Rowan Williams will this weekend deliver his final Easter sermon as Archbishop of Canterbury having accepted an offer to take on the position of Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in January 2013.
As the chattering classes consider his tenure at Lambeth Palace, a glance at Williams’s first Easter message in 2003 contains within it a sentence which sums up nicely his tenure in office.
In a sermon peppered with reference to the Iraq War, he concluded:
“We accept that, even as we work for good ends, we shall find ourselves wandering or compromised.”
As Williams worked for “good ends”, he often found himself “wandering”, finding it difficult to hold an increasingly fractious Church together. Having been buffeted around by events which seemed beyond his control, the self-styled “bearded liberal” will no doubt be relishing the prospect of a return to academia which often seems his natural home.
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Having served as Bishop of Monmouth and then Archbishop of Wales, Williams’s appointment in 2002 as Archbishop of Canterbury was unusual, in that he was the first person to take on the highest post in the worldwide Anglican community from outside the Church of England.
Such was the surprise at his appointment the BBC’s Religious Affairs Correspondent, Robert Pigott, has observed:
“Rowan Williams did not want the job of archbishop of Canterbury, and has sometimes seemed not to enjoy it.”
At the heart of Williams’s difficulties was the issue of the ordination of gay bishops. In 2003, the appointment and then subsequent decision by the gay priest, Canon Jeffrey John, not to take the post of Bishop of Reading was symbolic of the rock and hard place the Archbishop found himself between.
As the BBC reported at the time:
“Dr Williams has previously argued for tolerance for homosexuals, and has admitted ordaining a gay priest.
“But he has also insisted he intends to abide by the traditional teachings of the Church, thus precluding the ordination of actively gay priests.”
The development was followed in a matter of months by the appointment of the openly gay Gene Robinson to take the post of Bishop of New Hampshire in the United States.
Faced with a split within the Church, and tensions between Williams’s head and heart, he enthusiastically backed the development of an Anglican Covenant designed to ensure future contentious actions are not taken without consulting the whole Anglican Communion.
“The Covenant offers a conflict-resolving process based on uniformity: an international authority will ‘recommend’ a solution, and expect all Anglicans to accept it. It treats the recent controversies as an aberration which should not have happened, and seeks resolution not in public research and debate about the matter in hand, but in decrees by ecclesiastical authority.
“For those content to being told what to believe this may seem appropriate, but for traditional Anglicans it is a major change, a suppression of honest and open dialogue.”
With results of referendums on the covenant across England’s diocese having all but killed the covenant off, it was once again a victim of the liberal/conservative split within the Church that Williams seemed unable to bridge despite his best efforts, a further symbol of which was his support for the ordination of women bishops.
Whilst the General Synod of the Church of England has agreed to put off voting on legislation in this area until July – despite the Archbishop’s attempts to develop much closer relations with Pope Benedict – hundreds of Anglicans have since moved to become Catholics in protest at the ordination of female clergy, joining a special section of the Roman Church – the Ordinariate – which has been created specifically for them by the Pope.
Yet whilst at times Williams seemed almost helpless in the midst of Church events that seemed to be spiralling completely out of his control, it is on the political stage that he often felt more comfortable, and frequently found his voice, unafraid to speak his feelings of “truth” to power.
A constant critic of the Iraq War, Williams often found himself in conflict with politicians of all parties, not afraid to make life that bit more uncomfortable for ministers.
In 2008 he sparked controversy in declaring he felt the introduction of certain aspects of Sharia law in Britain was now unavoidable. Whilst supported by organisations such as the Ramadhan Foundation as well as the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, it was roundly condemned by politicians of all parties, leading the Bishop of Hume at the time, the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, to attack the “disgraceful” way in which the archbishop had been “ridiculed” and “lampooned” by some.
Likewise, Williams proved himself no shrinking violet in declaring in the New Statesman last year that the government had no electoral mandate for the radical reforms being made to the welfare system and other areas of national life. Whilst the article attracted significant criticism from within the Conservative Party, it demonstrated a willingness and ability to be open and bold he has found difficulty expressing within the Church itself.
But he was also able to challenge the public’s thinking and act as the national conscience in such a way that won him plaudits from across the political spectrum, such as his criticism of Robert Mugabe during a visit to Zimbabwe last year and his description of the “uncomfortable feeling” he had over the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death which prevented justice being seen to be done.
As eyes turn to who his successor will be, be it the more evangelical and the bookies’ favourite – the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu – or perhaps the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, Williams will leave behind a Church and a country at a crossroads.
Proposals to legalise same sex marriages; continued rumblings over women bishops; news that children today are half as likely to know the Lord’s Prayer as they were 40 years ago; and the 76% of British people who say they are not religious are just the tip of the iceberg for the Archbishop’s successor.
Little wonder perhaps that Williams himself argues his successor will need the “constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros”.