Leading article: A church leader buffeted by the storms of his age

History may well judge Dr Williams more kindly than either his country or some of his fellow clerics

Share
Related Topics

Dr Rowan Williams had made no secret of his intention to retire as Archbishop of Canterbury after 10 years in the post. But his announcement yesterday, that he would be leaving at the end of the year to take up the headship of a Cambridge college, immediately raised a plethora of questions that had long simmered below the surface: from how his uneasy tenure will be assessed, through the delicate matter of who will succeed him, to the biggest question of all – the future of the Church of England and its place in 21st-century Britain.

Dr Williams left little doubt, when he accepted the post of the Anglican Church's most senior cleric, that it was with a heavy heart and a sense of bounden duty. And there was a cruel irony in the fact that this most intellectual of contemporary churchmen spent so much of his tenure trying to bring reconciliation where, in truth, there could be none.

On such issues as women priests, women bishops and gay marriage, there really is no possibility to square the circle. Once the Church of England had accepted women priests – which it had – it had also to accept women bishops, but for many that was a step too far. Gay bishops presented another dilemma, hard on the heels of which came the furore over same-sex marriage. This last has not only divided the Church, but also placed its hierarchy in the unaccustomed position of appearing to be to the right of a Conservative Prime Minister. For Dr Williams, who valued ecumenicism, the doctrinal gap that widened under his tenure between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church has to be a cause for regret.

History may well judge this Archbishop more kindly than either his country or some of his fellow clerics. He led the Anglican Communion at a time of great social change, not just in Britain, but also in the Church's outposts around the world. He used his pulpit to speak eloquently against a culture of money and materialism, and he questioned the Iraq war. He inherited compromises that were as impractical as they may have been unwise, but he preserved them to save the Church from what at times looked like inevitable schism.

It can be argued that a split might have spared him, and the more progressive wing of the Church, much agony, and that it could still be the healthier solution. Yet his reluctance, or inability, either to reconcile the rival strands or to impose his will makes him a transitional leader. It also means that most of the divisions he inherited, he will also bequeath. Which makes the choice of successor as crucial for the Church of England as it has ever been, and the position as much of a poisoned chalice as it was when Dr Williams accepted it in 2002.

In some ways, though, the path ahead may be clearer than it was 10 years ago. The progressive social consensus in Britain – on homosexual rights, for instance – is far greater than it was. Bars to Catholics holding certain offices, along with restrictions on whom an heir to the throne may marry, have also been dropped. The question of the Anglican Church's place in an increasingly agnostic and diverse country is in the ether – and with it the continued place of bishops in the House of Lords, and even the justification for having an established church. The Archbishop can take some credit for not stifling this incipient debate.

From next year, Dr Williams will have the luxury of watching from highly privileged sidelines as the Church of England enters its next stage. We hope that he will use the freedom of his new academic pulpit not just to contribute to the national debate, but also to speak his mind – more loudly and more forcefully than perhaps he felt able to before.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

 

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk