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:

Dear Lulu,

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.

+Archbishop Rowan

Frankly, I think he’s wasted in Lambeth Palace, and I wish him all the best for the future.


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

6 responses to “So Long, and Thanks For All The Bish”

  1. Joan Bailey says :

    Excellent post. It seems someone a little less measured and less sensitive is required. It saddens me greatly that it’s going to take years and years for the church as total institution to accept gay, transsexual an transgendered ppl but as the C of E bit of Anglicanism is it is stuffed to the gills with middle Englanders, chance would be a most gracious thing. Rowan was too good for us really, though such a shame he didn’t stand out for Jeffrey John.

    We need someone in the mould of Desmond Tutu. But as yet God has not sent another such person along.

  2. Renae Barker says :

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and well written post about Rowan Williams retirement. The letter to the little girl explains why I admire him as well. he may be a flawed human (we all are) but he did his best with a divided church.

  3. Sabio Lantz says :

    I watched him on some videos and I wrote a scathing review of his book “Tokens of Trust” here. I am sure he was a good person and indeed that he did much good for his Church but as a philosopher or theologian, I found nothing excellent from my short exposure.

    Dude, you’ve got to spend time putting some graphics on your posts !! Just a suggestion — naming the graphics appropriately will also drive search engines to find your thoughtful blog.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I haven’t read the book, but much of your review chimes with my experience. I think my general sense of affection towards him stems from two things: first, a continuing sense that what he says makes a lot of sense (or at least isn’t obvious nonsense), stretching right back to when he was appointed and I had very different beliefs; and second, the fact that he doesn’t overreach in his arguments. He doesn’t make grand claims about the truth of this or that being obvious, and he realises that there are good reasons not to believe, which sets him apart from most high-profile Christians straight away.

      Of course, the downside of that is (as you point out) that he can come across as woolly and vague, and spend a lot of time saying what he doesn’t believe, while hinting at something indescribable, beyond our understanding. That’s certainly frustrating, and I’d like to pin him down on many points, but I think it just reflects his personal strengths and weaknesses as an academic theologian. From memory, he’s quite accessible when writing about theology, but I’m not sure I’d go to him for a simple introduction to Christianity!

      You’re not wrong about graphics – I’ve been mainly concentrating on writing, and wouldn’t know where to go for appropriate images. I’m working on it, though.

  4. 2012 and all that says :

    I quite agree with your summary. I’m guessing he was elected because the liberal wing were concerned about having elected a staunch pro-Catholic (in Runcie) followed by a slightly less traditional but still out of touch leader (in Carey). I agree that he was wasted in the role; derided by traditionalists for being too soft and trendy and derided by the liberals for not putting the strident conservatives in their place.

    Please remember though that The Archbishop of Canterbury is not the head of the Anglican Communion – effectively the monarch is even if she plays little part of the spiritual or adminstrative running of the church. He is her governor.

    Who do you think will be next? The wise choice will be Sentamu but will he annoy both liberal and conservative for saying what he thinks and rarely giving a sh*t? Last week when asked if he wanted the job he screwed his face up and asked the reporter “you’ve got to be joking?”

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, possibly a slight terminological inexactitude to call him “head” of anything, but any mention of the word “governor” strays close to “supreme governor”, which is HM the Queen again. It’s a nightmare trying to find a form of words that’s accurate without being unnecessarily wordy.

      As for who’s next, I don’t think you can read too much into Sentamu’s reaction – it’s more or less the done thing to say you don’t want the job. This could turn into a simple power struggle between the two wings of the church, but ideally, I think it needs to be someone who won’t cause instant panic on either side of the debates on women or gays. Although there are extremists on both sides who’d be quite happy for the church to split, I think most would rather hold it together, so it needs to be someone who can bridge the divide.

      I also suspect there will be a strong lobby for a good popular communicator, as Archbishops often seem to be appointed to avoid the failings of the previous one. Of the obvious candidates, Sentamu will be in with a good chance, but his recent comments on homosexuality may cause difficulty, and Richard Chartres is both getting on a bit and suspected of being anti-women. Nick Baines, “The Blogging Bishop” (I bet he hates that nickname), has the popular touch that could be seen as the ideal antidote to Rowan’s academic leanings, but he’s been in Bradford less than a year. Graham James is a safe pair of hands, but possibly no more than that. Christopher Cocksworth would offer a good mix of skills, but he’s still young.

      I think this could be an appointment that comes out of leftfield. Having called Rowan’s appointment with a fair degree of certainty, I have no idea where his successor may be coming from.

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