Archbishop of Canterbury's Comments on Nativity Spark Debate Among American Christians

Days after the Anglican Church's Archbishop of Canterbury called portions of the Christmas story "legend," American Christian leaders shied away from attacking Rowan Williams or calling his comments offensive — and some defended him, saying his words were misrepresented by the British media.

In an interview with BBC Radio Five earlier this week, Archbishop Williams debunked various details Christians have come to associate with the birth of Jesus Christ — including the number of wise men, whether they were kings, the snowy weather and the Dec. 25 date.

Click here to see an edited transcript of the Archbishop of Canterbury's interview.

But among many American Christians, there was confusion as to what Williams was getting at.

"I'm not sure what Rowan's saying," said Ted Baehr, the chairman of evangelical watchdog group the Christian Film and Television Commission. "I don't know what his point is. I think it's always a mistake to be overly critical when you're not using the evidence at hand."

Baehr said he wasn't sure how to interpret the archbishop's comments, based on news stories that ran in the British press and on the transcript of Williams' radio interview.

Click here to see a story about the interview in the London Telegraph.

When asked about the story of the three wise men coming to see the newborn Jesus from the East, Williams said the New Testament offers only vague details about the magi.

"Matthew's Gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from," the Archbishop of Canterbury said. "It says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told, so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' — that's legend; it works quite well as legend."

FOX News Contributor Father Jonathan Morris, a Catholic priest, said the details Williams deconstructed are not what's important at Christmas.

"Based on what I've seen in the print press, I can only assume that his words have been taken out of context," Morris said. "During Christmas, we should focus on what the Bible actually says: That Jesus was born by the power of the Holy Spirit to the blessed Virgin Mary."

In the interview, Williams didn't dispute the virgin birth of Christ to a woman named Mary and her husband Joseph, though he did say belief in immaculate conception shouldn't be an obstacle that Christians must overcome to be considered true followers of the faith.

"I don't want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they, you know, be signed up," he said. "I think quite a few people ... get a sense, a deeper sense, of what the virgin birth is about. I would say that of myself. About 30 years ago, I might have said I wasn't too fussed about it — now I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story."

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams oversees the Anglican Church, also called the Church of England. In America, it is the Episcopal Church.

"He is free to say whatever he likes," said Episcopal Church spokeswoman Neva-Rae Fox. "We're not going to comment on what he says."

The bishop of the Anglican Church in America — which is actually not part of England's Anglican Communion and is more conservative than the Episcopal Church, said he didn't find most of Williams' comments problematic. But he was disappointed by his description of the immaculate conception.

"I was a little concerned that he was as soft as he was on the teaching of the doctrine of the virgin birth, which to me is an essential doctrine for Christians," said Bishop George Langberg.

In the radio interview, Williams said that it was "very unlikely" that there was snow on the ground, as is often shown on Christmas cards and in other portrayals of the nativity, and that we don't even know whether Christ's birthday is Dec. 25.

"It can be pretty damn cold in Bethlehem at this time of the year, but we don't know that it was this time of year because — again — the Gospels don't tell us what time of year it was," Williams said. "Christmas is the time it is because it fitted very well with the winter festival."

The date of Christ's birth has actually long been the subject of debate among Biblical scholars, with many theorizing that Jesus was actually born in the fall, closer to the start of the Jewish New Year in September, when the Census was taken.

"For a long time, it was said that Dec. 25 was chosen because it was a Roman holiday, but there's now a lot of dispute about that," Baehr said. "Historical and textual evidence (now) say that it may have been Dec. 25."

Morris said the exact date of Christ's birth really isn't relevant and that the uncertainty shouldn't deter families from celebrating Christmas on the 25th.

"It makes no difference," Morris said. "Any chronological measurement of time is relative. The important things are the facts: That Jesus, son of Mary and the stepson of Joseph, was born, and he was Emmanuel: God with us."

As for what parents should tell their kids about the details of Christmas in light of what Williams said, Morris suggested they refer them to the source.

"You read them the Bible," he said. "You tell them the story of what happened. And you invite them to use their own imagination."

Bishop Langberg said there's no need to give children a completely factually accurate version of Christ's birth, as long as they understand the message.

"The core is that God sent his son into the world to redeem mankind of its sins," he said. "The birth of his son was God's great gift to the human race. That's why we give gifts to each other."

Langberg said he wished Williams had highlighted the significance of the Christmas story in his radio segment.

"He could have used the interview to emphasize the importance of the birth of Christ," said Langberg. "He gets bogged down in the details that we've used over the years to embellish the story. ... Certain people, the archbishop among them, seem to have a driving need to rationalize things that the scripture presents to us as mysteries."

The Catholic Archdiocese of New York declined to weigh in on Williams' characterization of the nativity.

The American Baptist Churches in the USA, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Methodist Church did not respond to requests for comment.