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Verdict on an archiepiscopate

22 March 2013

Pat Ashworth assesses an assessment of Lord Williams's legacy


Baronial procession: the Rt Revd Lord Williams of Oystermouth (right, facing) is introduced into the House of Lords on 15 January - a fortnight after he ceased to be Archbishop of Canterbury

Baronial procession: the Rt Revd Lord Williams of Oystermouth (right, facing) is introduced into the House of Lords on 15 January - a fortnight afte...

Rowan Williams: His legacy
Andrew Goddard
Lion £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

AS ANY journalist knows, there is nothing like an impossible deadline to concentrate the mind. Andrew Goddard's publishers gave him less than four months to research and write this portrait of Rowan Williams, and it is marvellously clear and concise: a straightforward and rounded assessment of the Archbishop's time in office and his legacy, and a very useful charting of key events in the Anglican Communion over the past decade.

Drawing from Lord Williams's wealth of writing and speaking, Goddard traces his ministry through the mission of the C of E and its disputes on sexuality and gender, the life of the Anglican Communion, his interaction with other Churches and other faiths, and his contributions to public life. He does it with insight and respect, without letting the Archbishop off the hook where mistakes were made.

As here, for instance, over the furore that followed his lecture on sharia at the Royal Courts of Justice, in 2008. His main failings, Goddard considers, were "an almost lethal cocktail of naїvety in relation to a sound-bite on a controversial subject that would be taken from an interview, opacity in relation to the lecture, and a lack of any effective response when the controversy flared. . . The incident undoubtedly did enormous damage to Rowan's media image and public perception of him, but once the furore died down, his lecture's proper significance was acknowledged by some."

The picture is of a leader with a wholly Christ-centred understanding of the Church, committed to engaging with his critics; to reflecting the mind of the wider Church on controversial issues; to capturing the imagination of wider society and to modelling an evangelism that was "journeying in conversation". No previous Archbishop of Canterbury has engaged so extensively and publicly in conversation with leading names in wider society, Goddard considers.

He quotes Bishop Tom Wright, who recalled listening on the radio to the Archbishop introducing Bach's St Matthew Passion. It was an unscripted and lucid account of how Bach's music involved every hearer in the events of Jesus's death, and Wright reflected: "How many archbishops could have done that, I wondered - at the same time as writing a book on Dostoevsky, debating with Philip Pullman and plotting a visit to Robert Mugabe?"

Five chapters capably deal with the Jeffrey John crisis (the Reading affair) and the sexuality debates. Goddard acknowledges that Lord Williams emerged very damaged from the Reading affair. "Whatever his reasons, his passivity on the face of the proposed appointment would, with hindsight, seem a serious misjudgement. . . Rather than seeing his decision as the result of careful discernment of a changing landscape aimed at creating space for a more reasoned reflection, he was portrayed as someone unwilling to follow through his commitments in the face of concerted opposition and who would do anything faced with threats to unity."

There is an enormously useful section on the Windsor process, an education for anyone who wants to understand those years of turbulent and recalcitrant Primates' Meetings. On the Anglican Covenant, Goddard emphasises: "For Rowan, the key to the Covenant was accountability, another crucial concept in his understanding of the Church." He also identifies lack of concern for, even antipathy to, strategy as "undoubtedly another reason why Americans - on all sides of the sexuality debate - found him so difficult to work with or understand".

The shrewdest observation comes in the final chapter. "Rowan's legacy is one of maintaining unity by keeping conversations going in the midst of conflict as a means of learning the truth together," Goddard suggests. "But this of course requires that people are willing to accept that they do not already possess the truth."

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