It seems we haven't yet linked from dotCommonweal to Paul Elie's excellent profile of Rowan Williams in the March issue of The Atlantic. In this we have been very much remiss, and we owe an apology to our friend Paul, as well as to any of you who didn't find the story on your own. Fortunately, it's available online, and it's very much worth your time.I've always liked what little I knew about Williams -- especially since he's a fellow admirer of James Alison. (I love his comment -- quoted in Christopher Ruddy's January 30 Commonweal article -- that Alison's books "leave you with a feeling that perhaps it's time you became a Christian.") Elie's profile fills in the details, and I came away admiring Williams even more. As Elie describes him, Williams is a leader who is convinced that the path through conflict -- not the path that avoids it -- is the one that leads to deeper fidelity and a more thoroughly Christian church. The article also offers food for thought about how the Anglican/Episcopalian community's leadership differs from the Catholic hierarchy, for better and for worse. Journalistic shorthand often describes the Archbishop of Canterbury as a C-of-E pope, but Williams sounds very un-papal when describing his role at the head of the Anglican Communion:
"The responsibility is not to argue a case from the top or cast the chairmans vote. Its to hold the reins for a sensible debateand thats a lot harder than I thought it would be."
Elie elaborates on the Catholic/Anglican contrast in an interview published online:
"I think any real leader has to engage with these issues. The question is what does it mean to engage? In the view of the people at the Vatican, to engage with the issue is to state very clearly what your position is, and then to keep stating it in every situation. Rowan Williams engages somewhat differently. He insists that these are issues that have to be discussed as questions, and that people on all sides have to admit that we don't know everything."
For Williams, the debate about the status of homosexuality in Christianity (the main focus of Elie's article) is not a matter of holding the line and playing defense, but rather a "discernment process." I certainly like hearing that language from a bishop.Elie (who wrote our November 21 cover story about Flannery O'Connor and Catholic culture today) recalls that "Flannery OConnor joked that the churchs policy in naming bishops was 'The Wrong Man for the Job.'" Given the difficulty of explaining how the issue of homosexuality challenges Christians, and the complicated nature of the Anglican Communion's response, I'd say Elie was definitely the right man for this job. He sums it all up clearly and dynamically, without neglecting the theological dimension. If you haven't read it yet, I recommend you make time for it this weekend.
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.