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Following up the leader

18 July 2014

In an extract from his updated biography of Rowan Williams, Rupert Shortt examines the former Archbishop's quest for church unity


THE quest for Anglican unity formed Rowan Williams's gravest challenge during his decade at the helm. But my prime focus remains with a person, not the history of an institution, or of brinkmanship among campaigners.

And the main consequence of Rowan's mission was the kindling of conservative impulses in him that, depending on your point of view, either marked a betrayal of his past form, or a shift quite understandable for someone who had progressed from being a free-thinking professor to a bishop, from bishop to archbishop, and thence to the status of first among equals with a worldwide ministry of unity.


THOSE who expected the Archbishop to lead from the front did not know him as well as they thought. Disappointment was bound to follow. Dostoevsky's works supply a telling analogy here. Rowan admires the "polyphonic" character of novels such as The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, especially the author's capacity for bringing so many varied voices to life.

In his judgement (and that of other commentators, including Mikhail Bakhtin), Dostoevsky achieves this by a yielding of his own privileged status as author. This process could in turn be said to have informed the Archbishop's sense of his own mission.

More liberal voices have remained unconvinced. A venerable Roman Catholic priest and scholar once confronted Rowan for "letting us down", by which he meant gay and pro-gay Roman Catholics hoping for a lead from the Anglicans. Rowan clasped his head in his hands - a characteristic gesture - in apparent acknowledgement that his questioner (also an old friend) had a point.

Yet the pendulum has not swung in one direction only. Robert Runcie famously admitted in retirement to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, that it was "ludicrous" to permit gay relationships among the laity but not the clergy (the policy spelt out in the House of Bishops' 1991 document, Issues in Human Sexuality). Several years later, another former archbishop, John Habgood, made what amounted to a similarly forthright confession in the TLS.

In Rowan's case, a premonition of a bolder disclosure came in August 2013, when various newspapers reported his answer to a question he had faced during the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Had he betrayed gay Anglicans?

"I know that is what a great deal of my gay and lesbian friends would say that I did," he replied. "I look back and think, 'At what point would it have been constructive to do something different that would have made a difference, and take us forward?', and I don't know, it's quite soon to say. It's a slow fuse. The best thing I can say is that that is a question which I ask myself really rather a lot, and I don't quite know the answer."

The associated emotional toll he suffered is not easily overstated. Eight years previously, he had slumped against a doorway during a bishops' meeting, and said to a colleague, "I can't tell you how much I hate this job."

At around this time, a leading churchman found himself in a taxi with Jane Williams on their way to a speaking engagement. "Can I check that Rowan knows he's the only person who can be Archbishop of Canterbury right now?" he asked. "I know," Jane replied. "But that doesn't make it any easier."


UNBURDENED by national office, and settled in the handsome, modernist Master's Lodge at Magdalene, he looks content in subtle ways, and far less careworn than during the previous decade.

The famous eyebrows remain unruly, his face is still narrow (a feature not always caught in photographs), his skin milky and ageless. Yet he continues to burn the candle at three ends, not only immersing himself in college life, and taking services regularly at St Benet's, Cambridge, among other churches in the city and surrounding countryside, but also writing with the zeal of a former prisoner seeking to make up for lost time.

His 2013 Gifford Lectures are close to completion when we meet, and A Silent Action, his study of the Trappist writer Thomas Merton, is newly published. Other projects include the Tanner Lectures at Harvard in 2014 (on more literary themes), a book on "Christian basics" drawn from talks in Canterbury Cathedral, and a further volume of poetry.

Recalling his Roman Catholic friend's comment, though, I ask whether his conscience still harries him, or whether he feels he was in an impossible situation all along.

"If I say the latter," he answers, "it doesn't mean my conscience doesn't harry me. I imagine for the rest of my life I'll be asking - were these the right things to do and the right way to go?

"[Bishop] Peter Selby is quoted in Andrew Goddard's book [Rowan Williams: His legacy] as saying, I think, that I would always put the unity of the Church ahead of any moral considerations. I can only say that the unity of the Church is a moral consideration. It's not the only one, and it's a rather odd one in some ways, but it's a real one.

"And I think that maybe I would still want to say, if the . . . Anglican family moves on something, that's better than one bit moving forward, and another bit moving back.

"The difficulty of the last few years, I think, has been that some bits of the Anglican Communion really seemed to move back on this. The rhetoric of anti-gay violence is actually worse in some contexts than it was ten years ago.

"And that's why I think it's worth trying actually to hang on to the sort of conversation which, while it may hold some people back in one area, may also enable others to open out a bit more, a bit more boldly, if they're not made to feel somehow that they're being completely left behind, or unlistened to. But, of course, there is a cost to that for those who are held back."


BUT, I persist, will current discipline need to change in the end? This draws Rowan's most significant reply. "Let me just say that I think the present situation doesn't look very sustainable."

He does not go so far as to say that Christian theology contains the antidote to its own homophobic malaise, but that is a legitimate interpretation, given the thrust of his earlier writings, not to mention his gift for understatement.

Yet it is equally obvious that there is no point discussing sexuality in isolation from ecclesiology. The Archbishop drew on his Catholic side because he had been given a Catholic job.

A pro-gay Anglo-Catholic observer of great experience sums the matter up like this. "A professor is free to explore; the function of an archbishop is to keep the Communion together. His disappointed former fans still tended to think of him as a liberal professor. I don't think it's a bad thing that the Church of England had a leader capable of stepping aside from his own positions in a bid to take the whole body with him."

George Osborne's slogan "We're all in this together" might have been anathema to Rowan in the political arena, then, but it nevertheless sums up his position as a churchman.

