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News analysis — The Rowan Williams years: The Church of England Newspaper, March 23, 2012 p E4. March 28, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Archbishop of Canterbury, Church of England, Church of England Newspaper.

The political obituaries of the Archbishop of Canterbury have portrayed Dr. Rowan Williams as a brilliant, decent, spiritual man who was let down by the Church of England, or who was tasked with an impossible job, or who was a unfairly savaged by a rapacious media culture.

The less than glowing statements from overseas church leaders, with a few exceptions such as that of the Archbishop of Cape Town, are treated as outliers, or dismissed with the sentiment that “well, they would say that wouldn’t they.”

There is thus an attitude in the U.K. that there must be something wrong, or at least odd, about those who were not enamored by Dr. Williams.  In covering Dr. Williams’ overseas work for the Church of England Newspaper since he entered office I have encountered overseas examples of this conventional wisdom.  However, what I have found more prevalent is that expressed in Archbishop Nicholas Okoh’s encomium for the archbishop which essentially said, “Good bye, good luck, and good riddance.”

Why this attitude?  From the perspective of the Global South primates it would be hubris. Being the smartest man in the room is wonderful, but when you couple this with an ignorance of the international scene, patronizing attitudes, avoidance of argument or debate, and a weak staff you should be prepared for trouble.

At its base level Dr. Williams did not have a staff equal to its master.  The archbishop appeared not to take advice, or surrounded himself with aides who were unable to give it – or who had not done the spade work that would have allowed their chief’s ideas and programme to take root.

The Welsh druid controversy and Sharia law are but two examples.  In August 2002 Dr Williams was initiated into the highest of the three orders of the Gorsedd of Bards – a 1,300-strong society of Wales’ cultural leaders – at the National Eisteddfod celebration.  Photos of the archbishop in his druidical wimple flashed around the globe – and Dr. Williams was compelled to tell reporters that “some people have reached the wrong conclusion about the ceremony” as it was a “very Christian service.”

Dr. Williams was correct, of course, and it was nonsense to suggest that this was some sort of pagan cult into which he was being initiated.  Yet no one at Lambeth Palace prepared the ground ahead of the ceremony for the wider church.  The result was ridicule and suspicion.

The Church of Nigeria, for example, was in the midst of a campaign to stamp out membership in secret societies among its communicants.  Combating at home the lure of cabalistic cults and secret fraternities the image of Dr. Williams that came across the wires appeared to repudiate what they had been preaching.  This was unfair and incorrect. Dr. Williams had a public record of criticism of Freemasonry in the U.K. – but the archbishop was put in a place where none of that mattered.

By itself the druid episode could be considered an example of the wicked fun of newspapers.  But it showed a pattern of a staff not doing its job in anticipating the consequences of the archbishop’s private desires.  The Sharia law fiasco came not from the content of a speech but from comments Dr. Williams gave to the World at One programme before his speech.  Britain had to “face up to the fact” that some did not relate to its legal system, and a sanctioned form of Sharia law might improve community relations, he told the BBC.  The furore these statements caused appeared to surprise Dr. Williams.

In and of itself, a ham-fisted media strategy at home does not make one a failure abroad.  It may irritate and exasperate, but why is there such a high degree of animus from some portions of the Communion?

After numerous meetings, reports, conferences and pronouncements, the Global South (GS) group representing a majority of the world’s Anglicans came not to trust Dr. Williams’ word.

Undertakings were made by the archbishop, but action did not appear to result.  A Panel of Reference was created to adjudicate, or advise (it never was quiet clear) on disputes between liberals and conservatives – and after time and treasure were spent on these works, nothing happened.

The authority of the Lambeth Conference and the primates were steadily sapped under Dr. Williams rule the GS movement believed.  A majority of African bishops boycotted the 2008 Lambeth Conference in response to what they saw as Dr. Williams’ machinations and biases.

Decisive statements were made by the Primates Meetings in London, Ireland and Tanzania – which Dr. Williams was claimed to have unilaterally repudiated.  The staff of the Anglican Consultative Council was never slapped down for its usurpation of authority.  Rules were created on the fly – or ignored when inconvenient (but always in the favor of the U.S.)

At the 1999 ACC meeting I asked the then Secretary General why a particular American delegate was permitted voice and vote when he had retired as a bishop (the rules required he be an active bishop).  The answer was that the ACC let the provinces interpret the rules – it would not over rule their decisions.

In 2009 this way of doing business changed.  Uganda could not choose who was a Ugandan delegate.  When asked to explain the difference between 1999 and 2008, the new ACC Secretary General responded that was then, this is now.

I’ve been told that key leaders of the ACC are “liars” and “dishonest”.  These words came not from excited internet bloggers but from primates of the Anglican Communion.  These sentiments are not based on single events. They came as the cumulative effect of a belief in the systematic betrayal of their concerns coupled with a feeling that Dr. Williams was patronizing them.

A leader of a church whose membership was hemorrhaging was going to tell them how to build up the church, how to be a bishop, how to read the Bible.  At the 2003 primates meeting held at Lambeth Palace following the confirmation of the election of Gene Robinson, Dr. Williams was able to persuade Archbishop Peter Akinola not to absent himself from the corporate Eucharist service.  (The Nigerian archbishop took seriously the call that he be in ‘love and charity’ with his American brother before they took communion together.)

By dint of his personality and the prestige of his office, Dr. Williams was able to persuade Peter Akinola to receive the sacraments with Frank Griswold.  By the 2011 meeting a third of the primates had boycotted the gathering – a third represented the liberal wing and a third were new comers to the ranks of the primates.

So what was it about Dr. Williams? “He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it”: T.S. Eliot wrote of Henry James in the Little Review of August 1918. Writing in the London Review of Books in the April 1980 issue Mary McCarthy explained this epigram as expressing Eliot’s view of “the novel as a fine art and of the novelist as an intelligence superior to mere intellect.”

McCarthy wrote that in the Modernists’ view, “the intellect’s crude apparatus was capable only of formulating concepts, which then underwent the process of diffusion, so that by dint of repetition they fell within anybody’s reach. The final, cruel fate of an idea was to turn into an idée reçue. The power of the novelist, insofar as he was a supreme intelligence, was to free himself from the work-load of commentary and simply, awesomely, to show: his creation was beyond paraphrase or reduction. As pure work of art, it stood beautifully apart, impervious to the dry rot affecting the brain’s constructions and to the welter of factuality.”

Transfer this observation to a church setting and you have the essence of the critique of Dr. Williams.  His mind was so fine, his theology so recherché, his intellect so powerful – that it need not be put to the test of practical experience or subjected to the welter of factuality.

First printed in The Church of England Newspaper.

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