Vacancy in Canterbury?

The interwebs are hopping with “news” from the Telegraph that Rowan Williams is rumored to be resigning next year as Archbishop of Canterbury. As The Lead points out, the source for the story is pretty sketchy. Maybe he’s resigning, maybe he isn’t. But already people are rejoicing in blog comments and Facebook posts.

I’m not jumping for joy. Setting aside the basic principle of treating everyone (including archbishops we may not like) with dignity, I am not so eager to see Williams ride off into the sunset. Of course, his sunset could be a professorship in Cambridge, which is probably a good deal. Still, I think he has brought many gifts to the Anglican Communion.

OK, dear readers. Let’s continue, unencumbered by the readers who have tuned out since I didn’t join in the chorus of Williams-is-lousy-so-we-want-him-gone. Sure, I don’t agree with everything Williams has said or done. He has, like all of us, made some grave errors. But he has also offered much to the church, the communion, and the world.

First, his impulse is to look after the very long-term interests of the church. This is just what a bishop should be doing. This is not to say that the church shouldn’t change — it should! — but that there is a pretty big picture to survey as we make those changes. Of course, I wish the Church of England was moving a lot more quickly on women bishops and other matters, but it’s rather more complicated than most of us understand.

Second, Williams brings a theological sophistication to nearly everything he says and does. This is maddening especially to Americans who like soundbites and crowd-pleasing gestures. But when you digest what he’s said, especially when he preaches, he’s often brilliant. We’ve largely tended to have church controversies play out in knee-jerk distortions of the biblical texts or in entitlement-oriented politics, so a nuanced theological approach is often a shocker for both right and left.

Third, Williams has been a persistent critic of greed and the seamier bits of capitalism. I don’t hear too many bishops devote so much air time to what I consider to be the greatest spiritual challenge for America, Britain, and other developed nations. In the US, we tend to talk about specific groups at the margins rather than frontal criticism of the systems that create marginalization in the first place.

As an example of the spiritual depth Rowan Williams has brought, I give you this timely example. Here’s an interview he gave about his experience being in New York City on September 11, 2001.

There are a couple of ways lots of folks will say Williams has fallen short. From the left, people will say he has not defended the place of gay and lesbian Christians within the church. I would agree with this, though the situation is not quite as simple as many Americans would believe. (Note to Americans: not everyone shares our worldview.) That said, it would have been nice to hear Williams criticize Anglican leaders in Uganda and Nigeria for backing hate-filled anti-gay legislation. This could be the topic of another blog post — or let’s talk about it in the comments.

From the other side, people on the right often express frustration with Williams for being wishy-washy. Why hasn’t he punished ECUSA for its flagrant actions more severely, they will say? And then someone will point out that if we only had “Windsor compliant” Anglicans in a room, there wouldn’t be very many. In fact, until 2009 or so, ECUSA was possibly the most Windsory province of the Communion! Williams has worked hard to balance keeping everyone at the table against disciplining any number of “problematic” provinces. I don’t envy him.

Let’s remember Williams is a theologian, not a tactician. Given the choice between a solid theologian who makes tactical mistakes and a good tactician with mixed-up theology, I’ll take the former any day. Would it be nice to have both? Sure. But I can’t think of anyone who would have done a better job than Rowan Williams for the last few years.

Our Communion has not (yet) formally splintered, though a number of provinces who value Christian fundamentalism more than Anglicanism have chosen to walk apart. (If I were betting, I think the neo-puritans are likely to leave or be removed from the Communion before ECUSA, Canada, England, or any other province with same-sex blessings.)

We now have a stronger sense of what the Anglican Communion means than we did several years ago. We can no longer take it for granted. The ill-fated Covenant is one attempt to articulate who we are, and I don’t get too worked up about it. It will pass away, and probably in another generation we’ll have sorted out the Anglican Communion.

Remember, the Communion as we know it really only dates to the 1960s, and our current struggles might be seen as our adolescent identity crisis. The impulse to keep as many people as possible together at the table is the right one for this time, I think. Talk to the parent of a teenager: you want to balance love and discipline, but above all it’s important to keep the relationship solid.

I’m sure my English friends will have thoughts about Williams’ leadership of the C of E. On this count, I suspect he’s not been particularly successful, no doubt due to the unprecedented pull on his time toward matters of the Anglican Communion. His supposed treatment of people in some recent episcopal nomination committee meetings is horrible. It is my fervent hope that he has apologized. But none of us should be too quick to judge. Let the one who has never lost her or his temper cast the first stone.

I shudder to think what state our beloved Anglican Communion would be in had we seen another kind of leader these last few years. Rowan Williams has had a thankless job, with every misstep and imperfection magnified by Blogospheria Anglicana.

So in pondering this news about Rowan Williams and his potential departure, pray for him first and then pray for a successor imbued with boundless strength, limitless wisdom, and unfettered joy. Who knows when the Archbishop of Canterbury will resign? Until that day, I will continue to pray for him. After that, I will pray for his successor.

Tip of the mitre to Thinking Anglicans for first mention of the story. Wave of the crozier to Titus One Nine for the link to ABC’s video. Photo by yours truly at the Lambeth Conference 2008.

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7 Responses

  1. ummm… the leak is from someone who, in the headline, cannot get the Archbishop of Canterbury’s name right…!!!


  2. Justin Brett says:

    Great post Scott – and right on the mark. Rowan Williams is a man of remarkable gifts who has found himself in a situation where those gifts – intellectual depth, theological subtlety and a fierce commitment to unity – have so often counted against him. It has been painful sometimes to see such a good man struggling with such a thankless job.

  3. Bosco, as noted elsewhere, the headline will have been written by whichever editor happened to be working on layout. That person’d dubious competence has nothing to do with the journalist who wrote the story of the leaker who leaked it.

  4. What’s that old saying? “The Devil you know is better than the Devil you don’t know”. If we’re talking about Rowan’s successor (and, some are, already), just thinking about the Archbishop of York (who is older than Rowan) or the Bishop of London causes a cold chill to go down my spine.

  5. Pluralist says:

    The Slee memorandum shows that Rowan Williams is very much a tactician. He is quite capable of producing all he needs within a meeting to get his way.

  6. Scott Gunn says:

    Pluralist, I know he has done tactical things. It’s not clear to me if the events described in the Slee memo were an anomaly or if that’s always how it was in the CNC etc.?

    That said, assuming things took place as described, I think maybe it’s making my point that RW is NOT a tactician. A good one would have done that more smoothly, I’d say.

    Let’s also be clear that the dysfunction of the C of E is not just the ABC. Plenty of folks would have options to stand up and speak, and yet that does not happen. There is a culture of deference and passive-aggressive behavior there that boggles the mind.

  7. Laura says:

    Isn’t the inclusion of women in leadership and the recognition of gays and lesbians as beloved children of God rather than perverted sinners part of the long-term interests of the church? It seems to me–and my big frustration about him is that his agenda has been short-term unity, not the church as a whole and for the long haul.