Saturday, March 17, 2012

Thoughts on Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury

The internet is abuzz with the news that Rowan Williams plans to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury in December 2012. Surfing around the net, a couple of pieces have caught my eye.

The first piece by Rupert Shortt is entitled "The Archbishop of Canterbury's Balancing Act." Shortt writes:

History will judge Rowan Williams to have been a great archbishop of Canterbury in all sorts of ways, many yet unsung. As his biographer, I sometimes wonder whether more fractious members of his flock realise how lucky they have been to have him. Institutionally, though, his decade in office will probably end in honourable defeat.

The deepest issue facing [++Rowan] has not been over gay clergy or women bishops, as many assume, but a question he sees as even more pressing – how the church makes up its mind on disputed questions. ...

Williams's main motive is simple. He is a devoted ecumenist. It is his conviction that disunity within the body of Christ is the gravest wound of all in church life that led him, after much heartache, to row back on his earlier, more liberal instincts towards gay clergy. ...

Long before he announced his intention to bow out, many were asking whether a man of such evident godliness and erudition had the stomach for so political a job. It is true that Cambridge will probably provide a better fit for Williams's many gifts. But leading the second-most international church on earth, yet with scarcely any executive power, is exceptionally onerous. Could anyone else have done better? I doubt it.

In light of those who completely dismiss ++Rowan, as well as the fact that the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism more broadly continue to become increasingly polarized and politicized, Fr. Tony Clavier's reflections are spot on. In a posting entitled "ROWAN WILLIAMS," Fr. Tony writes:

Perhaps much of the confusion about the Archbishop of Canterbury is really about us. As we have become more politicized and more cynical, it is harder and harder for us to rest easily in the presence of brilliance and holiness, bound together with amazing humility. Leaders aren’t like that. They are not supposed to be like that. We don’t much mind if such persons are buried away in a monastic library or a university lecture hall. When such a person occupies a significant leadership role, we are befuddled. No politician could be like that. The only way we can manage is to press onto such a person our own world-weary pattern of leadership, despite the fact that the pattern doesn’t fit, couldn’t fit.

Then we grumble that the person who combines honesty and intellect and holiness, humility and a sense of humor doesn’t match up to our expectations. For ten years now we have sought to frame +Rowan in our own images, wrap him in our own standards, press him into our own causes and as a result have been disappointed and aggrieved. ...

Now we speculate on a successor. The great danger is that we will recoil from holiness and settle for managerial and political savvy. I don’t think either talent will fix things and of course that’s what we want, whether we are progressive or traditional. We want our own way and we want a Communion and a church which conforms to our own day dreams of what the church should be like. For while we have been pressing our own pattern on +Rowan, we’ve been doing the same on the Communion and the Province in which we live. We may say that we believe in “Holy” Church, but we much prefer scrappy political church or tidy narrow church.

I respect ++Rowan for taking a stand for catholicity and communion at a time when the rival ecclesiology of autonomy and gnosis increasingly drives the decisions of provinces like the Episcopal Church. That stand has been the primary motive for ++Rowan's unflagging support for the Anglican Covenant. But as the Covenant now enters hospice care, it's becoming increasingly clear that communion ecclesiology has been all but displaced by an autonomy ecclesiology that all-too-often mirrors the worst of secular culture and politics. "We may say that we believe in 'Holy' Church," Fr. Tony notes, "but we much prefer scrappy political church or tidy narrow church." And so, to cite the article by Shortt, ++Rowan's balancing act is ending in "honourable defeat."

Acknowledging that the Covenant process is now largely over, BC at Catholicity and Covenant sums things up in a way that, to my mind, captures the spirit of Rowan Williams at his best: "The most powerful witness to communion ecclesiology will not, in the end, be documents or reports or synod votes, but laos, deacons, priests, and bishops who prayerfully and joyfully live out the call to communion and unity." Even during times of incredible stress and hostile criticism, ++Rowan has consistently offered an example of prayerfully and joyfully living into that call. And for that I am grateful.


Father Ron Smith said...

Bryan, despite our difference on the Covenant process, I am pleased you have posted these articles on the Archbishop of Canterbury - and his value to us all as an exemplar of holiness, prayerfulness and patience.

Compared with what went on before in Canterbury, Rowan's leadership was self-less and above all, faithful to what he believed in - Unity.


Bryan Owen said...

Thank you, Fr. Ron. I'm pleased to see that we are in agreement on the virtues and leadership of ++Rowan!

George William Pursley said...

Well said Father. Your words are very close to those of my sermon yesterday (IV Lent.) He was a man with whom I often disagreed, but a gentle Christian man who called us lovingly to accountability, love, breadth of charity, and true communion. May the Holy Spirit console him in the mixed emotions and hurt he must feel at this time, and may he know how many of us truly appreciate his tenure and witness.