Rowan's Rule: The Biography of The Archbishop

Shortt, Rupert
Hodder & Stoughton (2008)
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Rupert Shortt observes in fine introduction outlining the key issues in the book that he is prepared to be judged on the basis of whether different factions in the Church of England think that he has been fair. I deliberately read the book before the final, marathon General Synod debate on Women's ministry to see if it might enlighten me on the Archbishop's likely course of conduct but deliberately delayed writing a review until that debate was concluded. Thus, my judgment of Shortt depends on how accurately he depicted the Archbishop's mind as an indicator of how he might act.

Shortt's overall assessment is that Archbishop Rowan Williams is the most obviously holy and learned occupants of the see of Canterbury since Anselm, a big claim which he defends more than adequately. On the other hand, he says, the Archbishop, in trying to see all points of view, tends to favour the under dog, buckles under pressure and can therefore make poor 'political' and managerial decisions.

Shortt's book finishes after the debate on women's ministry in 2008 where he already had some clues - which he largely omitted to mention - that these worldly weaknesses would affect the course of the controversy. Having bowed to the ruthless pressure over the issue of Jeffrey John, he has, during the past two years, given much more weight to the objections of those who cannot accept women's ministry than to the aspirations of women in the church and their contribution to its life and health. This leaning to the minority of traditional Catholics over thousands of women clergy resulted in a proposal from the Archbishops - Holy Rowan and lawyer Sentamu - much in favour of the former and offensive to the latter which was thrown out by the House of Clergy at the General Synod largely through the efforts of women priests and it says much for the high regard in which he is held as a man of God that his standing has not been damaged by his serious tactical error.

Throughout, Shortt and I agree that the Archbishop has always been above the ordinary cut and thrust of ecclesiastical politics, calling on us all to be as high minded as himself but that presents a dilemma to every church leader in charge of an aspiring but imperfect institution: God may call upon us all to be absolutely loving of those we do not like, but to reward ruthless dissent at the expense of quiet and loyal service is a catastrophic mistake in dealing with human affairs. For myself, if I had to be stranded on a desert island surrounded by an archipelago of hostile forces I would prefer to be with Richard Nixon rather than Mother Theresa, or Rowan, for that matter. This particular controversy demonstrates Shortt's more general point that the Archbishop's political antennae are not so sharp nor so subtle as are his theological antennae. 

That being said, Shortt is scrupulously fair in setting out a range of issues which show the Archbishop to great advantage and which demonstrate his complexity of mind. He is not always careful to draw distinctions between fact and speculation, he falls into the Ackroyd syndrome of throwing in chunks of biographical material just because they are chronologically appropriate "Meanwhile, the Tsunami ..."), and he is not so analytically acute as Theo Hobson in his Anarchy, Church and Utopia: Rowan Williams on Church. This book also suffers from the disadvantage that it does not make very much sense unless you have read his Rowan Williams: An Introduction which provides a detailed analysis of the Archbishop’s theological development.

Which only goes to show that writing biographies of the living is a thankless task unless they are celebrities whose puny revelations rake in the shekels.

Kevin Carey
12 July 2010