When Rowan Williams, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, first gave a lecture in Germany – the polymath primate can speak seven languages and lecture in five – he was approached by an earnest student who asked him: "What is your methodological starting point?" He replied, with a combination of wit and insight that the nation will come to see as characteristic of the bearded Welshman who will be the 104th occupant of the throne of St Augustine: "A theologian is always beginning in the middle of things."
He took the same approach to his new job yesterday. In his first press conference he waded straight into the middle by issuing a warning that any bombing of Iraq that was not sanctioned by the United Nations would be morally questionable. Then he refused to apologise for his past membership of CND. And he announced that he would not want to appease those within the Church with deeply entrenched homophobic prejudices. It was a performance which offered a flavour of how he intends to conduct himself as archbishop. That became clear when he concluded with the promise: "Any Christian pastor or priest is always going to be asking awkward questions in certain circumstances."
This is good news not just for the Church of England but also for the nation. His is a bold appointment, especially for Tony Blair, who sanctioned the choice of the Crown Appointments Commission in the full knowledge that many of Dr Williams's future blasts of moral indignation are likely to be aimed in his direction. The temptation would have been to appoint a careful manager or a church politician, whose primary concern would have been to smooth over potential splits.
That is not to suggest that Rowan Williams will be cavalier in such areas. The wry humour and deftly conciliatory phrasing of his uncompromising statements showed that. But he also indicated that he will not trim principles for pragmatic reasons, and will not allow the nation's leaders to do so either.
There will be times when he says things that this newspaper will not agree with. But the arrival in Canterbury of a man of such prophetic inclination can only be good for churchgoers and secularists alike.
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