Is He Fit?

Rowan’s Rule is Rupert Shortt’s second book on Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury. His first was Rowan Williams: An Introduction (Darton Longman and Todd, 2003). Following that book Shortt undertook a profile of the pope, Benedict XVI: Commander of the Faith (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005), and God’s Advocates: Christian Thinkers in Conversation (Eerdmans, 2005). All four books are the work of a well-informed journalist who respects his subjects, taking them seriously and assessing them critically. (Shortt studied theology at Oxford and the University of London and is the religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement, having written earlier for the Tablet and Church Times.)

Rowan’s Rule has an enigmatic title. Ostensibly it refers to Williams’s role as the “primate of all England” and the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. But given Shortt’s emphasis on Williams’s abiding interest in monasticism, it could equally be applied to his manner of life, a life deeply shaped by his regimen of prayer and contemplation. Shortt has described Benedict XVI as a “commander,” but in this case neither Williams’s personality nor the structure of the Anglican Communion readily allow for leadership of the commanding sort. Indeed, the driving question of this interim report on Williams’s tenure as archbishop of Canterbury is whether he is fit for the job, which has been an abiding issue for many supporters and critics. Though Shortt rightly concludes that the answer will be for later historians to sort out, he clearly holds that Williams is fit, even if schism comes.

Part I of Rowan’s Rule traces Williams’s curriculum vitae up to his elevation to the seat of Augustine (of Canterbury, not Hippo, though the earlier Augustine has had significant influence on Williams).

Rowan Douglas Williams began life quite outside the ranks of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. His Welsh family’s spiritual roots were Nonconformist; and when at age eleven he moved to Anglicanism with his parents, it was to the disestablished Church of Wales that they went. An only child who almost died of meningitis as an infant, Williams was given every opportunity his parents could afford to explore and develop his obvious intellectual gifts. These would eventually get him to Cambridge University, where he studied theology, attaining a “starred first,” the highest ranking possible. (His teachers and friends revel in telling stories of his academic feats.) For his doctoral work he moved to Oxford, where, to the surprise of many, he undertook a study of the Russian Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky. There followed appointments to various academic posts at Cambridge and Oxford, either in theological colleges affiliated with the universities or in university lectureships. The culmination of this run was appointment as the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Over two decades (1971-1992) Williams published widely-from densely argued theological treatises to pastoral study guides to social criticism to a collection a of poetry. (More would follow, in every category.)

Shortt also treats personal aspects of Williams’s life, the most interesting line of inquiry being his attention to the choices Williams made as he negotiated his academic and spiritual lives. He identifies three: whether to remain an Anglican, whether to become a monk, and whether to continue in the university. The first two choices Williams contemplated throughout the seventies; they were apparently related. Converting to Catholicism, after all, would have allowed him more options for monastic life. But Rome was not the only choice. Eastern Orthodoxy was another, since Williams clearly found (and continues to find) its spirituality deeply satisfying. (The beard is perhaps an outward and visible sign of this.) In the end, however, neither Rome nor the East was enticing enough, for a range of both theological and personal reasons. His serious and extended explorations of them are telling nonetheless, since they are reflective of his wide interests and restlessness with any single tradition.

This restlessness and a desire to move beyond the confines of academe led Williams to accept the see of Monmouth (Wales), an appointment many questioned, given the paucity of his administrative experience. Shortt’s treatment of his time as bishop of Monmouth and then as archbishop of Wales (1991-2002) takes note of Williams’s successes and failures, with more attention to the latter since his administrative miscues were for some a foreshadowing of what was to come following his elevation to Canterbury.

During the 1990s Williams was caught up in the ecclesiastical turmoil that has continued to challenge the Anglican Communion. The two most disruptive issues were the ordination of women and the place of homosexuals in the church. (Williams’s positions on issues such as nuclear disarmament, the second Iraq war, and economics have been controversial but to a much lesser degree. Shortt argues that in the areas of politics and economics Williams is not as sophisticated as he is when on his home turf of theology.)

As Shortt notes, the ordination of women and openly gay clergy are knotted questions, due to the issues they raise with regard to biblical authority (especially important for Evangelicals) and ecumenical relations (problematic for Anglo-Catholics within the Anglican Communion and for Rome and the Eastern churches outside it). In the ’90s, Williams spoke in favor of both, characteristically basing his argument on careful but innovative interpretation of Scripture and traditional doctrines of salvation, showing his affinities for the movement sometimes called “radical orthodoxy” and making him impossible to pigeonhole.

Once enthroned in Canterbury, Shortt argues in part II, Williams became more cautious, causing consternation for some and bringing relief to others. But the clouds continued to build with the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson—an openly gay man in a long-term relationship with another man—as bishop of New Hampshire and the 2008 debate over women bishops at the Church of England’s General Synod. In response, Williams’s strategy, Shortt avers, has been to postpone divisive votes and keep the conversation going. Such a strategy is based not on a fear of confrontation or what some critics regard as Anglican wishy-washiness, he continues, but a reflection of Williams’s conviction that orthodox belief can never be fully fixed in human language and that the task of theology is to continue seeking the mind of God for the life of the church.

One has to ask whether Williams’s approach has much chance of success. A quarter of those invited to the 2008 Lambeth Conference of bishops and primates refused to attend. Instead, the so-called traditionalists met in Jerusalem to draw up plans for an alternative structure that would sideline Canterbury and to compose a doctrinal statement that all constituents in the Communion would be required to sign for continued membership. Still, Shortt argues that the 2008 Lambeth Conference was a success because the conversation groups stayed together even through difficult discussions. Not everyone attending the conference agrees, and the jury is still out. In concluding, Shortt acknowledges that tough times are ahead.

Shortt reports that, in spite of calls for Williams’s early retirement, the archbishop intends to press on, citing the Desert Fathers’ sayings “about people wanting the vocation they thought they could do, and getting the vocation God wanted them to do instead.” I hope (and pray) he is right.

Tough times, however, seem to be getting tougher. In July, the Episcopal Church met in general convention in Anaheim, California. If a poker metaphor is allowable, the stakes were raised, but no one called. The raises took the form of two resolutions. The first (D-025) reaffirms the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the Anglican Communion, while simultaneously restating the claim “that God has called and may call [gays and lesbians in long-term relationships] to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.” The second (C-056) seeks “an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same-gender relationships.”

In letters to the archbishop following the votes, the president of the House of Deputies and the presiding bishop declared that neither resolution repealed the moratorium on ordination of gays and lesbians. They went on to say, however, that “it remains to be seen how [the moratorium] will be understood and interpreted in light of [the resolutions].” From their perspectives the resolutions were ways to keep the conversation going and the Communion intact. Other voices were not so tentative, some even suggesting that everyone knows the resolutions brought schism closer but were orchestrated to insure that someone else precipitates it. The question now is whether Rowan Williams, as archbishop of Canterbury, will continue to play the diplomatic role and keep the conversation going, or whether he will find that the unexpected vocation to which God is calling him is prophetic and thus requires him to take a stand.

 


Related: Jack Miles, "Anglican Disunion"
Barry Jay Seltser, "Separated Brethren"

Published in the 2009-09-11 issue: 
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Oliver Larry Yarbrough is Tillinghast Professor of Religion at Middlebury College, and a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont.

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