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Date: 15 October, 2003

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'Whether you see him as The Real Leader of the Opposition, the man who is splitting the Church of England, a beacon of enlightenment or a liberal menace, he is worth coming to terms with.'

Rowan Williams: A short introduction review

Steve Tomkins says that whether you like or dislike Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury, he is worth reading about

I can think of few people whose shoes I'd less like to be in than Rowan Williams'. OK, I've thought a bit more, and there are quite a few, starting with the 450 million on less than $2 a day, anyone in prison and the entire population of North Korea. But my basic point still stands.

On his enthronement just a few months ago, he was hailed - quite reasonably - as the cleverest person in British public life, but with a fetching love of The Simpsons. Now he's as controversial as Damien Hirst and Alistair Campbell in one.

Back then BBCi said "In choosing the Most Reverend Rowan Williams as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church of England may be in for a lively ride." Now, depending on which paper you read, he has either derailed the ride on the first corner or it's been seized by fundamentalists intent on crashing it into the sea.

Whether you see him as The Real Leader of the Opposition, the man who is splitting the Church of England, a beacon of enlightenment or a liberal menace, he is worth coming to terms with. Hence the book.

The main part of Rowan Williams: An introduction takes us through his life story. His conversion to Anglicanism at 10. His glorious university career, culminating in a doctorate in Orthodox theology.

His academic career as semi-monastic lecturer in Yorkshre, then tutor and chaplain at Cambridge, and then Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in Oxford. Then his years as Bishop of Monmouth and Archbishop of Wales.

This is all interlaced with his theology, politics and spirituality of course, but the books concludes with a chapter on each of those subjects for a more focussed account.

The one most overwhelming impression of the book is Williams' phenomenal intellect. "He was the cleverest man I'd ever met" says a fellow student eight pages in, and that's the first of many such comments.

He also emerges as a thoroughly orthodox (and, of course, deep) theologian, but with quite a radical streak when it comes to politics and social matters. A onetime CNDer and Labour party member, he is a critic of global capitalism, the free market, third world exploitation, all and famously Disney.

He has proved one of the most influential opponents of the wars against Iraq and 'terror', and condemns all WMDs, not just those held by enemies of the west. The fact that as an undergraduate he often shared his room with homeless people exemplifies his compassion.

He is a man of clear, resolute principle but also a listener and - let me say it again - a thinker. He draws deeply from Catholic and Orthodox spirituality, having toyed with conversion in both cases, but decided to help syphon their riches into his own church rather than live in 'intellectual and ethnic fancy dress'.

It's all readable and informative - though following the snippets of Williams's philosophy is not always a piece of cake. My one complaint: call me picky, but I like short chapters, and at 72 pages, chapter one (covering his whole life) is more than half the book. Why?

One thing most readers will want from this book is information about where Williams is coming from in his attitude to the question of gay relationships in the Church. Shortt covers this briefly but helpfully at a couple of points, explaining the Archbishop's biblical, logical and personal reasons for accepting them.

We're told the obsessive arguments about sex and the splitting of the Church have been 'a source of intermitent dejection to Williams, at least since 1988'. He must be having a whale of a time now.

The Archbishop's homepage

• A BBC profile of him

• His Desert Island Discs choices

• A Guardian special report on religion in Britain

Rowan Williams: A short introduction by Rupert Shortt, Morehouse Publishing/Darton Longman Todd, 125pp