Last December, Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams was roundly criticized for publicly denying the Christmas story. “Archbishop Says Nativity a Legend,” the Daily Telegraph headline screamed, igniting a transatlantic controversy over the ostensibly Grinch-like prelate.
In fact, the archbishop of Canterbury was pointing out that much of the popular imagery surrounding the Nativity scene is not specifically biblical. When Jesus was born, there were no talking donkeys, no Little Drummer Boy, and no Christmas trees at the Manger, at least according to the Gospels.
Evidently, the Telegraph was looking for a juicy anti-Christmas headline and grossly misrepresented Williams’ remarks about Christmas made during a BBC radio interview. “The Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday that the Christmas story of the Three Wise Men was nothing but a ‘legend,’” the newspaper claimed. But Williams only observed that the Bible does not specify the number of magi, nor does it ever describe them as “kings.”
“Matthew’s gospel says they are astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire, that’s all we’re really told,” Williams accurately recounted. The Telegraph reported that he “went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story”; in fact, he denied nothing that was authentic to the biblical account.
Williams plausibly pointed out that neither oxen nor asses are mentioned by the Evangelists, that the visits of the wise men and shepherds did not overlap, that there was not likely any snow, and that Jesus probably was not born in December.
Unmentioned by the newspaper was Williams’ affirmation of the Virgin Birth, which, unlike donkeys or Christmas trees, is mentioned in the Gospels.
“We know his mother’s name was Mary, that’s one of the things all the gospels agree about, and the two gospels that tell the story have the story of the virgin birth and that’s something I’m committed to as part of what I’ve inherited,” Williams said. He observed that 30 years ago he would have not have emphasized belief in the Virgin Birth.
But I think quite a few people would say that as time goes on, they get a sense, a deeper sense of what the virgin birth is about. . . . [N]ow I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story.
Although the Telegraph did provide a link to an actual transcript of Williams’ remarks, few seemed to have read it. Conservative and liberal blogs simultaneously railed against or praised the archbishop for what he did not say. The Christian Post quoted evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson reproving Williams with “Shame on him.”
Robertson might have been more justifiably upset over a far less publicized Christmas message from the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, which belongs to the global Anglican Communion over which Rowan Williams presides. According to standfirminthefaith.com, a conservative Anglican website, the family of Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori has sent out a Christmas card featuring only multicultural female characters surrounding the Baby Jesus. Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men are nowhere to be seen—only adoring matriarchs, including a seemingly African Virgin Mary.
The card featured three “wise women” of different nationalities and explains: “Wise women throughout time and in every culture know themselves to be seekers and seers of the Divine.” In the image of the wise women, the card asserted that “women around the world find an image of the Epiphany that includes and validates their encounters with the One Who Saves.”
Joyously, the Christmas card boasted that the mother and child depicted are “nurtured by a loving community.” Indeed, “Here is global inclusiveness and a vision of mutuality and interdependence—the giving and receiving of the three gifts essential to life itself: presence, love and daily bread.”
The card came from the evidently very progressive Bridge Building Imagines, which also offers a “Jesus of the People” card, in which the Savior is flanked by “the yin-yang symbol representing perfect harmony” and a feather that “refers to the Native American and the Great Spirit.” As a bonus,
The feminine aspect is served by the fact that although Jesus was designed as a man with a masculine presence, the model was a woman. The essence of the work is simply that Jesus is all of us.
Maybe Bishop Schori will use the “Jesus of the People” card next year. It would dovetail with the Episcopal Church’s increasing emphasis on political correctness over Christian doctrine. Meanwhile, Archbishop Williams is trying to hold together a global 77-million-member Anglican Communion that is fracturing over the theological laxity of Bishop Schori’s 2-million-member church. More cerebral than media savvy, he probably little appreciated how his Christmas radio comments would be so easily misconstrued by a British newspaper and then broadcast worldwide. But Williams’ diligent critics would do better to focus their concerns on Schori.