The Sunday Profile: Rowan Williams

For God's sake, man...why are you so nice? That's what the Archbishop of Canterbury's fractious flock want to know

The hardest thing for Rowan Williams's many admirers to stomach, said one of the Archbishop of Canterbury's inner circle last week, "is that too often he seems to bend over backwards to be kinder to his enemies than he is to us". It is, she added, a wonderfully Christian thing for him to do, but not what is required of the leader of the fractious, 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican church.

Instead, it needs at its head someone who will take a clear line over divisive issues such as the ordination of women and gay priests, so that the whole communion doesn't just tear itself apart. Yet the confused signals that Dr Williams repeatedly sends out on these and other subjects have caused a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the 56-year-old, Welsh-born archbishop. When he was appointed in 2002 he was widely hailed as the man who was going to breathe new life into his church and the national debate. Today, some people feel he is a lame duck, an irrelevance and a liability.

On the eve of his visit to Rome for a first summit with Pope Benedict XVI, the archbishop has been up to his familiar tricks again. In an interview with The Catholic Herald, Dr Williams appears to belittle the contribution of women priests in his own church. They had not "transformed" or "renewed" it, he said. (Lambeth Palace claim he was misquoted).

He also suggests that they might one day be thrown off the altar and returned to the pews. All this from a long-time supporter of female ministry and who previously has advocated that the ban on women bishops be lifted.

Was he trying to find something comforting to say to that minority in the Church of England that continue to see women as second-class citizens before God? Or did he really intend to reopen a door that everyone else believed had been firmly shut after General Synod's 1993 vote in favour of women's ordination? Or worst of all, was he just creeping up to Pope Benedict who believes that the advent of female priests in Anglicanism has put the ecumenical clock back decades?

His meaning is utterly unclear, and that is the problem with Dr Williams. Not even he seems to know what he thinks. Lambeth Palace is claiming that his remarks in The Catholic Herald were misinterpreted, but the Archbishop of Canterbury already has form on appearing not to know his own mind.

In his first year in office, he appeared to give the green light for Canon Jeffrey John, a gay priest in a long-standing relationship, to become Bishop of Reading. Canon John is an old friend of Dr Williams, and his appointment by an archbishop who had happily ordained actively homosexual clergy was seen as a first bold move to stamp his authority on the church's tortured debate about gay clergy.

Yet, in the face of criticism from traditional and evangelical Anglicans, the archbishop performed a spectacular U-turn. He capitulated to his critics and forced Canon John to withdraw. Dr Williams's moral authority has never recovered and Anglicanism remains unable to see beyond the issue of gay clergy. It was undoubtedly a brave experiment to appoint Rowan Williams as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. Born in Swansea in 1950, this saintly academic, married to a fellow theologian with two children, had served as Archbishop of Wales since 2000. He was therefore the first Anglican leader to have been chosen from outside the Church of England since the Reformation. He was also the youngest for 200 years and probably the cleverest.

Expectations were high. But some of Dr Williams's friends believe he was always too clever for the job. It is better suited to a dully plodder, like the previous incumbent, George Carey, or a high-profile man of certainties, like the cleric hotly tipped to be the next, Archbishop John Sentamu of York. Dr Sentamu's interventions on Islam and secularism have been in marked contrast to Dr Williams's invisibility on such subjects, though you could argue that it is easier to take risks in speaking out when you're second-in-line rather than the primate.

The modest Dr Williams's capacity to see shades of grey on moral and ethical issues served him well when he became Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford in 1986, the youngest holder of that chair. It still can make him a beguiling broadcaster. In John Humphrys' recent radio series, Humphrys in Search of God, Dr Williams sidestepped invitations to be dogmatic and spoke appealingly to a wide audience about "silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark".

But such nuanced remarks, the ability to see both sides of an argument, do not always sit easily with being Archbishop of Canterbury. It is, by any standards, an unenviable job. It carries a quasi-papal role as head of the 38 provinces of the Anglican communion around the world, but has none of the Pope's teaching authority to make his leadership effective in practice. Dr Williams would not, his friends stress, want to act like a Pope. He is by nature too subtle and self-effacing. But there must have been moments in the past four years when he has wished he could. When, for instance, he was trying to achieve some sort of rapprochement between implacable US Anglicans who had ordained an "openly" gay bishop and outraged African Anglican archbishops who see homosexuality as sinful.

Quite why Dr Williams even bothers trying to paper over the cracks in his communion puzzles some. By prevaricating, the most he has done is delay the collapse and in the process alienate his natural liberal constituency without managing to win any new supporters among traditionalists and evangelicals.

By putting the unity of the worldwide church above his own beliefs, he has squandered a golden opportunity to show the world that a modern, progressive form of Anglicanism can still be relevant to contemporary dilemmas. So his thoughtful remarks on climate change, child-rearing and Darfur, for instance, have gone largely unheard.

When he was first appointed he seemed, despite his monkish beard, so attractively normal. He spoke without embarrassment of his young children, of watching The Simpsons with them, of his love of W H Auden and of his native Wales. Yet increasingly, Rowan Williams has the careworn, detached air of someone who has come to regard his daily work as a kind of crucifixion. His only escape from the cross is to disappear on long overseas visits.

Because he was relatively young when he was appointed, Dr Williams could, in theory, continue in office for another decade. Many suspect, however, that the last stage of his via dolorosa will come at what promises to be a disharmonious Lambeth Conference in 2008, when the worldwide Anglican church gathers to parade once more its differences. In its wake Rowan Williams will slip back into academic obscurity, where he will be better appreciated.

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