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.