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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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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.”

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