The Philosopher Priest
By Stephen CrittendenMarch 22, 2012
Rowan Williams tried to navigate the tumult of a church divided — but the Archbishop of Canterbury who just resigned never really got through the narrows of the broad church that is Anglicanism today.
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold," is the great line from William Butler Yeats's prophetic poem The Second Coming that has come to be identified with our postmodern loss of a common culture with shared values.
It could also be the epitaph that sums up Rowan Williams's time as Archbishop of Canterbury. For the past 10 years he has devoted all his energies to demonstrating that the centre can indeed hold, but it has proved an impossible task.
Archbishop Williams, 61, did the right thing to announce his resignation last Friday. No doubt his decision to do so was taken some weeks ago, in order for him to have been offered and to have accepted his new position as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. But the failure of two major policy initiatives in very recent days suggests his credibility as Archbishop of Canterbury had all but run out.
First there was the failure of the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant, which he has spent years patiently pushing. This is a document that sets out the basic doctrine that all member churches in the worldwide Anglican Communion are expected to share, and a mechanism for resolving disputes between them. The Covenant came about in an effort to deal with the big, intractable issue that has dogged Archbishop Williams's entire period in office: homosexuality, or more specifically whether the rest of the Anglican communion can tolerate the fact that in 2003 the Episcopalians in the United States appointed an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, of New Hampshire, and the diocese of New Westminster in Canada is blessing same-sex unions in church. "What we're trying to do," the Archbishop said in a December 2009 video address that accompanied the release of the final draft of the Covenant, "is to give a practical, sensible and Christian way of dealing with our conflicts, recognising that they're always going to be there."
But it turns out that there isn't much enthusiasm for the Covenant anywhere, and in a statement released following the announcement of Rowan Williams's resignation, the primate of Nigeria, Archibishop Nicholas Okoh, described the idea as "doomed to fail from the start".
On the other side of the ideological divide, Canon Jim Naughton, of the Episcopal diocese of Washington, once told me: "Every church in the Anglican communion has its own identity, and its own domestic situation. The Episcopal Church would fall apart if it suddenly decided, 'Oh, you know what? We don't really mean anything that we said about the full inclusion of gays and lesbians.' It would be institutional suicide. I mean it would be a tremendous betrayal of our own consciences, but it would also be institutional suicide."
The problem is that the worldwide Anglican communion is, as Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney has rightly pointed out, "a loose confederation of essentially independent bodies". Rowan Williams was seeking to strengthen the powers at the centre on the Catholic model, but member churches aren't interested in having other member churches telling them what to do, nor are they keen on ceding more power to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But now it turns out that Rowan Williams hasn't been able even to garner enough support for his Covenant idea in the Church of England. So far the vote among the English dioceses stands at 20-12 against, with 12 dioceses still to vote. Two more "no" votes will finish it. As New Zealand clergyman and blogger Bosco Peters put it so succinctly this week, the Covenant's drafters "obviously never foresaw or even considered what would happen if the C of E did not sign up. What could it possibly mean to have a 'covenanted Anglican communion' of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a member?!!!"
The second major policy setback, again in his own Church of England, has been in relation to women bishops. Rowan Williams supports women bishops. Indeed there is very strong support throughout the Church of England, and it seems very likely that final approval will be given in July opening the way to the first women bishops being consecrated in 2014. But in an effort to placate opponents of women bishops, Rowan Williams and the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, had been promoting a crackpot scheme that would have seen the appointment of male "co-bishops" to have oversight of those traditional Anglicans who do not wish to accept the headship of a woman. In February, the idea was firmly voted down in all three houses of the General Synod - bishops, clergy and laity. And rightly so, because the scheme would have undermined the very principle of women being able to exercise authority in the church that the archbishop was trying to promote. The UK Telegraph has reported that just hours before announcing his resignation, the Archbishop confided to a group of senior clergy that the "co-bishops" scheme was close to collapse and expressed his "foreboding" about the future of the Church.
In his assessment of President Barack Obama's first term in office in The Atlantic this month, James Fallows argues that all US presidents fail "because not to fail would require, in the age of modern communications and global responsibilities, a range of native talents and learned skills no real person has ever possessed".
Some say Rowan Williams was the finest theologian to be Archbishop of Canterbury since Anselm of Canterbury in the early 1100s. But this week there has been pretty widespread agreement in the British press that he too has failed in office. The big question now facing the Church of England is whether the office of Archbishop of Canterbury has become an impossible one, or whether a new appointee with a different temperament and a different set of skills might change everything.
It has been Rowan Williams's great misfortune to be Archbishop of Canterbury during a time when worldwide Anglicanism was undergoing an identity crisis that, in a sense he himself has come to personify. He has gone to extraordinary lengths and demonstrated almost superhuman patience in seeking to mediate between opposing factions that have shown little interest in compromise (as he said himself in an interview last week, "not everybody in the Anglican Communion or even in the Church of England is eager to avoid schism or separation").
He is affable, a great intellectual, deeply spiritual and well liked. But he also is seen as a muddled thinker who has tended to operate on the principle that if a problem can't be solved, his duty is to just keep everybody talking.
