On the Most Reverend Rowan Williams, 19th March 2012

An article from the Church Times

It is a truism to say that the job of the Archbishop of Canterbury is next to impossible.  In addition to being Primate of all England with all the responsibilities that that entails in terms of the Diocese of Canterbury, the Synod, the Archbishop’s Council, the Church Commissioners, House of Lords, House of Bishops, relationships with Government, to say nothing of being asked to comment on a host of social, ethical and moral issues, he is also the Head of the Anglican Church worldwide.  That means being responsible for the Lambeth Conference, regularly visiting other provinces and dealing with a thousand and one issues, large and small, that come his way daily from across the Communion.  Primates look to him for guidance and encouragement and he is the one who relates to leaders of other churches and other faiths.

It was his misfortune to take up office in 2002, four years after the Lambeth Conference of 1998, when there was an acrimonious discussion, if indeed it can be called that, on human sexuality.  We are still living with its aftermath and the disagreements have spilled over into meetings of Primates and the Anglican Consultative Council.

Now there are those who see the Archbishop’s role as fixer, someone who should solve all the Communion’s problems.  The fact is, that when people are totally intractable and convinced of the rightness of their own position, however patient, reasonable, charitable, indeed Christian, the Archbishop is, there is nothing much that he can do and the Archbishop has displayed all of those qualities in abundance.  Nor does he have the power to demand obedience to his wishes, nor would he want to.  His style is gentle and he has tried to interpret one side to the other, through his expositions of the Scriptures at Lambeth Conferences, Primates and ACC meetings, things which previous archbishops had delegated to others.  He has tried to move the debate on human sexuality forward gently, and shown at the same time, the depth of his biblical insights, his great intellect, his deep spirituality, clarity of thought and the relevance of the biblical narrative to contemporary issues.  It truly has been a servant leadership.

The tragedy is that his gifts have not always been appreciated.  That, I fear, will only happen when he has left office and people will realise what we have lost.  He bends over backwards to understand and listen to the views of those with whom he disagrees the most.

True, there is still no consensus in the church on same sex relations but it will take more than a decade of an archiepiscopate to resolve that particular issue when one remembers that even in the United Kingdom, homosexuality was a crime until 1967 and until 1972 was regarded as a mental illness in the USA.  Even though 8 Primates deliberately chose not to come to the last Primates meeting in 2011, the 28 who were present at Dublin were unanimous in their view that they did not want to exercise the kind of authoritarian primacy towards the Communion that some longed for.  They did not exercise that kind of authority in their own provinces nor did the bishops at Lambeth in 2008 want them to.  The fact that about 150 bishops did not come to Lambeth in 2008 says more about the authoritarian style of primacy in those provinces than anything else.

The Archbishop has been unsparing in his work for the Communion.  His presence in, for example, the Congo, Zimbabwe, the Sudan and Sri Lanka at crucial moments has strengthened the hands of the churches in those places.  Nor has he been afraid of speaking bluntly and clearly as he did to President Mugabe.  One forgets in the United Kingdom just how much the support of an Archbishop of Canterbury means and his setting up of an Anglican Alliance for Relief and Development has concentrated resources on some of the poorest and most desperate areas of the world.

Archbishops of Canterbury are normally chosen from the ranks of English diocesans.  When he was appointed, there was no doubt that he was head and shoulders above anyone else but it was unusual nevertheless to appoint from outside England.  We in Wales, of course, are immensely proud of him and throughout his 10 years, he has regularly visited the Principality and been involved in its life.  It so happens that next week-end he is in both the Diocese of Llandaff and St David’s, giving lectures, visiting a church secondary school, preaching to theological college students, and giving an address to Assembly Members of the newly devolved Senedd in Wales.  He is at his best at such events, engaging and communicating with people with natural warmth, ease and simplicity and shedding new insights on old problems and it is all done with imagination, humour and self-deprecation.  He gives his all to the task to which God has called him.

It is characteristic of him that he has stepped down in order to give whoever succeeds him, time to settle in to the demands of the job and the Communion, before the next Lambeth Conference meets in 2018.  One thing is certain, he will allow his successor to get on with the job without any interference from him.

The seismic pressures that have developed over the issues surrounding the ordination of women and human sexuality have been, and continue to be, immense.

It has been Rowan, the quintessential Anglican, who has striven to invite us to consider a way of living in this diverse economy, without making people feel they must lose touch with who they are and what they believe. He has prompted the church to participate in a dialogue of mutual respect. The Church, which so often fails to practise what it preaches, has been offered in its archbishop, a model of how to stand gracefully in a place that can be profoundly uncomfortable, whilst being invited to look with hope and confidence to Christ, the ultimate reconciler and healer.