Rowan Williams' decade as ABC
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Date: 19 March, 2012

Rowan Williams

'...the Anglican Communion has been on the edge of schism for the last decade.'


Charlotte Haines Lyon looks at Rowan Williams' decade as head of the Anglican Communion.

It can’t be said that the reign of the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury has been boring. However, it seems that Rowan Williams has found the unending arguments within the Anglican Communion during his tenure tedious in the least.

Williams brought both hope and concern when his appointment was announced back in July 2002.

His liberal stance on homosexuality, gave rise to great expectations or fear, depending which end of the rainbow one stood, that one day the Church may become gay-friendly. It was also assumed with equal controversy that he would see in women bishops.

Neither has happened yet, but the Anglican Communion has been on the edge of schism for the last decade. Voices vary as to whether Williams has been instrumental in keeping the church together (Archbishop Desmond Tutu) or has actually damaged the communion (Max Wind-Cowie, Demos).

Any hopes that homosexuality would lose its power to cause outrage were dashed from the start. The election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire marked the beginning of a decade of internecine war. Dr Williams’ early attempt to appoint openly gay Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading was thwarted, by the conservative wing of the church. 


Rowan Williams’ many endeavours to appease both sides of the women bishops debate have failed so far too. Both Archbishops of York and Canterbury thought they had a working compromise last summer, allowing those against women bishops to come under another bishop’s authority.

However this was voted down at the General Synod, as it was argued that women had to have full equality of authority and not just oversight of those who felt like it.

The frustrations are a little unfair. We should have realised that one man alone would not be able to solve the problem of sex for the church. Sadly in the Church of England the man at the top, is just that; a man.

If people had taken time to read Rowan Williams’ letter on the day of his appointment they might have had more realistic expectations.
He warned: “. . . I know that some disquiet has been expressed . . . because of what are believed to be my views on certain questions, in particular on human sexuality. On this matter, I wish to say two things. First, an archbishop is not someone elected to fulfil a programme or manifesto of his own devising, but to serve the whole Communion. He does not have the freedom to prescribe belief for the Church at large”

A servant to a large and divided church is not a job many would take on. However, it has not all been about sex. When not exasperating his flock, the Archbishop was most forthright in arguing for justice around the world. The then Labour government did not appreciate Williams’ outspoken concerns about the invasion of Iraq.

Sharia Law

And of course there were those much misreported words about Sharia Law, the comments on expenses and criticism of Robert Mugabe. Neither did Williams’ comments about capitalism go down well in certain quarters.  (Marx was Right and St Paul's).

Last year he guest edited the NewStatesman much to the chagrin of many Conservative MPs. He interviewed Foreign Secretary William Hague most thoughtfully about the meaning and practice of “Ethical Foreign Policy.” He asked pointed questions about Egypt, China and the killing of Osama Bin Laden amongst others.

Over the last few months Williams has supported his Bishops and others in the House of Lords in their continual fight against welfare reforms. He also provided a robust defence for Bishops serving in the House of Lords, arguing they are some of the most democratically placed members there.

Despite being thought of as a quiet man, he engaged with unlikely friends and foes. The Archbishop invited secularist Philip Pullman to write in the NewStatesman, embraced dialogue with Richard Dawkins and infused an evening with Frank Skinner with surprising humour.

Williams wrote an article in 1983, The Prophetic and the Mystical, arguing that there is one God but different views and experiences are constructed by different communities and their prophets.

It is not surprising therefore that he has worked tirelessly with other faiths and two years ago was awarded the Building Bridges Award by the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic faiths.

Rowan Williams, may have had a difficult decade, but he has been a pleasingly political Archbishop of Canterbury. He may not have made many friends, but he has been dignified and never spoken ill of anybody.

He may not have been a dynamic leader but he was certainly a very humble servant. However Rowan Williams will no doubt be more at home leading an academic life in Cambridge.

Did you know...

  • Rowan Williams was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be appointed outside of the Church of England since the Reformation (he was previously the Archbishop of Wales);

  • Rowan Williams was the first bishop to be appointed that had not undergone ordination training;

  • The Archbishop is an accomplished poet

  • Rowan Williams was inducted as a Druid

  • At school and Cambridge University, Williams was a keen dramatist starring in a variety of productions.

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