Conversations with Rowan Williams


Rowan WilliamsAnglicans 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 by an extraordinary mind, one which has produced storied works on areas from the fourth century Arian controversy to Dostoyevsky, in yet another branch of theology. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams has composed an incomplete work on the doctrine of the Church itself.

His most profound difference from detractors of either kind has not been their views on scripture or sex, but on the Church itself. This is what 'communion' entails for Williams; not agreement based on liberal or conservative confessions, but a unity in Christ characterised by diversity, but also by conversation.

What few of his detractors have recognised was that he took the partners in the difficult Anglican conversation seriously precisely as members of the Church, and could not or would not reduce the value of their participation to the content of their arguments.

Williams had himself engaged more profoundly than most liberals with making positive theological sense of same-sex attraction in his remarkable essay The Body's Grace. Immersed in the faith and thought of the Fathers of the Church, he also knew orthodoxy better than his conservative critics. Yet he has refused to see either group as dispensable for the conversation.

There have certainly been notable failures even by this measure; excluding Robinson from the central conversation of the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops was one, but Williams judged the alternative might have been the greater failure of wholesale absenteeism from others.

It is too early to know how history will judge Williams' time on the chair of St Augustine. He himself might hope his work would be judged not by positions taken, but by conversations sustained.

One likely basis for eventual judgment hangs now in the balance; the 'Anglican Covenant' presently being considered by national Churches offers the Communion a structure, either to channel or control the conversation, depending on whom you ask. Uninspiring in tone and likely ineffective in practice, the Covenant is a rather prosaic document by which to assess Williams' own achievement.

Yet it would ill-suit Williams' own theology for an episcopate, or a document, to look as though it aspired to what belongs only to God. Christian life, he himself has argued, involves scepticism about claims to success in one's own life and discourse. Williams' incomplete work will leave itself open to misunderstanding by its very nature, as he would be among the first to say. 


Andrew McGowanAssociate Professor Andrew McGowan is Warden of Trinity College, The University of Melbourne. He blogs at Andrew's Version and Royal Parade Diary

Topic tags: Andrew McGowan, Rowan Williams, Anglican Church, Church of England



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I am not an Anglican so these comments are given from an out side perspective. I think history will judge Ronan Williams as one of the finest Archbishops in Church of England history, his love of the other (Human and nature) is profound. He has I am sure he has faced or experienced the dark nights of the cross many times. He is a great man of courage and integrity.
PaulDonnelly | 22 March 2012

For many Anglicans, Rowan Williams has been the best Cantuar since Michael Ramsay. His spiritual teaching and writing is of the age and of the centuries. It is already safe to say that he will continue to be heard and will always be read. His words are considered, responsive, and intelligent and those who feel communicated to by Rowan are enlivened by the spirit, challenged by new insights, and inspired by future possibilities founded in tradition. Rowan Williams’ announcement in March that he will step down as Archbishop of Canterbury after Christmas did not altogether come as a surprise, even if the timing did. He will take up the position of Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. The move to Cambridge is a blessing for those of us who go to Rowan for extraordinary insight, erudition, and leadership because he will now have more time to spend on using these gifts of the spirit. Although he has been called a liberal, the critical foundation of his thinking is not strictly liberalism but Christian orthodoxy. His high theology is what is needed in a religious environment that has become disturbingly fundamentalist in recent years, not least in parts of the Anglican Church worldwide. The dilemma with becoming Archbishop of Canterbury is that you have to try and listen to all sides, not just your own, maintain the peace, and hold things together. This must have been a deep trial for Rowan when it came to debates on sexuality and ordination. After December we will begin to hear again what Rowan the individual actually thinks on these subjects. He is obviously a friend of gays and women bishops, for example, to judge by his actions. It will be interesting to learn about his personal views on the Covenant, rejection of which by the English Church coincided rather too noticeably with the announcement of his move away from Canterbury at the end of the year. I would also draw attention to his Benedictinism: Rowan showed how to lead by being the servant of all. Some people call this weakness, but anyone who has heard some of his prophetic sermons and addresses knows they are hearing a person who is speaking to everyone, not just a clique of the like-minded. Indeed, after December he will able to send messages that he could not while resident in Lambeth Palace. It is going to get more interesting, not less.
PHILIP HARVEY | 22 March 2012

