Book Review of Andrew Goddard's Memoire of Rowan Williams Archiepiscopate

John Martin reviews Andrew Goddard's timely memoire of the Archiepiscopate of Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams: the Canterbury years

John Martin reviews Andrew Goddard’s timely memoire of the archiepiscopate of Rowan Williams

Andrew Goddard undertook the onerous task of researching and writing this memoire with a publisher’s deadline of just four months, coinciding with Rowan (as the author refers to him throughout) leaving office. The result is what people who read and appreciate Andrew on the Fulcrum website and elsewhere have come to expect: meticulous research blended with carefully measured analysis, a generous spirit and plenty of funny moments. He has done people who care about the Church of England and the Anglican Communion a great service.

To succeed with a project of this kind, a mix of biography and contemporary history, an author must assemble and evaluate sources and resist the temptation to over-simplify. Being in close proximity to many of the personalities and events requires healthy self awareness. I think Andrew has got these elements right, largely resisting the temptation to pontificate by citing comment from other sources. As well as sampling Rowan’s massive written output from the decade, itself a major task, Andrew sought out the views of over 70 persons who crossed the path of the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

He dedicates the volume ‘With thanks to God for my fellowship and friendship with those in Fulcrum and the Anglican Communion Institute.’ The challenge involved in writing about Rowan applies equally to any Fulcrum-related reviewer as it does to Andrew. Fulcrum has been labelled by some as ‘Rowan’s evangelicals’.

Like Andrew, I have been part of the Fulcrum Leadership team from its beginnings. I first met Rowan in 1981 at the first meeting of the Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission. He had taken leave of his honeymoon. Over the years I formed a deep appreciation of him both as a thinker and a godly leader. Fulcrum came into being in no small measure because some of us believed that a silent majority of evangelicals could do business with Rowan Williams, being affronted by the miserable, small-minded treatment metered out to him by critics claiming to speak for the entire evangelical constituency.

Being Archbishop of Canterbury is an impossible job. Primate of All England: requiring chairing the General Synod and bodies such as the Crown Nominations Commission. The Anglican Communion: extensive travel and lecturing, planning and presiding over Primates and Anglican Consultative Council meetings plus the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference; no previous archbishop found this role more complex and time consuming. Second citizen: rating after the Monarch in the realm with automatic membership of the House of Lords. Ecumenical duties: dealing with all manner of Popes and Patriarchs as well as well working with other Churches and official UK ecumenical instruments. Canterbury diocese: Rowan was determined to do the work of a bishop.

On top of this here was someone who may have been able (as Andrew puts it) to be prized out of the academy, but it was impossible to get the academy out of him. Among recent Archbishops he ranks as a true theological heavyweight alongside just two others from the twentieth century, William Temple and Michael Ramsey. His publishing output during the decade was huge. History will judge him more than anything by his writings and he will thus be rated among the all-time greats.

He was best suited to speaking to audiences on a specific theme rather than to wide-ranging speeches where he could be faltering, being aware that any tentative proposition he might formulate could have 17 well-worked alternatives. Nowhere, however, did he treat Episcopal office as a sinecure from which to pursue his personal academic interests.

The narrative begins with brief references to his years as Bishop of Monmouth and later Archbishop of Wales which included attending two Primates’ meetings. His successor in Monmouth, Dominic Walker, recalls asking his secretary to schedule much more preparation time for speaking engagements. The response was, “We’re not really used to that. What we’re used to is Rowan going out the door saying, ‘Just what was the title of the lecture I’m going to give?’” Those who heard Rowan’s lectures – nearly always without notes – appreciated a massive photographic mind at work.

The narrative covers details of the period of his election and then pursues themes such as his commitment to Fresh Expressions, his contribution as a leader in mission, his work with the Anglican Communion, his role in public policy debates, relations with other churches and people of other faiths, and how he exercised the office of priest and bishop.

Rowan took on the role of Archbishop with no previous experience of the inner workings of the Church of England. If this was a huge challenge to someone of his ability, it is clear that choice of someone further afield as a future Archbishop is doubtful. His special concerns over environmental degradation unfairly earned him a ‘hairy leftie’ label. On the other hand his convictions meant that the central agencies of the Church became much more engaged with pro-life campaigns.

