THE LIVING CHURCH • August 26, 2012
Rowan Williams was an equally risky appoint-ment:he became archbishop in 2003, having never held parochial responsibility and havingscarcelybeen involved in the Church of England’s complexstructures of synodical government. His previousexperience as a bishop was in the relatively smalland disestablished Church in Wales. After the trou-bled archiepiscopate of George Carey, whentheChurch of England took refuge in managerialreforms that set up adeeply unpopular executivebody (the Archbishops’Council) and which led tochaos in the Anglican Communion after the bitter divisions following the Lambeth Conference of 1998,there were high hopes that a man of huge intellect,who had been an Oxford professor,would be able tohold things together and reconcile the divided par-ties. Throughout his time as archbishop,Williamshas engaged in debate with the wider society and is perhaps the most respected public intellectual inthe country. He has been able to critique govern-ments, promote changes to multicultural and edu-cational policies, and give prominent and influentiallectures and addresses. He has also beenable to write at an academic and popular level. It is hard to think that anybody couldhave done more to boost the intellectualcredibility of the church in the publicsquare. Having refused to give simplisticand platitudinous answers to complexissues, he has been criticised by the tabloid press, yet he is consistently listened to byinfluential policy-makers. His public statureis at least as high as that of William Templeand Michael Ramsey, which at a time of unprecedentedly low levels of Anglicanchurchgoing is impressive indeed. And yet something similar has not hap- pened in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.Things are as bad if not worse than they were in 2003. In Eng-land, the issue of women in the episcopateremains unresolved, despite the over-whelming majority of the church beingstrongly in favour. The 38provinces of the Anglican Communion are still divided, witha significant number of the primates of thechurches refusing to share the Eucharistwith oneanother, and with the efforts to create a kind of shared commitment to Anglican identity with a mechanism for conflict resolution— the AnglicanCommunion Covenant— in complete disarray after the proposal did not meet the required super-major-ity among the Church of England’s dioceses.Williams got off to a difficult start. Almost immedi-ately after his appointment he had to deal with theEpiscopal Church’s approving the election of GeneRobinson, an openly partnered homosexual, asBishop of New Hampshire, as well as the Bishop of Oxford nominating Williams’s long-standing friend Jeffrey John, a homosexual in a partnership, as suf-fragan Bishop of Reading. Because of noisy opposi-tion and threats at home and throughout the Com-munion, the invitation to John was withdrawn.Williams’scredibility was thereby immediatelythrown into question among the significant number of liberal-minded members of the Church of Eng-land, who had hoped there might be a move awayfrom George Carey’s conservatism. Williams had,after all, written in support of gay relationships.But the Church of England has not become notice-ably more liberal. This perhaps rests in Williams’s vision of episcopal leadership. As he noted in hisaddresses at the Lambeth Conference in 2008, thebishop is a“stereophonic”listener, who interpretsthe tradition to the church and the world,and vice- versa, by careful weighing-up and connecting. WhatWilliams has consistently not done is to force hisown views on people, or usually even to give a steer.It is as if the office forces him to place personalopinions “on hold”for the duration. The bishop isrequired to open himself up to those of different views. Williams has seen his role more as a non-executive chairman of the board than as managingdirector. His concern has consistentlybeen to listento those with whom he most disagrees and to findways of holding them in the traditionally big tent of
What Williamshas consistentlynot done isto force hisown viewson people,or usually evento give a steer.
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