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Leader: What an archbishop can achieve

21 March 2012

WHEN an Archbishop stakes his reputation on a particular initiative, he deserves to be judged by its success or failure. In this instance, it was an issue that many Anglicans paid lip-service to, but had failed to absorb into their Christian identity. In the initial stages, the project was widely commended as filling an obvious gap in Anglican ecclesiology; but as its practical application be­came known, with its uneasy combination of liberalism and coercion, resistance to it began to grow. And, of course, it left the secular world largely indifferent. It is hard, then, to judge Arch­bishop George Carey without reflecting on the ineffective­ness of the Decade of Evangelism.

Church commentators have short memories when it comes to judging the leadership styles of archbishops.

The second lesson at evensong on Tuesday was from St John’s Gospel: “And the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” Reading and listening to some of the comments about Dr Rowan Williams during the past week, we have wondered which Church people think he belongs to. The Archbishop’s leadership has been analysed, weighed, and generally found wanting without any reference to those whom he attempted to lead. One analysis judges that it was the imminent rejection of the Anglican Covenant by a majority of the English dioceses that precipitated Dr Williams’s move. The probable outcome of this weekend’s votes will be significant, but it is not a consequence of anything Dr Williams has done or said. The Covenant was rejected by the conservatives long before the liberals had had their say, but its failure, if it comes, will be because of something more funda­mental: the centuries-old Anglican — and especially English — dislike of being told what to do by foreigners. Shown a vision of Catholic unity based on obedience to a body or an individual, the Protestant genes within the typical Anglican are activated.

Had Dr Williams been prepared to leave this centrifugal tendency unchallenged, had he indulged his liberal sympathies, had he not made endless attempts to get opponents to understand each other, had he associated himself with US Episcopalians as his his predecessor did, had he once expressed his irritation at the many ill-thought-out arguments and ill-judged positions he encountered, then the extraordinary criti­cism by the Archbishop of Nigeria that the divisions in the Communion “might not have been entirely his own making” might hold water. But Dr Williams has battled hard to keep the Communion together, to the extent that he lost the friendship of his natural allies, never securing the respect of the more extreme conservatives.

It is unfair to judge Dr Williams on such a short timescale, but at least judge him correctly: not by comparing the state of the Communion when he took office and now, but by reflecting on how much more divided, in these uncompromising times, the Communion might now be without him.

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