Saying that he hopes that his successor has the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros. Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, will resign at the end of this year and return to academics. He will become the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge where he can meander along the River Cam and take tea at the Orchard Garden in Grantchester far away from the turbulence of the 85-million member Communion he leaves behind.
When an archbishop retires at the usual age of 70, no one bats an eyelash. But when he resigns in good health nearly a decade before normal retirement age, people sit up and take notice. It evokes the image of a battle weary pugilist whose “sponger” looks at the condition of his man and tosses his sponge in the air. The fight is over. We might as well declare defeat.
The battle, of course, was his to lose. Anyone with half an eye could see the turbulence that lay ahead for someone assuming the role of leader of the world’s second largest Communion. The same year he took office an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, was consecrated bishop of New Hampshire despite public assurances from Frank Griswold, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, that he would not participate in the consecration. Griswold went right ahead and did just that. With one part of his Communion going its own way, and thumbing its noses at the rest, while the vast majority were profoundly upset, Williams was forced to choose. Either he would take a self-imposed mediatorial role, and desperately try to keep all parties at the table. Or he would take sides, and do what he could to bring the truculent back in line.
He chose the former, with the result that no one was satisfied. Privately he held to a liberal position on sexuality, as enunciated in his well-known, though highly inscrutable, paper entitled The Body’s Grace. Publicly, he towed the line that was spelled out by Lambeth Resolution 1:10, which stated as the official position of the Communion that “homosexuality was imcompatible with Scripture.”
This tight-rope walk was to characterize his decade at the helm of the Anglican Communion. He was attacked from the Left by such gadflies as Bishop Spong who called him a “neo-Medievalist”, and ridiculed in the press for his easy-to-misunderstand statements about Sharia Law, Britain and the U.S.’s positions in the Middle East, women bishops, market capitalism, Freemasonry and other hot topics. Meanwhile, his liberal Anglo-Catholicism seemed archaic and out of touch to the growing multitudes of evangelically-minded Anglicans especially in the Two-Thirds World.
Personally, he was gracious towards those with whom he disagreed, even when the Pope upstaged him by suddenly announcing the creation of the Ordinariate whereby disaffected Anglican clergy could fast-track in becoming Roman Catholic priests. He also welcomed troubled American bishops like Robert Duncan who sped across the Pond on more than one occasion to confer on the direction The Episcopal Church was taking. In England he debated atheist Richard Dawkins and supported the growing influence of parishes like Holy Trinity, Brompton that were planting churches and setting up institutes to train more evangelically-minded clergy.
But in the end it was his liberalism that tripped him up. Like Frank Griswold, another liberal Anglo-Catholic, his “hear no evil, see no evil” mindset revealed an unbiblical anthropology. “Why can’t people just be nice?” Without a clear understanding of sin, that in its intellectual form translates into error, he was mentally unprepared for the essential leadership role as disciplinarian. While legally unable to bring The Episcopal Church in line, he could have done a great deal more to pull in the reins. For example, he could have insisted on retaining the Fourth section of the proposed Anglican Covenant that outlined how to discipline errant member churches. Also, he could have refused to invite to the Lambeth Conference those bishops who participated in (or approved) the consecration of Gene Robinson. He didn’t
With division looming on the horizon, in 2002 the Crown Nominations Committee the Queen and Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, put Rowan Williams forward. It was a disastrous choice. I wrote at the time to Tony Blair expressing my concerns that with Rowan Williams at the helm the Communion would likely break up. I received a cordial three-page form letter from 10 Downing Street assuring me that Williams was the most qualified, best educated, etc., etc. man for the job. Like you, I dislike “I told you so” people. But the Communion has virtually broken up under his watch – at least in all but name. At the Lambeth Conference (2008) dozens of bishops and archbishops who should have been there politely declined to be present and held their own international gathering in Jerusalem. The result of Lambeth was a lot of schmoozing and friendly discussion. The result of the alternate gathering was a solid, clear, orthodox affirmation called The Jerusalem Declaration.
News briefs are all abuzz about who the next A.B.C. should be. “A ‘Traditionalist’ say Conservative MPs.” But it will take more than a Traditionalist to bring the Communion back together. It will take someone with enormous diplomatic skills, a firm resolve to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ the central touchstone of his archepiscopacy, a great sensitivity towards those who don’t understand “episcospeak” or “academiceze”, and a heart for mission as the central challenge of the age. Plus it will take someone with a very tough skin. On that point Rowan Williams is dead right.
One can only speculate on who that person might be. Is it time for someone who is not English to assume the role? Perhaps someone from the Two Thirds World? Perhaps someone who isn’t white-skinned and steeped in the arcane language of Oxbridge? Perhaps someone who understands what it means to suffer for the Gospel? Perhaps someone who will forego the dollars that 815 Second Avenue and Trinity Church, Wall Street will continue to throw at him for silence in the face of their errors? Perhaps someone who isn’t a “hairy Leftie” and won’t take a knee-jerk reaction to the challenges faced by governments awash in entitlements and confronted with resurgent militant Islam?
The one thing that the Crown Nominations Committee, the PM and the Queen can count on from around the world is the fervent prayers of the millions who love the Anglican way of being Christian and yet who cherish even more dearly the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Our deep desire is for someone to lead this part of Christ’s body in such a way that all Christians, of whatever stripe, will praise God for his leadership and give thanks for the wisdom, strength and love he demonstrates to the world.
Peter C. Moore, D.D.
Former Dean/President Trinity School for Ministry (PA), and Associate for Discipleship, St. Michael’s Church, Charleston (SC).