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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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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