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By Tom Wright
(This is an extended version of an article that appeared in
The Times [online subscribers only] on 17th March 2012 - republished with permission)
‘Here to introduce Bach’s St Matthew Passion,’ said the radio announcer, ‘is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.’ My companion and I listened eagerly to a lucid account of St Matthew’s theology, and of how Bach’s music involves every hearer in the events of Jesus’ death. But at one moment the speaker paused, as though searching for a word. Didn’t he have a script? Next time I saw the Archbishop, I asked him. The BBC, he explained, sat him in a studio and asked him to talk about his favourite music. How many Archbishops could have done that, I wondered – at the same time as writing a book on Dostoevsky, debating with Philip Pullman, and plotting a visit to Robert Mugabe? Not to mention the thousand shocks that episcopal flesh is heir to.
Shocks there have been. Nobody in 2002 saw what was coming. That’s why many of us, courteously disagreeing on some issues, have remained convinced that Rowan was the right man for the job. Shallow, polarizing analyses remain irresistible for commentators; many in the church go along for the ride. But Dr Williams is a thinker’s thinker. He burrows down into an issue, reads it up, mulls it over, prays it through, and then speaks his mind. We have needed that. He is a classic Anglican theologian: not one for big, clunky systems, but solid, deep and rich in his study of the Bible and the Fathers. To hear Rowan expounding St John or St Augustine is to encounter Anglican theology at its best. Watch him translate that theology into pastoral mode: with children, say, or praying quietly with someone in the wings of a conference. Like all loveable people, he can be infuriating. But loveable none the less.
His mind has been, above all, for unity, always central to a bishop’s vocation. Not a shoulder-shrugging, lowest-common-denominator unity, but the hard-won, costly unity that makes demands on charity and patience rather than on conscience. He has worked hard for that unity within his own Anglican Communion and across denominational lines. He is one of a tiny handful of Anglican theologians to be a household name in Roman and Eastern Orthodox circles; and he has won friends in the free churches, too. When he was an official observer at an international Methodist conference twenty years ago, he complained in his closing remarks that they hadn’t sung his favourite Wesley hymn, ‘And Can it Be’, with its solid gospel affirmation, ‘No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine!’ They obediently stood up and sang it.
A measure of how much the struggle for unity has cost was Rowan’s moving sermon on the 450th anniversary of Thomas Cranmer’s death. Cranmer struggled with conflicting personal, political and theological loyalties. The careful balance of his prose reflects an anguished attempt to hold together a church and nation in crisis. Rowan clearly identified with his predecessor.
Whoever had been Archbishop these last ten years, in fact, would have had it tough. Anyone who tried to pull harder on the line would have seen it snap. But the Anglican Communion is still in a dangerous position. The 2008 Lambeth Conference showed that three of the ‘instruments’ that are supposed to unite the Communion (the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates’ Meeting, and the Lambeth Conference itself) aren’t working well. Only the fourth one, the Archbishop himself, held things together, giving powerful addresses and inspiring personal loyalty. It may not be possible, and it certainly isn’t desirable, for a successor to rely on doing the same. Many Anglicans worldwide, facing poverty, persecution or both, rely on the Communion as a lifeline. We need a firm, broad base, such as is now proposed in the Anglican Covenant which Rowan has backed to the hilt.
Rowan’s style has been private and unstrategic. Once, questioned about strategy, he responded crossly ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit!’, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the Spirit might work through long-term planning. Maybe that’s what we needed then. Certainly nobody doubts that he leads by example in his life of prayer and self-discipline. But we now need consultation, collaboration, and, yes, strategy. Despite routine pessimism, the Church of England isn’t finished. In a sense, it’s just getting going. We need someone with vision and energy to pick up from where Rowan’s charismatic style has led us and to develop and deepen things from there.
A new Archbishop must be allowed to lead. Yes, there are deep divisions. Part of the next Archbishop’s task will be to discern and clarify the difference between the things that really do divide and the things that people believe will do so but which need not. But, at the same time, there are problems of structure and organization that slow things down and soak up energy, problems that can and should be fixed so that the church and its leaders can be released for their mission, and to tackle properly the problems we face.
Who, after all, is running the Church of England? We have Lambeth Palace, the House of Bishops, General Synod, the Archbishops’ Council, the Anglican Communion Office, and (don’t get me started) the Church Commissioners. How does it all work? In an episcopal church, the bishops should be the leaders. Rowan hasn’t bothered much about structures, but with six hands grabbing at the steering wheel someone now needs to take charge. I wouldn’t bet on the Crown Nominations Commission proposing someone with the right combination of spirituality, wisdom and strategic thinking, plus boundless, multi-tasking energy. But that’s what I shall be praying for.
