Rowan Williams: His Legacy

Goddard, Andrew
Lion (2013)
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Every time I listen to John Adams' opera Nixon in China I have to remind myself of what a bastard Richard Millhouse really was. During my time at Harvard we boasted, as the Watergate scandal came to a head, of living in the only State that did not vote for him in the 1972 Presidential election; but for all the Kennedy optimism and Reagan charm, Nixon will turn out to have been the best President since Franklin d. Roosevelt and he would have been even better had it not been for a tiny but fatal mistake which, for fear of turning back, drove him to disaster and resignation.

As the world goes, Archbishops of Canterbury are not in the same league as Presidents of the United States and so any biography is bound to be for insiders and, indeed, one of the really depressing things about Goddard's book is that you know that hardly anything in it, except for the accounts of disastrous mistakes, matters now, and that none of it will matter in twenty years. The catalogue of initiatives, speeches, lectures, gestures and, in Rowan's case, agonising’s, doesn't amount to much; and, as an insider of the insiders - I sat in the General Synod from 2005-10 - I read nothing that I didn't already know.

When Rowan Williams ascended to Augustine's throne as the 104th Archbishop[i], there were high hopes after the grey and grudging George Carey[ii]; some said that Rowan was going to be the best since Saint Anselm[iii] but for all his obvious intelligence, erudition, idealism, compassion and touchy-feeliness - some would head this list with "holiness" but I would count that presumptuous - he failed completely in his handling of the three major issues which confronted him: Women bishops, gay clergy and the Anglican Covenant. These failures largely arose because, for all his learning, he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the Church of England which is broad but not comprehensive. Elizabeth I never intended it to include fundamentalist Evangelicals (Puritans) and took every opportunity to throw them out if they refused to conform nor Roman Catholics in all but name whom she was felt forced, against her will, to persecute; and although the Stuarts indulged Catholicism more than they ought, the error was corrected - some would judge it an over-reaction - by the 'Glorious Revolution'. The consequence of this creeping comprehensiveness is that tiny minorities of either persuasion can frustrate progress and when they combine, as they did over the consecration of women bishops, they de-railed an untidy legislative compromise concocted, against the inclination of the majority, for their own particular delectation. Rowan's fundamental misunderstanding and his care for the under-dog and the marginalised led him into a fatal mistake over women bishops which was to ignore the whole of Anglican Communion experience by not opting for a single clause measure; instead, he sought elaborate 'protection' both for Catholics who weren't brave nor principled enough to go over to Rome (one suspects that pension pots had something to do with it) and Evangelicals who didn't care a fig for bishops, male or female. As I helped manage the very narrow defeat in the General Synod of an Archbishops' amendment to provide yet another concession to the minorities, there were newly ordained priests in the visitors' gallery who were vocally opposed to women priests, a scandal which could have been prevented by amending the Ordinal in line with the Canon. As it turned out, the legislation failed in spite of its approval by 40 out of 42 Dioceses; and one wonders what use that procedure has in view of the Synod's final rejection.

On the issue of gay clergy in particular and homosexuality in general, it was the Evangelicals that blocked reform while their erstwhile allies over women bishops, the Catholics, sat on their hands, not prepared to help Rowan even though it was their faction from which contained most of the gay clergy seeking honest recognition. But the major problem here was Rowan's second misunderstanding about the Church of England, thinking that it was, somehow, the nucleus of a global Communion to which member national churches should subscribe. There never was going to be agreement between liberals in the United States, nourished on a rights agenda, and conservatives in East Africa, historically pincered between Christian-slaughtering homosexuals (exemplified by the 'martyrdom' of Bishop James Hannington) on the one hand and decadent colonialism on the other, over the issue of homosexuality and it was a terrible mistake to try, the consequence of which has been a lost decade of mission in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. So now we have the worst of both worlds: a large number of secretly and not-so-secretly gay clergy in gentle defiance of the orthodoxy which will not shift. The recently published Pilling Report, which changes nothing, is a baleful chunk of Rowan's legacy.

In order to try to 'fix' the Communion after the gay impasse, Rowan developed the concept of the Anglican Communion Covenant. On this point I have to say that I was one of only very few people in the General Synod who openly opposed, and spoke against, the Covenant at every opportunity, ranking my loyalty to the Church of England above personal loyalty to Rowan, But such opportunities were rare, either because Rowan was not so saintly as is made out and manipulated the Synod Agenda or because he was as naive on this as on other issues. The General Synod never had full and timely debates on the various drafts of the Covenant because they were always staged after a phase of development which, we were told, could not be undone; but what the Synod would not undo, the Dioceses did.

In between times, Rowan was constantly undone by subordinate clauses and sub-standard public relations staff. You had to hold a degree in English Language, specialising in parsing, and you had to have a parallel degree in 'church speak' in order to get what he was saying and while his Sharia speech wasn't quite in the same league as Pope Benedict on Islam (though in the opposite direction), it was the right thing to say but in the wrong language to the wrong audience and that was only the worst of many.

Still, in the end, not many people will mind either way except for Christians who want to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Goddard's book has arrived relatively quickly after Rowan's departure but I doubt that much will change as further analyses are written. Without ducking the serious errors I have discussed, he is more forgiving than me and more respectful of the Office. The scandal of our era is that the man in the street continues to believe that the prime concern of Christianity is sexual ethics but he now also thinks that we are wrong. For all Rowan's obvious commitment to Christ crucified, he didn't get much of a look-in. The irony, then, is that the one deemed by many to be the holiest Archbishop of Canterbury since Anselm turned out to be one of the worst, letting down his Church, his friends and himself. But his personal saving grace is that he will know this, and suffer for it.

Will Justin Welby turn out to be the Nixon we all so badly need.