The most distinguished occupant of Augustine’s chair since Anselm’ – so Rowan Williams is described by his biographer Rupert Shortt [Rowan’s Rule, reviewed ND Jan 2009]. At first sight it seems an inflated claim, perhaps overblown against an otherwise fairly undistinguished bench of bishops.
Yet even though the book is a warts-and-all account of the archbishops life and person, one cannot read Shortt’s work without recognizing that there is a quite remarkable occupant on the throne of Canterbury – theologian, philosopher, poet, writer and much more.
Two items in the accounts of his early life in South Wales seem to sum it all up. The first was a comment to a colleague by his English teacher: ‘There goes a boy who knows more about my subject than I do.’
The second was an essay on King Arthur, in which he examines the life of the king, suggesting the modern locations of Arthurian legends. It is erudite and beautifully constructed, and was written when he was thirteen years old.
But as well as being a scholar and profound thinker, he is deeply spiritual, toying both with Orthodoxy in his student days and with the possibility of a vocation to the religious life as a Catholic.
Of course he will not please everyone and even before he came from Wales he had become a controversial figure. To be Archbishop of Canterbury is a thankless task: both liberals and conservatives had thought of him as ‘on their side’, only to come later to abuse him when he appeared to be other than they had imagined.
Robert Runcie, when still Bishop of St Albans, had been described by the Bishop of Leicester in a Synod debate as being able ‘to sit on the fence while keeping both ears to the ground’ and those who knew him recognized it as a fair comment. But Rowan Williams’ intellect is of another kind, able to see the broadest perspective of an argument while coming to his own conclusion about it.
A tiny mind sees a controversial issue as if from the inside of a windowless box, with the result that for such a person the solution of, for example, the matter of women bishops becomes a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – or, put more crudely, ‘accept it or leave.’ Thus seven bishops could vote for the amendment in the July debate demanding a single-clause measure with no provision whatsoever for the opponents, surely an act either mindless or intolerant.
Williams, on the other hand, has a mind that considers all issues as if with a panoramic, all-round view, and that can only be good for the Church of England at this crucial time. As Shortt indicates in his biography, it is clear that this ability set him aside even in his student days.
There can be some comparison with John Robinson, whose book Honest to God from those days had a huge effect, particularly in Robinson’s concept of a ‘new morality’ – which was much deeper than its dismissal by some critics (or worse, its acceptance by many others) as no more than ‘if you like it, do it.’ Yet, like Rowan, Robinson was a true academic, unlike many liberal theologians then and later who were once criticized by the scholar and bishop John Moorman as people who, rather than first to find the evidence and then reach their conclusions ‘as I do as a historian, seemed instead to come to conclusions and then find the proof in selective Scripture.
Robinson was to display this academic rigour later when he wrote The Priority of John, completely overturning the fashionable liberal view that John’s Gospel was, as he wrote in his introduction, ‘the product of numerous hands and redactors.’
Rather he preferred ‘to believe that the ancient testament of the church is correct that John wrote it while ‘still in the body? As a result, he was not popular, to say the least, with some of his fellow liberal theologians.
Rowan Williams had to face the prevalence of secular liberalism in the theology of his student days, in which Christ was ‘a moral mentor rather than God incarnate; and Rowan saw deep problems with this model on both textual and conceptual grounds’ [Shortt].
It is still present today, though perhaps not so powerfully as even ten years ago; but it will add to the problems he faces both in England and in the wider Anglican Communion.
The grounds for considerable hope are in fact that he could resist it forty years ago as a mere student. If he could do it then, he can certainly do so now, while respecting those on both sides of such arguments – and that in an age when such respect is rare in ecclesiastical circles.
One issue on which he generated controversy and considerable unpleasant criticism is in the matter of homosexuality and the Church’s attitude to it. Yet the fact that the abuse he has received has come both from conservative evangelicals and from fundamentalist liberals is an indication both of that respect and, more importantly, of his ability to see the broader perspective of an argument than that which fits in with a particular stance.
Moreover, the statements he has made on the issue make it clear that he cannot on the one hand regard the homosexual condition as inherently sinful nor on the other can he condone every expression of that homosexuality. In other words, God loves every homosexual person just as he loves every heterosexual; but some actions of each must be regarded as contrary to God’s law.
Similarly with the contentious matter of women in the episcopate, which he supports, that broader perspective means he can recognize that those opposed have reached their conclusion not from misogyny or bigotry but from a different understanding of the theology of ministry and of the historic episcopate.
Since the lack of adequate provision will certainly mean a considerable exodus of priests and laity from the Church of England, it is not beyond possibility that such an archbishop, intellectual and deeply spiritual as he is, may well ask himself the question, ‘Can I too stay in such a Church?’ Now that would be unique indeed.
–The Rev. George Austin is retired Archdeacon of York; this appeared in the March 2009 New Directions Magazine, page 10