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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.

To paraphrase Pascal, the God of philosophers and scholars is not necessarily the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Williams once told the BBC at Christmastime that much of the traditional nativity story is untrue. (He was referring to the snowy mangers and talking animals of popular lore.) But the media—not unreasonably, though inaccurately—assumed he was questioning traditional Christians’ beliefs about the virgin birth, singing angels, and wise men. When the Church of England voted to divest from Caterpillar Inc. for doing business with Israel, Williams heartily endorsed the gesture, not anticipating any controversy.  Within only a few days he and the Church had to backtrack, facing criticism not only from British Jews but much of the media and Williams’s predecessor, Archbishop George Carey. His implied endorsement of certain aspects of sharia law in Britain excited even greater condemnation, though Williams insisted he was only defending Muslims’ freedom to submit voluntarily to Islamic-guided contracts. He was, at least momentarily, the least popular man in Britain, he later moaned.

Political statements from Williams, who was appointed by Tony Blair, usually seem conventionally left-wing: He is sharply critical of globalization and free markets, very concerned about global warming, and outspokenly opposed to the Iraq war. He wants nuclear disarmament, though he is unsure how to get there and largely ignores his own theological warnings against utopianism. During the 1980s he protested at American military bases in Britain.

And yet, despite Williams’s outspokenness on a wide range of political and theological issues, he is not naturally comfortable with public disputations. Even his admiring biographer admits to Williams’s discomfort with the public eye on his “sometimes tortuous prose, his well-meaning but not always astute pronouncements on economic policy or sharia law, and even of the (absurd as well as false) rumor that he had attended orgies as a student in Oxford during the 1970s.” Shortt notes that detractors see Williams’s account of core doctrine “lost in a fog of equivocation” and Shortt grants that some of Williams’s work is “under-edited and unduly mystifying.”

Shortt insists that Williams’s enormous intellect more than compensates for these failures to communicate with brevity, contrasting him with his supposedly less brainy predecessor George Carey, whose “contribution to intellectual debate was trifling.” But is an archbishop of Canterbury’s vocation chiefly to foster debate, or to lead his flock? Shortt indirectly admits that Williams may be out of place in his public role: As a student he was academically “faultless” but “shy” and “loved seclusion.” He considered monasticism, and even Roman Catholicism, but ultimately pursued ordination in the Church of England. He thrived as a teacher, but as a pastor and bishop he was not always comfortable making hard decisions.

Despite Williams’s introversion, he is a magnetic man and has always attracted followers. One admirer from his academic days recalls him as “scintillating,” emitting an “aura,” and exuding a “great white light.” A female fan, early in his academic career, committed suicide, apparently distraught that her admiration was not reciprocated. A male admirer likens his presence to an “arena of prayer.” A colleague fondly remembers that Williams was a “holy man” who was “sometimes a little in the clouds” and would cite “Gilbert and Sullivan” when preaching to a congregation likely to be unaware of late Victorian comic operas. Another colleague has warned, “Don’t worry about his radicalism. Watch for his romanticism.” Shortt himself thinks Williams may be more “tenderhearted” than a good judge of character. One liberal editorial cheered Williams’s appointment to Canterbury: “He is a prophet and theologian. He is not a ‘safe’ man. If Tony Blair decides to hitch his wagon to the American star and back an attack on Saddam Hussein, Rowan Williams is unlikely to be found cheering him on.” Another commentator noted that Williams’s appointment had “squashed the ambitions of an evangelical lobby which reflects the prejudices of the developing world, not cosmopolitan London.”

After his accession, Williams tried to mollify critics concerned about his liberalism. “I have always been committed to the Church’s traditional teaching on sex before marriage,” he insisted, not entirely accurately. For better or worse, Williams is sometimes guilty of “carefully judged unclarity.” Shortt describes his “flair for seeing both sides of an argument” and Williams himself has been frustrated by the way his public comments are often received, likening it to speaking to the hard of hearing, admitting that his attempts are sometimes “stumbling” and “clotted” because the “subject matter isn’t wrestled to the ground very easily.”

If Rowan Williams’s penchant for intellectual pontification can sometimes confuse Anglican audiences, the confusion is likely more intense among non-English-speaking Anglicans in the Global South. Shortt accurately describes African Anglicans as uninterested in Western biblical criticism, having self-confidently “digested Christian teaching in situations closer to the Old and New Testaments than to those of contemporary Europeans or North Americans.” But he is dismissive of senior African prelates such as the Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola, whom he derides as “crass” and a “bigot.” The recently retired bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, an ethnic Pakistani and prominent critic of Islam who was an alternative candidate for the job Willliams got, is “lacking in social graces and unduly ambitious.” Breakaway conservative bishops in America are described as manipulative.

Shortt emphasizes Williams’s forbearance with his conservative fellow Anglicans. And it is true that Williams has been anxious to keep American conservatives within the global Anglican fold, even arousing liberal criticism in the process. How gracious he has been with conservative African prelates is more debatable. At times he has been seen to be condescending to them, although Shortt prefers to attribute tensions exclusively to aggressive Africans such as Akinola. Impatient Africans have even questioned the primacy of the archbishop of Canterbury: “Must I come to Lambeth Palace in order to go to heaven?” the Nigerian bishop once asked. “The answer is no!”

Shortt commends Williams’s critique of U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush, but thinks he underplays the threat posed by jihadist Islam.  Williams was actually very near the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, but later wrote a short book that seemed, in places, to sympathize with the terrorists’ anxiety as powerless victims. Shortt admits the shortcomings of Williams’s appeals for post-9/11 “forgiveness” and wonders how such pleas apply to state conflict. During the Danish cartoon episode, Williams publicly empathized with Muslim complaints that their “convictions” were not treated sufficiently “seriously.” Shortt describes Williams’s speech about the “inevitable” adoption of sharia law in Britain as demonstrating his “cleverness” but also his lack of “capacity to see how his words would be received.” Williams’s interview with a British Muslim magazine excited British headlines when it quoted him by proclaiming the United States to be the world’s “worst” imperialist. He contrasted the British Empire, which poured “energy and resources” into its colonies, with the American preference for a “quick burst” of “violent action” to clear the decks, leaving others to tidy the mess.

Shortt’s depiction of Rowan Williams suffering, martyrlike, for the salvation of the fracturing Anglican Communion is appealing, if not persuasive. The Church of England and the Anglican Communion need a strong helmsman. Its current primate is thoughtfully uncertain about his direction. He inspires sympathy, and sometimes admiration, but not necessarily confidence.

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church. 

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