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The Jerry Garcia of Canterbury

Rowan Williams, the bumbling archbishop beloved by the press.

11:00 PM, Mar 2, 2009 • By MARK TOOLEY
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The March issue of the Atlantic features a lengthy and largely glowing review of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, comparing his nuclear freeze activism of the 1980s to his campaign for conciliation over homosexuality among the world's 80 million Anglicans.

"As it was for the arms race in the age of Reagan and Thatcher, so it has been for the standoff over gay bishops in our own day," approvingly surmised Paul Elie in his Atlantic piece. "As 650 bishops converged on Canterbury [last Summer for their once a decade meeting] and two hundred or more [conservative, mostly African bishops stayed away], Williams's goal was a truce of God."

Elie waxes on for over 7,000 words in tribute to Williams's wisdom, erudition, patience, and longsuffering against the contentiousness and bigotries of conservative Episcopalians in America and even more conservative (and numerous) Anglicans in Africa. Only Rowan's reticence about his supposed sympathy for homosexual priests, so as to maintain the cohesion of the global Anglican communion, is cited as a potential character flaw.

Williams is a "poet" who "(Tony Blair be damned) came out early against the war in Iraq," and seems "genuinely conflicted, an open-minded person in a world of ideologues and holy rollers," Elie celebrates. With "thick gray hair, salt-and-pepper beard, and aviator glasses," the saintly Williams looks like "a well-kempt Jerry Garcia." Indeed, "here at last was a religious leader to believe in," Elie concludes about the Archbishop--at least as he was supposedly perceived when he ascended to office in 2003.

Actually, Williams has proven rather feckless as the Anglican world's senior prelate. Undoubtedly brilliant, Williams revealingly transited straight from academia into the episcopacy, never pastoring a local church. His brilliance has at times been his undoing, as he routinely arouses unnecessary controversy by publicly speaking with oblique nuance. A 2007 Christmas time radio interview challenged "myths" about Christmas, implying that he disbelieved the Nativity, when he actually was only challenging modern imagery of a snowy Bethlehem and talking donkeys in the manger. Last year, a dense speech about "Islam and British law" seemed to endorse some legal recognition for sharia, which he incongruently likened to Orthodox Jewish courts.

In 2006, Williams countenanced the Church of England's decision to divest pension funds from Caterpillar, Inc. for selling bulldozers to Israel. After loud condemnation from British Jews and a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams and the church backtracked. More recently, the church announced it sold off its Caterpillar stock, strictly for "purely investment reasons." In January, Williams traveled to Libya and addressed the World Islamic Call Society (WICS), which was founded by Muammar Qaddafi's regime. While the archbishop somewhat thoughtfully, if obtusely, urged religious tolerance, the Muslim group subsequently hailed Williams for his critique of the "Zionist enemy."

At least Williams has retained more dignity than the U.S. Episcopal Church's presiding bishop, who employed last year's Easter message to warn against the sinister contributions of cow gas to global warming. But Archbishops of Canterbury, in the modern era, always have been a little comical, resembling members of the royal family. They are full of pomp but not really very much authority, and seem more like imperial relics than religious potentates. But the explosive growth of the Global South church, and the politics of homosexuality, have restored Canterbury to a significance maybe not seen in a century or two. As senior prelate of the diminished Church of England, the archbishop does not loom large. But as the symbolic chief of Anglicanism's 80 million members, most of them now in Africa, Canterbury has become important in the global culture wars.

Elie's Atlantic piece fawns over Williams but laments the tragedy that the archbishop has supposedly suppressed his liberal conscience in return for maintaining the global Anglican communion. After all, the archbishop has treated New Hampshire gay bishop Gene Robinson as an "unwanted provocation," excluding him for the global Lambeth gathering of Anglican bishops last year in England. But Elie still enthuses that Williams's approach to homosexuality, though "quixotic," still reveals a clear long-term goal enabling the church to "become fully open to gays and lesbians without breaking apart."