So Long, and Thanks For All The Bish
(Sorry about that!)
Rowan Williams has announced that he is to step down from his position as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year. So it seems an appropriate time to consider his legacy as an Archbishop. I’ve found his quiet, thoughtful approach a breath of fresh air, especially when compared to his predecessor, but his academic leanings, while contributing to that thoughtfulness, have also been a hindrance in other aspects of the job.
Despite his own liberal views, he’s always seen his role as reflecting the views of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, rather than leading them. As a result, he’s conscientiously taken great care to be balanced in dealing with the various disputes, even when the agenda has been dominated by views he would personally disagree with. Sadly, that’s only led to attacks from the liberal wing, while the conservatives continued to distrust and dislike him as much as ever.
Part of the difficulty he’s faced has been due to circumstances – he inherited a divided church, with various factions pulling in different directions and the whole body split in two on the subjects of women priests and homosexuality. This has continued, with the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) breaking an agreement by electing Gene Robinson, an openly gay and partnered man, as Bishop of New Hampshire, and appointing Katharine Jefferts Schori as their Presiding Bishop, or head of the church in the US, provoking angry reactions from traditionalists on both issues.
Meanwhile, the conservative wing has become ever more vociferous, with the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) meeting in Jerusalem to create a form of conservative alliance against what they described as the “false gospel” they believed was being promoted within the Anglican Communion, by permitting this sort of pernicious liberalism. With both sides stirring up trouble, he’s understandably struggled to keep the church together.
I don’t feel that Rowan is naturally suited to the politics that comes with being the head of a church. He isn’t the sort to play one side off against another in some sort of Machiavellian powerplay, and his gentle, considered thoughtfulness isn’t sufficient to keep warring factions like these from each other’s throats. That hasn’t helped him in his mission to keep the Communion from splitting.
His academic manner has also led to some difficulties in getting his message across, as his way of speaking, in dense and careful prose which needs to be fully digested, doesn’t easily lend itself to a 24-hour soundbite culture. His reported comments on Sharia Law demonstrated that, as did his recent speech in Geneva. The Coalition for Marriage picked up on it as evidence that he supported their cause, as did Robert Pigott for the BBC, without any agenda to support. To me, it looked like a measured discussion of the difficulties of balancing rights, and Lambeth Palace confirmed to me that no endorsement of the campaign against gay marriage was intended or implied, but his wordy impenetrability made it possible to draw other conclusions.
Where I have a particular grumble about Rowan’s tenure as Archbishop is in his handling of Jeffrey John’s appointment (or not) as Bishop of Reading. John, a gay man who was in a long-term celibate relationship, fulfilled all the requirements of the recently concluded CofE memorandum on handling homosexuality. Nevertheless, when conservatives objected to his appointment, the Archbishop pressured him to withdraw, and Reading lost a very decent and capable bishop because he wasn’t willing to face the conservatives down and hold them to their own previously stated position.
I like Rowan as a man, as a thinker, and as a theologian. He’s one of the few members of the church I would always listen to, because I know that he will be careful, moderate and above all, thoughtful. But I feel that the church has wasted his many talents by appointing him to a post which didn’t suit him, and by failing to support him having done so. That’s something I regret, even though I wouldn’t have had anyone else and his likely successors fill me with dread.
But I don’t want to dwell on my perception of the man’s weaknesses, because I genuinely respect him, so I’d like to conclude by quoting one of my favourite bits of Rowan. A six-year-old girl called Lulu wrote a letter to God, asking “How did you get invented?” and sent it to various religious leaders. Most didn’t reply, but Rowan’s response was as follows:
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –
‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected. Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’
And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.
Frankly, I think he’s wasted in Lambeth Palace, and I wish him all the best for the future.