A further consideration should be borne in mind. I wrote earlier that conservative instincts were ignited in Rowan during his time at Lambeth, but it would be fairer to recall that they were reignited.

Many liberals who hailed him as a saviour-in-waiting during the '80s and '90s were unaware of how conservative he had been before the late '70s. It is this inheritance that explains so much about his stance during the climactic synodical debates on women bishops between 2010 and 2012.


QUESTIONS about the unity of Anglicans never ceased to form Rowan's main challenge. A concise synopsis might run as follows: The Windsor Report (2004)demanded moratoria on church blessings for same-sex couples; on the consecration of partnered lesbians, and gay men; and on extra-provincial interventions - chiefly by tradition-alists from outside North America operating in The Episcopal Church (TEC).

It also called for an explicit listening process to take account of gay Anglicans' views, and the de-

velopment of the Covenant. Four out of five of these stipulations were not implemented. Only the fourth - known as the Continuing Indaba Process, and facilitated by Canon Phil Groves at the Anglican Communion Office in London - came to fruition.

Since Rowan staked much of his authority on attaining these objectives, their non-implementation has been grist to the mill of those who look on his primacy as a failure. Verdicts of this kind are over-hasty.

Even when they fell on deaf ears, Rowan's exhortations had value in themselves. The clashes of outlook between Episcopalians and other Anglicans have too often been ascribed to social attitudes alone, but the differences run deeper.

The claim by liberal members of TEC that their polity allowed them to introduce this or that reform derives from a distinct understanding of episcopacy. No diocesan bishop in TEC has jurisdiction over any other bishop; there are only two Houses - for bishops and deputies respectively - in the Church's General Convention, and their powers are equal.

The Church of England, by contrast, follows a Western Catholic model in having archbishops with metropolitical powers. So, while the relationship between TEC and Canterbury was plainly complicated by abiding sensitivities about colonialism - "You've got to understand that freedom is in our DNA," as one American bishop once told Rowan (another episode prompting archiepiscopal head-clutching in private) - it is more important to note the cloudiness of Anglican ecclesiology in principle.


THIS is the background against which Resolution 1.10 at the 1998 Lambeth Conference (reaffirming traditional teaching on sexual morality) needs to be understood. It was not legally binding. For those who accepted it, however, the resolution had very considerable authority, by dint of the fact that the great majority of the world's Anglican bishops had backed it.

In the eyes of many Episco-palians, by contrast, the idea that any contentious matter could be decided by bishops alone was deeply suspect. Kenneth Kearon (secretary general of the Anglican Communion) judges that Rowan did not give enough priority to TEC.

"If he had cleared his desk in 2003 for a fortnight, and engaged in detailed conversations with the Americans early on, then perhaps a common language would have developed." Maybe. But my conversations with American churchpeople over many years have brought home the breadth of the gulf in outlook.

Conscious of the looseness of Anglican structures, Rowan would probably have opted for the Covenant, in any event. [The Covenant was an attempt to codify the interconnectedness of Anglicanism which occupied the Communion for several years. The C of E rejected it in 2012.]

His own ecclesiology had been more akin to that of the Orthodox Churches before his translation to Canterbury, but the frustrations of office gradually fed an understandable wish for more levers to pull.

The Archbishop was also impelled by the Vatican's offer to kick-start the ARCIC process if Anglicans could talk with a more united voice. "I think the Covenant was part of what enabled me to say to the Vatican, 'We're not actually falling apart. We are a moderately coherent dialogue partner,''' Rowan told me. "They wanted to know whom they were talking to. And the Covenant was one little bit of the reassurance. We were trying quite hard to find a coherent way of configuring ourselves."

Coherence proved elusive, of course. Several American dioceses decided to allow the blessing of gay unions, especially after the 2006 General Convention voted to permit experimentation in this area.

The change received provisional authorisation three years later, after which another moratorium was breached with the election at Christmas 2009 of Mary Glasspool, a lesbian priest with a partner, as a bishop in the Los Angeles diocese.


IT WAS noted that Rowan's fullest response to this development - in a letter to a traditionalist gathering, the Fourth Global South Encounter, in April 2010 - was muted in tone.

While accepting that Bishop Glasspool's consecration had deep- ened divisions, he put the accent on a need for patience. Shortly afterwards, representatives of provinces that had breached the Windsor moratoria were removed from ecumenical bodies and the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order (IASCUFO).

No further action was taken, though, leading to accusations of softness against Rowan from some conservatives, and a consequent boycotting of the Primates' Meeting of 2011 by more than a quarter of those invited.

Unable to accept what they saw as the undue liberalism of TEC, a group of American traditionalists formed a new province, the Anglic-an Church in North America (ACNA), in the summer of 2009.The strife betokened by such manoeuvring points to a possible misapprehension under which Rowan had laboured when he had left Oxford for Monmouth.


ROWAN WILLIAMS entered episcopal ministry to be a teacher, but ended up, first and foremost, a firefighter. He talked regularly about wanting "to get my life back" after Lambeth, leading some friends, including the writer A. N. Wilson, to wonder whether he was well suited to the cut and thrust of leadership. "Rowan thought it proper to express this sentiment," Wilson commented to me. "Some would have thought it improper, given that his job was, above all, to help us out of our difficulties."

Whether or not this judgement is right, the teaching mode is hardly unimportant, and Rowan's work in this area - one might include his letters to fellow Primates, some of which had greater intellectual weight than many papal encyclicals - energised him in difficult times, and will nourish the Church far into the future.


This is an edited extract from Rowan's Rule: The biography of the Archbishop by Rupert Shortt, published by Hodder & Stoughton at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.89). It appears by kind permission.

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