‘The problem with Rowan ‘Williams is that he is too bloody Christian.’
Perhaps that’s not the sort of thing one expects from a fellow bishop. But it just about summed up the problem. Williams was too nice to his enemies. And enemies is not too strong a word.
So writes Giles Fraser, until recently Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, in an insightful analysis of the ups and downs of Rowan Williams’ 10 years as head of the worldwide Anglican Communion and spiritual leader of the Church of England.
Anglican divisions on gay people and women bishops still unresolved
Few archbishops in recent times have presided over a worldwide church so angry and bitter in its disagreements. Few have had to face such sustained invective and vitriol. I have no idea how his faith survived the experience. Now and again he would drop that look of scholarly avuncular concern and one could glimpse something of the heaviness within. Little wonder he felt such an affinity with Dostoevsky. For all his intellectual brilliance and personal charm – qualities that elicited fierce loyalty in those close to him – the tragedy of his leadership, and that for which he will long be remembered, is the way he dealt with the gay issue.
Impossible challenge attempted
Perhaps he should not have set himself the impossible challenge of keeping together the global church. When the Archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola, head of one of the fastest growing Anglican churches in the world, compared gay people to dogs, the whole idea that Anglicans inhabited the same moral universe, let along the same church, was dead in the water.
No amount of bridge-building could span the chasm between that perspective and the consecration of an openly gay bishop in America.
The fact Williams attempted such an impossible mediation was, for some, the very essence of sacrificial Christianity. But to most it looked like foolishness.
And the sort of foolishness that co-operated too much with blatant prejudice – as when he allowed himself to be bullied into asking Jeffrey John to withdraw his name as a candidate for the Bishop of Reading after a worldwide storm broke when the appointment of a gay man as a bishop was announced. The Anglican Communion was never going to be the same again.
I remember a terrible lunch in Lambeth Palace a few weeks later. I came as moral support for Jeffrey, to see Rowan. We challenged him about his policy towards gay Christians in just the way he had done to the previous Archbishop George Carey in a similar delegation some years before. But it was pointless. Nothing was ever going to make it right.
When Williams arrived at Canterbury most people thought he was a theological liberal – gay friendly, in favour of women’s ordination, something of a leftie. After all, he had been arrested on an anti-nuclear demo. But most people read him wrong – radical yes, liberal no. He was the spiritual equivalent, perhaps even the inspiration behind, to what Philip Blond later came to popularise as Red Toryism. He distrusted unfettered market forces, but also, and against the spirit of the age, the emphasis on individual freedom that went with it. His was a nostalgia for an old-fashioned ideal of community – perhaps even the sort of community of the South Wales village – where collective solidarity is always more important than individual choice and social diversity.
When guest editing the Today programme, he was asked to pick his favourite sound. He went for the chatter of the village post office. It was the sort of place where he’s most at home – the world where people keep their back doors open and spend time together in the pub and church. His theology is the poetry of community. But it only works where people share a whole lot in common. Which is why Williams never really felt comfortable in so fast paced and diverse a place as London.
Dislike for ecclesiastical flummery
All this communitarianism crucially shaped his understanding of the church. He cared little for ecclesiastical flummery. He once teased me that I had gone native with the dressing up culture of St Paul’s. “Red buttons, Giles. It always starts with red buttons.” Indeed, he was making a point when he wore a black clerical shirt and not a bishop’s purple one. To him, the church is a much more serious business. It is where the individual moral choices of its members have to be subsumed to the will of the whole.
Gay people and choosing worldwide Anglican unity
One does not choose morality as one chooses cornflakes. So whilst his instincts may have been gay friendly, his increasing appreciation that the African church was dead against any accommodation with homosexuality, made him side with the conservatives.
He wanted a global Anglican community built around core values. And so, in effect, he became a split personality – with Williams the man at odds with Williams the archbishop.
After the bitter Lambeth Conference of 1998, Williams, and several other bishops, made gay Christians a promise:
“We pledge we will continue to reflect, pray and work for your full inclusion in the life of the church.”
Unfortunately, it was a promise he would fail to keep.
Giles Fraser is former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral
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