Tom Wright was Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010. He is now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews.
Forum Posts About This Article:
Posted by: Bowman Friday 30 March 2012 - 08:22pm
Angela and David W-- thanks for the link and comments!
Posted by: nersenpaul Friday 30 March 2012 - 02:00pm
So, the Abc is attacked for not pushing a stance which has convinced very few..... I wonder if he feels used by some groups with a tiny minority agenda...
Posted by: DavidW Wednesday 28 March 2012 - 09:52am
Hi User3664, You wrote " will never forgive Rowan Williams for his betrayal of the truth he had grasped about lesbians and gay men." Firstly the truth of God is that He created men and women to be in faithful union. What I would recommend to lgbt activists like yourself is forgiveness. Christ said we must forgive or we wont be forgiven by God. Makes sense for those of us who believe Jesus Christ the risen Son of God is the saviour of the world, thats amazing grace, I was lost but now I see.
Posted by: DavidW Wednesday 28 March 2012 - 09:46am
Hi Waterangel, Yes I am delighted to say that I agree with your last post. Just spotted he has made what I think is a profoundly spiritual insight http://www.christian.org.uk/news/attack-on-christianity-is-just-proxy-for-islam-fears/
Posted by: WATERANGEL Wednesday 28 March 2012 - 08:02am
User 3664 Enlighten me, I have never read "The Bodys Grace" so i do not know what he said preached or wrote. However, life is a learning curve and perspective can change even when you are a leader at the top. As awful as this sounds to you, it is a double edged sword, the fact that leaders can change their opinion on something gives people hope. By the same token if you have a leader who you know will never change their mind on anything you know where you stand.The problem with that is that it is bordering on dictatorship. I understand the difficulty in forgiveness if it has adversly affected your life for a number of years. Do you understand why he changed his mind, do you understand how it affected his faith and life, i dont know he may have explained it, but its the first step. Was it individually personal to you or was it a general thing..For i certainly understand if you were personally betrayed rather than as a general ruling how hard it is. Sometimes though we are left helpless and hopeless through opinion, but he is one man, I think he is a good man and would only make decisions with a view to enhancing peace for all, but of course he has made mistakes, I did not agree with his stance on sharia law but i believe i understood his intention. The intention was to create a harmonious society, think about it logically what could he gain by creating disharmony in his position, nothing. Angela
Posted by: Ambrose StJohn redivivus Tuesday 27 March 2012 - 11:50pm
I will never forgive Rowan Williams for his betrayal of the truth he had grasped about lesbians and gay men. Fancy writing, preaching and publishing 'The Body's Grace' and then saying, "oops I ' ve changed my mind ! Now trust me on another matter......" No no no never.
Posted by: WATERANGEL Tuesday 27 March 2012 - 07:00am
Yes David W Most earnestly and genuinely, I take the support of leaders very seriously, why do you think i contribute here? The point is , one does not have to agree with everything a leader does or says to be grateful for leadership, even bad leadership can teach us something; I am not for one minute suggesting that Rowan has been a bad leader because he most certainly has not been. Rowan has been a good leader. The point about leadership is not about getting everything right all the time, but what you do about it when you get it wrong. The other thing about leadership is like sermons not all sermons are applicable to the personal circumstances of the individual all the time, but it is applicable to somebody all of the time. sometimes we will be that some body and sometimes we will not."for those who have ears to hear". Leadership is also being an example of when to step down, and use the lessons learnt during the time of serving to benefit others, its about being rounded i suppose. It does not always mean that a person gets better or progresses when they step down, because its a bit more sacrificial than that, it may be but its not a certainty. Moving on and how well it is done depends on "i will prepare a place for you". Rowan in a teaching post means he will play a key role in preparation again as do most sermons. Angela
Posted by: DavidW Monday 26 March 2012 - 09:41am
The NT asks believers to serve our leaders, so that their job is not a burden. They take on great responsibility and will be judged by God more strictly. On this basis believers should thank Rowan Williams for what he has done.
Posted by: nersenpaul Saturday 24 March 2012 - 02:33pm
What if Tom Wright's prayer is answered.....with him being called to be abc?
