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Conversations with Rowan Williams

  • 22 March 2012

Anglicans have a way of doing their internal wrangling rather publicly. Globally this reflects a loose-knit structure — the Churches of the Anglican Communion are all independent, constituted as national entities like the mother Church of England. Yet this frank and messy penchant for debate also reflects a culture and history closely connected with that of English-speaking democracy.

Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury in February 2003. When appointed, he brought with him the hopes of liberal Anglicans, and the scrutiny of conservatives. One of the most widely-respected theologians of any tradition in our time, his positions on a range of issues, notably human sexuality, made him appear likely to lead the Church of England and the global Anglican Communion further towards acceptance of progressive views.

For Anglicans, conversation and persuasion are the tools of communion, and orthodoxy is determined not by decree but by concrete participation in a Church where the historic creeds, sacraments, and scripture itself are likely to generate debate at the same time as being touchstones of unity. The strengths of transparency and diversity, as well as the weaknesses of incoherence and disharmony, come from the same source. Williams' success or failure would have to be about conversation, not about decree.

In June the same year Gene Robinson was elected to the less-storied bishopric of New Hampshire. A rift within Anglicanism had been under way for some years prior, with Asian and African dioceses conducting strange pastoral raids into American suburbia at the behest of western conservatives. Yet Robinson's ascent symbolised a new stage of inner-Anglican conflict, which has dominated Williams' time as head of an uneasy alliance.

Williams has been castigated or merely dismissed by critics at both ends of this tenuous continuum. For some, he has failed in his promise as a prophetic leader and accommodated conservative bullies. In turn the self-professed orthodox see him as having lacked the conviction to confront a drift to liberalism.

Williams' erudition has been sneered at by a predictable anti-intellectual group, and his appointment as Master of Magdalene College is now seen by some as a retreat into a rarefied academia to which he is better suited.

He is indeed a theologian, but Williams' tenure as Archbishop was itself an embodied exercise