics and Theological Identity . The Jubilee Group. 1983.

---. "Statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury following the consecration of Canon Gene Robinson as Bishop-coadjutor of New Hampshire." 3 November 2003. < > 30 September 2004.