The Guardian profile
The new Archbishop of Canterbury was greeted with huge optimism three years ago. He was approachable, astute, incisive and took a radical approach to worship. Now he is siding with the conservatives as the church splits apart
Pity poor Rowan Williams this Easter. As he surveys the wondrous cross today, the beleaguered Archbishop of Canterbury would be less than human if he did not spare the briefest of thoughts for his own predicament as head of a church and a worldwide communion seemingly, in the words of a fellow primate, hell-bent on destruction. All this – the two events are not entirely disconnected – within three years of his appointment.
One former primate said this week: “I would not want to be identified because I love the man, but I think he has come to regard his job as a kind of crucifixion. I don’t see how he can be enjoying it. He is just carrying the cross, hoping things will change.”
In the current viperish debate over homosexuality in the 77 million-strong international community of Anglicans, both sides agree on one thing: their communion is broken.
With the American and Canadian churches invited to withdraw from international meetings last month until they had repented of their liberal line in appointing an openly gay bishop and blessing same-sex partnerships (and they may yet decline to do this); with the Scottish Episcopal Church saying it is happy with its gay clergy; and with internecine fighting breaking out again in the Church of England, there is little fellowship, brotherhood or charity to go round.
When 35 of the 38 Anglican primates – archbishops and presiding bishops – met in Northern Ireland a month ago under Dr Williams’s chairmanship to deal with the fissures caused by the gay issue, the Archbishop of Canterbury struggled to win respect.
When he mildly remonstrated with some of his colleagues for leaving the meeting to confer with American conservative episcopalians lobbying outside, he was essentially told to mind his own business. When he pleaded with the primates to attend a communion service that he was conducting at the end of the meeting, 14 did not turn up.
One fellow primate heard others saying that the Archbishop of Canterbury would “do what we tell him to”.
And he has: telling the Americans to “repent” of their actions, previously a demand only made of them by conservative evangelicals, and one that he must know they will not accede to.
Only this week, an African bishop contemptuously rejected a promised donation of $350,000 to help Aids patients in his diocese because it had been proffered by a US diocese that supported the American Episcopal Church’s decision to elect a gay bishop two years ago. “Hallelujah,” he proclaimed: God, who created and controlled silver and gold, would provide.
The archbishop’s Easter message, in which he bleated that commentators had overlooked the Northern Ireland meeting’s renewed commitment to assist Aids education, has acquired a certain piquancy. It also ignored the fact that the African primates had insisted that discussion on the subject of Aids, which kills hundreds of their parishioners every day, should be relegated until after they had finished berating the Americans on the gay issue.
Perhaps, therefore, it is not surprising that the archbishop has refused to make any other public statements during the Easter season. He did not, it was said, wish to distract attention from the festival; as if he could. He did the same at Christmas, when he turned down the chance to speak on the BBC.
Increasingly the question is asked – especially in church circles which once saw Dr Williams as an inspirational choice – whether he is silent because he has nothing coherent to say; or because he and his advisers are scared of saying anything at all.
He can’t win, of course. After the classic tabloid headline Why Doesn’t Archbishop Shut Up? comes the inevitable variation, Why Doesn’t Archbishop Speak Up? The Daily Mail has already tried the latter with the abortion issue, raised by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor last week. It prompted the archbishop into print in the Sunday Times. He thundered that reducing the time limit was, er, “worth thinking about” and studiously avoided any indication of where he stood on such a move, or whether he was in favour of abortions in any circumstances.
Such caution is understandable. Dr Williams is certainly used to being malevolently misinterpreted. A conservative churchman last autumn hawked around an article about why the archbishop didn’t believe in God, based on what he admitted was a partial hearing of a radio interview, in which the archbishop was actually saying precisely the opposite. It found a willing home in the Sunday Telegraph.
The same newspaper later creatively interpreted an article the archbishop had written for it about the tsunami to prove its point that he really did question God’s existence. He doesn’t, of course, and it would be extraordinary if he did; a fact for which Dominic Lawson, the paper’s editor, privately apologised, though he did not extend the same courtesy to his readership.
