Rowan Williams will thrive on public controversy

Andreas Whittam Smith@indyvoices
Monday 02 December 2002 01:00

Rowan Williams begins his public ministry today as Archbishop of Canterbury after a brutal introduction to the rigours of public life at the highest level. "Suddenly to become a public person in quite a new way – yes, that is one of the frightening things about it," he said last week.

The case has reminded me of a governor of the Bank of England whom I knew in the 1980s. Before his appointment he had been a well-respected, prominent banker in the City of London, just as Dr Williams has been a revered bishop and then archbishop in Wales. He assumed that becoming the master of Threadneedle Street was just another step up the same ladder he had been climbing all his life. It wasn't. It was more like moving from the village to the jungle.

The banker was astonished and dismayed by press criticism, by the rough treatment he suffered at the hands of opposition MPs, and by the realisation that he no longer had any privacy. Now, a generation later, public life is more bruising still. For instance, just before she resigned, the former Secretary of State for Education, Estelle Morris, had found that newspapers were digging into the lives of her close relatives to see what decisions they had made about the education of their children.

It hasn't been inquiries into his family that the new Archbishop has had to endure, but rather vociferous opposition on doctrinal grounds to his appointment. Indeed two groups who base their faith on a literal reading of the Bible, evangelical conservatives, quickly called for his resignation.

The issue is sexuality. One strand concerns the role of women, their ordination as priests (already a fact) and whether some of them should now become bishops. Archbishop Williams has said flatly: "I see no theological objection to consecrating women as bishops."

The second strand concerns homosexuality, whether it be a question of blessing same-sex unions or ordaining non-celibate homosexuals. On the last point, the new Archbishop of Canterbury was asked last week whether he would go ahead and ordain. His comment will not have reassured conservative evangelicals: "I don't think I would at the moment."

In sum, Dr Williams makes a formidable response to all this. He tells of his shock in discovering that people of different doctrinal persuasions conduct themselves as intolerant parties in the Church of England, whereas in Wales people with different points of view tend to rub along together.

Can C of E members rub along together, he was asked? "It's worth a try, isn't it? There have to be some things we can do together... it's worth trying to talk. I do say that with a certain amount of blood on my face." The Archbishop makes a distinction between two sorts of critic. In the first camp are people to whom sexuality is an obsessional worry. They are "panicky about sex in general" and with these "there is not a lot to be done."

Then he comes to what he calls a real issue, biblical authority. He does not take a supermarket approach to the Bible – saying these are the nice bits, these are the nasty bits. Quite the contrary. For the new Archbishop the question is, how do we read the Bible as a whole? He argues that this has shifted over the centuries, and gives three examples.

Until the 16th century, it was "blindingly obvious" that the Bible condemned lending money at interest out of hand. This difficulty has passed. In the same century, there was the issue of justification by faith. Suddenly, Dr Williams argues, it emerged for half the Christian world that, as Luther saw, this is how to read the Bible. There was "a sort of huge resounding click in northern Europe saying that yes, of course, that's the unifying principle." His third example is the way thinking about eternal punishment shifted for the overwhelming majority of Christians about 150 years ago.

This approach is rational and calming. Nonetheless, reading the weekend press or watching television, one might wonder whether the new Archbishop had become reckless about the hardball nature of public life. On a BBC documentary last night, Dr. Williams criticised the pomp and circumstance of the church. Dr Williams said the Church was too interested in status and titles. This guarding of position conflicted with the gospel and was anti-Christian.

Dr Williams also said he was sceptical about the Church of England's position as the established state church. The objection of, say, the new Archbishop's advisers to this initiative would not be that the views themselves are wrong, but the way in which multiple avenues for attack have been opened up. The press, after all, thrives on exposing division, and these subjects fit that bill precisely.

However, having watched Dr Williams deftly handle those who have called for him to step down on doctrinal grounds, he appears to me to be like a good club tennis player who suddenly finds himself playing on the centre court at Wimbledon and survives and even flourishes because his basic technique is so good. His analytical skills and his gift for vivid language are highly developed; his courage is undoubted.

Dr Williams' first experience of public life at the highest level may have been frightening, but he is going to be a formidable player.

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