New Archbishop of Canterbury Has Rough Ride on Road to Enthronement

News release

Although it is highly unlikely that the new archbishop of Canterbury will be martyred, like some of his more famous predecessors, the road to the office as head of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion has been filled with some pernicious potholes for Rowan Williams.

When Williams was formally and legally confirmed December 2 in London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral as the 104th archbishop of Canterbury in an ancient ceremony that had aspects of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, he was granted the “rights, dignities, honours, privileges and appurtenances” of the post. Beginning with the announcement of his appointment last July, the former archbishop of the Church in Wales has also been subjected to more than his share of indignities and even organized efforts to convince him to resign — a stream of nasty criticism that is likely to continue right up to his enthronement February 27 in Canterbury Cathedral.

“I pray for God’s guidance as I seek to meet this new challenge — a challenge I face with a sense of inadequacy but also with hope, with joy and with enthusiasm,” he said following the London ceremony.

The bishops of the Church in Wales sent a message thanking God for his life and ministry and assuring him that his qualities of “spirituality, integrity, leadership, scholarship and humility” would enhance his leadership and serve as a gift to the whole Anglican Communion.

Strong qualifications

There is almost universal agreement on the strong qualifications Williams brings to the challenges he faces — an unusual combination of humility and intellect, a person who listens carefully to the opinions of others but is also able to put forward strong and often convincing arguments of his own. Some have called him the best theologian in Britain. “More than that, he has a personal warmth that enables him to deal easily with people of all backgrounds,” said Paul Vallely, writing in the Independent.

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold greeted the appointment. “The combination of a keen mind and a contemplative heart, together with an ability to relate classical Christian tradition to the needs and struggles of our world, make him eminently qualified to take up this important and challenging ministry of service.”

Sexuality is the issue?

The conservative evangelical group Reform, however, said that Williams should resign unless he can affirm “the received teaching of the church that all its members are to abstain from sexual relations outside holy matrimony” and “the need for appropriate discipline” for those who disobey — especially those seeking ordination. Williams has acknowledged that he ordained to the priesthood an openly gay man he knew was living in a relationship. He has also questioned whether celibacy should be an absolute requirement for gay and lesbian candidates. At the same time, he wrote to Reform and said that “sexual morality should not be a defining issue.”

He wants the Church of England to take another look at Issues in Human Sexuality, the document passed by the church’s House of Bishops that bars non-celibate homosexuals from the priesthood.

In a letter to the primates of the 38 churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion shortly after the appointment was announced, Williams sought to reassure them that he recognized the resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference as the majority view and would not promote his personal views. Yet he pointed out that the Lambeth resolution also called on the church to listen to the experience of gays and lesbians.

In a wide-ranging interview with Colin Blakely of the Church of England Newspaper, Williams said that he was “saddened that before we had any real conversation face-to-face certain decisions seem to have been made about what I thought … I would have liked the opportunity to establish some relationships before the positions were hardened.”

He also said that the controversies swirling around his appointment weren’t doing the church much good. “For while the people who have written to me are acting out of a real concern of what is best for the church and the integrity and orthodoxy of the church, that is not always the message that comes through.”

He also met with a group of primates and bishops the day after the St. Paul’s ceremony in an effort to clarify his views on sexuality. While there were reports that the group, a new umbrella organization called the All Souls Group, was reassured, they have also signed a statement that says they “cannot accept the prevailing individual moral autonomy where every self expression is equally acceptable and valid, and which often positions itself as self evident and above challenge or testing.”

Members of the group that includes representatives of Reform, the Church Society and the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, some of whom have in the past attacked Williams as “a false teacher.” Some evangelical bishops refused to sign because they perceived the statement as a thinly disguised slam at Williams. “To call a statement about sex ‘Leadership in Society’ shows an obsession with the issue,” said Bishop Pete Broadbent of Willesden. “What about justice and other world issues?”

No honeymoon period

Paul Handley noted in an article for the Independent</> days before the ceremony at St. Paul’s, “Because he was always the favoured candidate, and the appointment process was so leaky, his honeymoon period happened before the marriage.”

There has been considerable speculation about the role Williams will play on the national scene, especially in light of his willingness to take stands on public issues. He signed a statement sent to Downing Street, for example, that said, “It is deplorable that the world’s most powerful nations continue to regard war and the threat of war as an acceptable instrument of foreign policy, in violation of the ethos of both the United Nations and the Christian moral teaching.”

Some in the notoriously prickly British press openly welcomed the archbishop’s voice in the public debate. “Guiding the Church of England into the 21st century will be a demanding task in itself, but there is a much wider role for a new archbishop who is bold enough to take it,” said an editorial in The Independent on the eve of the St. Paul’s ceremony. It concluded that “Williams could become an important and distinctive voice in a troubled country where the range of views, tensions and conflicts are rarely echoed on the national political stage. His appointment could not be better timed.”

Despite his comments questioning the government’s support for an American offensive against Iraq, Downing Street commented immediately after the appointment that the prime minister believed that the new archbishop’s wisdom, intellectual stature and deep spirituality would be invaluable as he sought to lead the church through complex and challenging times.

A disestablished church?

Williams comes from a church in Wales that was disestablished in 1920 and he has sent clear signals that he is ready to reexamine the relationship between the church and state and consider the possibility of a different shape for a national church. “The notion of the monarch as supreme governor has outlived its usefulness,” he has said. Yet he recognizes that any move to disestablish the Church of England will be a long and delicate one, not sudden but done “by a thousand cuts.”

The intense scrutiny is likely to continue and perhaps intensify. Despite the sniping by those who are disappointed with his appointment, Williams made it very clear how he views his role. In his first comments after the announcement, he said that “the primary job for me remains what it has long been: I have to go on being a priest and bishop, that is, to celebrate God and what God has done in Jesus — and to offer in God’s name whatever I can discern of God’s perspective on the world around, something which involves both challenge and comfort.”

James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service.