When he first came to office many people assumed, wrongly, that Williams was a liberal. People thought they knew what his private views about homosexuality were because as Bishop of Monmouth in Wales he had ordained a gay man, and because he had written a virtuosic essay, "The Body's Grace" (1989), arguing - not on liberal social justice grounds, but using the language and thought-processes of traditional Christian theology - that same-sex unions can be a source of grace.
But he is increasingly seen to have sacrificed his personal beliefs - and his credibility - for the sake of the cause of unity and because he doesn't believe it is his job as Archbishop of Canterbury to have private views.
In doing so he managed to alienate all sides. On two occasions under pressure from conservatives he blocked an openly gay but celibate man, his former ally, the Dean of St Albans, Canon Jeffrey John, from being made a bishop in the Church of England. Ultimately he adopted the conservative Biblical line on homosexuality on the basis that this remains the view of the majority of Anglican churches around the world.
Under his failed covenant proposal this would relegate the Episcopalians in the United States to a kind of associate status in relation to the rest of the Anglican Communion. At the time, referring to his well-known earlier views in support of homosexuals, the gay Episcopalian bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, joked that Rowan Williams appeared to have been abducted by aliens: "They have left something that looks like him, but we don't recognise him anymore." But that didn't stop Nigerian primate Archbishop Okoh, in a statementreleased following Rowan Williams's resignation announcement, from stating that under his leadership the Anglican Communion had been "crucified under Pontius Pilate".
Archbishop Williams has enjoyed warm ecumenical relations with Pope Benedict XVI and was often to be seen praying and preaching in Catholic churches in Rome. But in spite of that, in 2009 he was humiliated when the pope suddenly announced the creation of a new "personal ordinariate" to enable traditionalist Anglicans unhappy with women priests and women bishops to come over to Rome. Writing to bishops of the Church of England and primates of Anglican provinces worldwide, Williams denied that these arrangements represented "an act of proselytism or aggression" and apologised "that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier to this; I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage."
But perhaps he allowed himself a wry smile when this whole crazy venture collapsed early this month. A meeting of traditionalist Anglican bishops in Johannesburg dumped their Australian leader, Archbishop John Hepworth, and voted unanimously to stay outside the new ordinariate. It is a decision that leaves egg all over the faces of those, including Pope Benedict and a number of Australian Catholic bishops, who had allowed themselves to believe Archbishop Hepworth's assurances that there were 400,000 traditionalist Anglicans waiting to "cross the Tiber".
Preaching at his enthronement as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003, Rowan Williams enunciated a wonderful Christian ideal that would in a sense become the theme of his entire period in office, but also contributed to his undoing:
"Once we recognise God's great secret that we are all meant to be God's sons and daughters, we can't avoid the call to see one another differently. No-one can be written off; no group, no nation, no minority can just be a scapegoat to resolve our fears and uncertainties. And this is what unsettles our loyalties, conservative or liberal: we have to learn to be human, alongside all sorts of others, living in Jesus's company. I have to live in a community that is more than just the gathering of those who happen to agree with me, because I need also to be surprised and challenged. If all we have to offer is a Jesus who makes sense to me and people like me, we have no saving truth to give."
As Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has done a lot to surprise and challenge the British public, and a lot to promote the idea that the Church of England has a vital role to play in national life, despite the rapidly declining number of practicing Anglicans. He has spoken out forcefully on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable, and made a strong case in opposition to the Iraq War. But arguably he was never the right person to deal with the social and cultural divisions in the United Kingdom, any more than he was the right person to handle the forces pulling apart the Anglican Communion.
Although he fervently believes in community, his obsession with accommodating competing points of view left him seemingly unable to grapple with the reality that there are some viewpoints that are simply incompatible. Writing this week in The Guardian, Giles Fraser made a similar point when he observed of Rowan Williams that, "His theology is the poetry of community. But it only works where people share a whole lot in common."
Perhaps the defining incident of his time as Archbishop of Canterbury - and one that left his credibility with the British public in tatters - was the speech he gave in February 2008, preceded by an interview on the BBC, in which he suggested that accommodation to sharia law "seems unavoidable" and that "an approach to law which simply says there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, I think that's a bit of a danger".
Lambeth Palace told the BBC he was in a "state of shock" and "completely overwhelmed" by the furious public outcry these comments unleashed. The Times called him a traitor, The Sun called him a silly old goat, and The Telegraph said he was being "fatuous", and there were widespread calls for his resignation. But he said he had been misunderstood - and the then Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Phillips, came to his support, stating that there was "no reason why sharia principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution".
The Archbishop's woolly thinking and the degree to which he was prepared to defy common sense in order to accommodate the other point of view was even more bizarrely on display in relation to the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Centre (he was in New York at the time). Speaking in 2003, he referred to Al Qaeda as the West's "conversation partner", arguing that terrorists "can have serious moral goals":
"We have something of the freedom to consider whether or not we turn to violence, and so, in virtue of that very fact, are rather different from those who experience their world as leaving no other option."