The Magazine

Primate Primer

Uneasy lies the head of the Anglican Communion.

Aug 2, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 43 • By MARK TOOLEY
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Rowan’s Rule

Primate Primer

Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Rowan Williams, 2009

Photo Credit: Getty

The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury
by Rupert Shortt
Eerdmans,466 pp., $30

The Church of England, at least as mother of the global Anglican Communion’s 70 million adherents, currently faces what may be its greatest crisis since the 17th century’s struggles with Puritan revolt. That last crisis focused on political authority; the current one is about sex. Episcopalians demand acceptance for openly homosexual clergy and same-sex unions. African Anglican bishops, whose flocks now outnumber dwindling British and American churches, insist that Scripture remains authoritative. Some conservative Episcopalians have formed a new Anglican Church in North America that seeks to sit alongside, or possibly displace, the Episcopal Church in the global Anglican Communion. The Church of England, with support from its archbishop of Canterbury, has affirmed the Anglican Church’s desire to remain in the communion.

That archbishop of Canterbury is Rowan Williams, a Welsh former Presbyterian who is the 104th priest to fill England’s oldest bishopric. His biographer, journalist Rupert Shortt, himself a former student of Williams’s, hails his onetime teacher as possibly the greatest British cleric since St. Anselm a thousand years ago. Critics may wonder if Williams is more akin to another predecessor, Archbishop William Laud, whom the Puritan-controlled Parliament beheaded for his royalism and alleged popery.

Not long ago I briefly met Rowan Williams and attended a speech where he fully lived up to expectations: Tall, bewhiskered, erudite, personable, and somewhat befuddled by the multiple controversies swirling around him, he would undoubtedly be a brilliant and accomplished academic, theologian, poet, spiritual mentor, and mystic. But does he have what it takes to prevent further Anglican schism?

Williams himself has a liberal bent: Before becoming archbishop he indicated support for ordaining active homosexuals, and after becoming archbishop, he initially supported the elevation to bishop of an English homosexual priest who may or may not have been celibate, until controversy forced the priest to step aside. For most of his tenure since 2003, Williams has opposed acceptance of homosexual bishops and same-sex rites, in deference to the global Anglican Communion, most of it now in the Global South and strongly opposed to Western sexual mores. Some liberals have felt betrayed. Many conservatives are exasperated by his sometimes reluctant affirmation of historic Christian teaching.

Centrists in America and Britain have sometimes hailed Rowan Williams for trying to steer the communion towards consensus. His biographer is among them. He accurately points out that Williams is not a 20th-century theological modernist, like the tediously controversial retired Newark bishop John Shelby Spong, who regaled 1980s television talk shows with speculations about whether the Virgin Mary was a prostitute. Williams affirms theologically orthodox stances about the virgin conception and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He came of age with and is close to his fellow Anglican bishop and theologian N. T. Wright, a favorite of American evangelicals for his scholarly rebuttal of Jesus Seminar revisionism.

Many British and American centrists dream of a new Anglican consensus that is theologically orthodox while modernist on sex issues. For them, Williams is a beau idéal. For conservatives in the United States, impatient with the Episcopal Church’s implosion, and for Africans indignant over compromise on Scripture, Williams seems to be a feckless ditherer. Williams himself does not convey great hope about an ultimate solution, once likening Anglican divisions over sex to the intractable conflict between Israel and Arabs. At times he seems to imply that the Communion should retain orthodox teachings on sex until conservatives have time to change and join a new consensus. The demographics of shrinking liberal dioceses and growing conservative dioceses, especially in Africa, make this vision unlikely. 

Serving only briefly as a parish priest, Rowan Williams was primarily an academic before becoming bishop of Monmouth, then archbishop of Wales, before his appointment as archbishop of Canterbury. He thinks and speaks like a professor grappling with a smorgasbord of arguments. Sometimes he discerns endless complexity where simplicity and clear leadership might be preferable. The controversies he has ignited on nonsexual issues have often been unnecessary, generated by his intellectual yearning for nuance.

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