I, like many others from the other side of the Tiber, have long regarded +Rowan as one of the most able, pastoral, theologically-literate, diplomatically-able and vision-endowed bishops within the Christian Church. The gifts he brought to Canterbury, and so well described by McGowan, are much of what is needed in Rome. Perhaps he could, in a few years, exchange the Mastership of Magdelene for the Mastership of Peter?
Paul O'Shea | 22 March 2012

As yet another Catholic (Roman) to have found Archbishop Rowan Williams a refreshing leader who nonetheless spoke from a strong Christian orthodoxy, I look forward to reading his future sermons and commentaries to be published without the constraints of leadership. Now 50 years since the start of Vatican II, I hope that the Anglican Communion can retain Archbishop Rowan's invitation to live their faith in conversation with all, and not retreat into the security of inflexible creed.
Ian Fraser | 23 March 2012

A somewhat over-egged article. A more sober account of Williams can be read at The Times:
Andy Fitzharry | 23 March 2012

That’s nice, Andy Fitzharry, for those who can bother to subscribe to The Times. Presumably this is the kindly piece written by Bishop N.T. Wright, also found here if you just like reading without paying: More for the omelette: Ben Myers on the ABC site is lucid: And the New Statesman gets realistic: While the Guardian and Observer are more philosophical than their overheated band of bloggers:
PHILIP HARVEY | 23 March 2012

"a friend of gays and women bishops", PHILIP HARVEY? Is that a bit like the Catholic teaching on treating each person with absolute dignity - equality, justice and all that modern stuff?
AURELIUS | 23 March 2012

Hello, Aurelius, are you talking to me? I am not sure exactly what you are trying to say in your comments here. I single out those two groups of people in my appreciation of Rowan Williams because sexuality and ordination were two important presenting issues during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury. They will remain so. Rowan’s own writings on these subjects over time, in other words his own considered theology, could be said to sit at odds with decisions he had to make and positions he had to support while at Canterbury. Politics ruled. Like other churches we could mention, Aurelius, the Anglican one is episcopal and contains a wide variety of views on these issues, some of them blatantly contradicting others. Unlike the Bishop of Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury has to find common ground on behalf of all, meaning he may have to accede to situations and positions he does not agree with personally. He and his bishops must take counsel with the church itself. Rowan is very good on the dignity of the individual and draws on the most ancient Christian sources to justify his attitudes.
PHILIP HARVEY | 23 March 2012

I think, Andrew, the real problem Archbishop Williams faced was that, in a Communion of Churches, with no official "Head", that Communion expected him to sort out the problems which had brought the Crisis of Faith between the two warring factions to a head, without his having the power to do so. No possible solution would have been acceptable to either. Both required nothing less than the complete capitulation of the other. There was never any good faith. All he got was vilification. Those in the middle ground were outmanoeuvred. They counted for nothing. The rift, both within Australia itself and the worldwide Communion, is now a de facto schism. Michael Ramsey, an eminent predecessor and genuinely holy man, would've wept to see the current shambles of the Communion. It is an unmitigated tragedy. The departure of Rowan to the banks of the Cam will, I think, leave behind a tragic mess not of his making. His theological insight and acumen - including his writing on Orthodoxy - is not as interesting to the warring National Church leaders and their cohorts as is the grime and filth of their ecclesiastical politics. Shame on them! As a great Anglican divine wrote "Do not ask for whom the bell tolls." It is ringing loud and clear for the Communion. A rather Humpty Dumpty Communion.
Edward F | 15 May 2012


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