He won the respect of Churches which were in long-time dialogue with Anglicans: he was honoured with an invitation to address Rome’s Synod of Bishops; his linguistic skills were much admired by the Orthodox; he worked with Methodists and the Free Churches, speaking wisely at the 350th anniversary of the Great Ejection. At the same time he made a point of reaching out to new Pentecostal movements. There is coverage of Rowan’s contributions to public debate, in particular engagement with New Atheism, which emerged after the 9/11 attacks.

Not surprisingly, Rowan’s leadership of the Communion in crisis, which has deep roots dating from the 1970s, commands a lot of space. The narrative carefully covers the impact of the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire USA. Andrew traces the aftermath including the so-called Windsor process and introduction of ‘indaba’ as a means to keep conversations alive between the different sides. Finally the book looks at how Rowan understood and exercised his primary calling: to be a bishop in the Church of God.

Rowan had faults and failings as an Archbishop: he would admit it. An example would be his ‘Sharia’ speech. His reasonably sensible appraisal of the situation of Muslims in Britain caused a storm that could have been avoided with better media relations staff work. It is now often said, ‘Rowan didn’t do strategy.’

The Williams decade is marked by the failure of the Church of England to legislate in favour of two other causes backed by Rowan: women bishops and the Anglican Covenant. Rowan was clear over many years in his support for women’s ministry at all levels. His personal views on the Covenant are less clear. There is a full and careful account of events. Again the narrative invites the conclusion that Rowan’s dislike for the nitty-gitty of management was a factor in the outcomes.

It seemed from the beginning that his time in office would mean personal pain. In a candid moment, he once said: “Even when I was Archbishop of Wales and working with new bishops, I used to say, not realising quite how true it was, 'One of the things you will do as a bishop is disappoint people'.

Certainly, early writings such as The Body’s Grace created disappointed expectations among US Episcopalians and others who hoped they could look to Rowan for support for an agenda of ‘inclusion’. Dean Jeffrey John having been lent on by Rowan to withdraw his acceptance of the post of Bishop of Reading still nurses the sting of disappointment Conservative evangelicals express disappointment that Rowan chose not to rebuke publicly consecrators of Gene Robinson, making what in their eyes was a mere token gesture, barring him (alongside the miscreant Bishop Nolbert Kunonga of Zimbabwe) from the 2008 Lambeth Conference.

Rowan took the reins of an Anglican Communion which contains cultures and convictions which are frankly irreconcilable. Moreover it lacks anything resembling a supreme court with powers to require provinces to submit to a central authority. Anglicanism exists in some countries which have legalised same-sex marriage. It exists in others where same-sex acts are illegal and severely punished. The gulf betwixt is great and if world Anglicanism wishes to remain as a ‘Communion’, rather than a much looser federation, all sides need to find a way to live with these irreconcilable differences.

Another lesson from the Rowan Williams years has to be that when a leader acts in ways considered ‘strong’, the brittleness of the Church manifests itself. Where, on the other hand, a leader is prepared to be self-effacing and eschews taking a strong but potentially divisive position, the possibility remains that the Church will continue to look for ways to stay together.

Robert Runcie was once presented with a proposal where the ordination of women would create two parallel Churches, one in favour, with a rump opposed. He rejected the plan outright, in words to the effect, ‘I don’t want to go down in history as the Archbishop who presided over the dismemberment of the Church of England’.

I think Rowan’s great achievement is that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion are still there despite all the travails of the last few decades. There have been constant predictions of disintegration. A key mitigating factor has been Rowan’s attentive listening and manifest personal holiness. Again and again he visited primates and provinces which were noisy in their criticisms and returned having gained respect and appreciation.

Here is a valuable contemporary history of an ecclesial community seeking to find its way in turbulent times. The ultra-critical could say Andrew might have given more weight to the Church of England and chased more sources, women certainly and people outside England. But given the time available this is a remarkable achievement. There are many insights into the complexities that go with episcopal leadership in such a context. Other mainstream denominations are closely observing Anglicanism, knowing full well that sooner or later the issues besetting the Communion will be on their agendas too.

A quote from David Hilborn, right at the end of the book, probably best sums up Rowan’s contribution. “Rowan’s legacy will not be one that is remembered as strategic but it will be remembered as godly. In the end, that’s more important than pretty well anything else.”


John Martin is honorary General Secretary of Fulcrum, a former editor of The Church of England Newspaper, and was Communications Officer for the Anglican Consultative Council 1979-85. He is UK correspondent for the US-based magazine The Living Church.

Rowan Williams, his legacy

By Andrew Goddard

Lion Hudson 2013

Pb 336pp

Price £9.99

ISBN 978 0 7459 5602 2

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