This is particularly disappointing, because one of Dr Williams’s strengths is his ability to articulate his profound faith at all sorts of levels: to audiences such as those at Oxford and Cambridge to whom he used to lecture, to parish congregations, and to schoolchildren.
Some of his happiest moments are when he is allowed to do this. Those who were there speak of his simple pleasure when called unexpectedly to conduct a parish christening in Kent for a family who had no idea who the priest standing in for their vicar was; others tell of his shoulders visibly unclenching as he entered a room full of geriatric patients in a hospital: at last, called to be a simple priest, speaking gentle and private words of comfort.
Those of us who have seen him chuckling with his nine-year-old son while watching a film (it comes as a surprise that such a monkish figure has two school-aged children) wish that his humanity and charm could be given freer rein and that he would indeed speak out more.
There is a suspicion that the circle of advisers at Lambeth Palace – most of whom were appointed by Dr Williams’s predecessor, George Carey – prefer a quiet life, or at least that the archbishop should keep a low profile.
Two years ago he reinstigated the old Maundy Thursday service at Canterbury Cathedral in which he washed the feet of parishioners, a ceremony considered beneath the dignity of previous archbishops for hundreds of years. His staff tried to prevent any publicity, but they were unsuccessful. The pictures went around the world to universal acclaim.
One senior diocesan bishop said: “He is surrounded by people whose disposition is that it is best to say nothing. I think he could trust himself more.”
Could it be that the archbishop has not grasped the symbolic importance of his role? This is an anxiety that stretches beyond the Church of England. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of South Carolina, who knows Dr Williams from Oxford and is a conservative on the gay issue, said: “Can he find his way through the insidious Lambeth and ecclesiastical bureaucracy in such a way as to lead? Can he provide creativity rather than being constrained by legal and canonical worries?”
Others, on the opposite side of the debate, have different fears: that Dr Williams has lost confidence and has thrown in his lot with conservative forces who despise him. Richard Kirker, of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, says: “I think he has lost any ability to make coherent sense of what his vision for the Anglican communion is. I hope he is happy with his new-found friends.”
Conservative evangelicals are indeed still suspicious. Fifteen years ago, when he was still an obscure theology professor, Dr Williams expressed considerable personal sympathy for gay relationships.
When he was appointed to Canterbury, he was subjected to a torrent of virulent, sometimes vicious, criticism for this. This may have reinforced his status as a Welsh outsider (the first Archbishop of Canterbury appointed from outside the Church of England since the Reformation), and he was certainly given little public support from his new colleagues on the bishops’ bench at the time.
In office, he has scrupulously avoided taking sides in the gay debate. Rod Thomas, a spokesman for the evangelical pressure group Reform, says: “We have considerable sympathy for the archbishop, but we see him as part of the problem rather than the solution.”
Privately, there is a feeling among some senior church people that Dr Williams needs to spend less time bogged down in meetings, worrying over what one described as the “piddling trivia” of the Anglican communion, and more time out in the world, speaking clearly and consistently in dialogue with other faiths. As the senior bishop said this week: “After all, we now have somebody who can speak coherently without embarrassing everybody.”
A close friend puts a similar point in a less Christian way: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the archbishop doesn’t wish sometimes that they’d all just bugger off and die.”
Life in short
Born June 14 1950
Educated Dynevor secondary school, Swansea, Christ’s College, Cambridge (BA 1971, MA 1975), Wadham College, Oxford (DPhil 1975, DD 1989), College of the Resurrection, Mirfield
Tutor, Westcott House, Cambridge 1977-80; lecturer in divinity, Cambridge 1980-86; Lady Margaret professor of divinity, Oxford 1986-92; Bishop of Monmouth 1992-2002; Archbishop of Wales 2000-02.
Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002: youngest archbishop for 200 years, first appointed from outside CofE for 450 years, first to have school-age children for 130 years
Married Jane Paul (theologian and daughter of a bishop) 1981, one daughter, one son
Music, fiction, languages. Keen watcher of The Simpsons