Posted by: nersenpaul Saturday 24 March 2012 - 08:42am
Ah... Already, nominations for successors? Even from outside the cofE? How kind......but with the false assertion that gafcon doesn't represent the majority of the AC which didn't attend Lambeth 08.... As laughable as the repeated false idea (trolling?) that the subversives in the AC are those in line with the majority today and 2000 yrs of teaching.... That 'logic' would make Kinnock and not tiny Militant the anarchosyndicalists.... Not convincing. Not sure the next ABC has to appeal to all or any eccentric views..... But AC unity is a huge consideration..... Or Williams' Lambeth 08 decisions, going against Windsor, will have been the end of the AC...... Hardly worth it when revisionist TECusa has 0.2% of the US population attending.... And that goes to around zero in the next 20 yrs....hardly worth dividing the millions in the AC for revisionists who won't even exist in not too many decades...... But Politicians (in the cofE and parliament) make the decision..... Perhaps it's best if they choose a revisionist, forcing 'open' evangelicals to choose if they are apologists for revisionists or their accommodation ..... Or not. Anglicans globally are not dependent for ther guidance, mission and Christian life on whoever is appointed....thankfully
Posted by: Deleted user 2359 Friday 23 March 2012 - 01:33am
A strong choice would have been James Jones in the sense that he has an evangelical background but has broadened out somewhat regarding the width of the Church of England. He may be a little late for this bus and perhaps the stamina demand is too great. Assuming the Covenant collapses the next incumbent will have to be flexible regarding the Communion and less interventionist, and will probably have to spend more attention at the home base. Personally I think GAFCON and all that is a smaller deal than it thinks, but if there are parallel structures and threats to the larger body then the new Archbishop will probably have to have a more forensic approach to what they do.
Posted by: DavidW Thursday 22 March 2012 - 02:30pm
My first choice as a successor would be Michael Nazir Ali, charismatic, bold and not only a gifted theologian but also experience of living as many Christians do in countries where Christianity is in a minority, and multicutural. Mt second choice would be John Sentamu. But I wonder who God wants. Anyway may God bless Rowan Williams
Posted by: nersenpaul Thursday 22 March 2012 - 12:02am
Origen .... Before you accuse ++York of prejudice, perhaps you should check the position of the cofE. AC and what the ABC calls 'the mind of the communion'...... Labelling a view as prejudiced is not convincing unless you can show those holding it are wrong re scripture ...... Perhaps you're prejudiced in ignoring scripture and wanting, for whatever reason, to justify acts incompatible with scripture?
Posted by: DavidW Tuesday 20 March 2012 - 03:35pm
I have had the sense with Rowan Williams that he has always tried to represent all, and not take sides, in a time when there has been a lot of divided opinion. Whether that is actually what was needed as a leader or not, I think he has been a wonderful example of a servant heart... and I would thank him for it.
Posted by: John Martin Monday 19 March 2012 - 11:14pm
Professor Michael Poon has asked us to add this appreciation of Rowan Williams. Dr Rowan Williams is arguably the most sensitive and erudite theologian in the Anglican world, God's gift to the church universal at a time when it needs to discern afresh the character of Christian discipleship in the radically altered situation in the 21st century. More than anyone, he enlarges the theological horizon against which we see humanity and God's purposes, without which the faithful can hardly order their common life, understand their Christian tasks, and communicate God's grace and hope in a disconnected world. This, sadly, makes him an elusive leader for those who demand theological certainty and swift ecclesiastic action at times when patience and moderation are needed. His resignation is a huge loss to the Anglican Communion at a time when his gifts are most needed. The Christian spirit that he exemplifies will continue to inspire and resonate among Christians worldwide for generations to come.
Posted by: Deleted user 2383 Monday 19 March 2012 - 06:07pm
Along with many of my friends I quickly became disillusioned with Rowan. As far as I can tell, he has pretty much failed to achieve unity: the altar on which he sacrificed gay people and his own principles to appease the conservatives. The covenant looks dead in the water and conservatives in the US, and even in Wimbledon UK, have turned to the African church for their episcopal oversight. It would have been far better for Rowan to acknowledge the split and to get on with the process of enabling it thus freeing the worldwide church to get on with its mission rather than squabbling amongst itself. I hope and pray that Sentamu doesn't get promoted but I remember even trying to cross my toes as well as my fingers in the vain hope that Razi didn't become pope, all to no avail. I'll try not to use racist language when referring to the archbishop of York not because I'm afraid that Fulcrum will censor my post but more because I'm afraid that, rather than turn the other cheek, Sentamu will get the police onto me! How he can complain about one prejudice but practice another is beyond me.
Posted by: Celinda Monday 19 March 2012 - 05:20pm
Thank you so much for posting this. I liked the story about the St. Matthew Passion commentary given ad lib by the archbishop, showing the depth of feeling and knowledge he has to drawn on--also the comparison with Thomas Cranmer.
Posted by: John Watson Monday 19 March 2012 - 04:39pm
Dear Friends We are pleased to publish, with permission, an extended version of an article entitled Rowan Williams: An Appreciation, by Tom Wright, that appeared in the Times on 17th March 2012.
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