Rowan Williams exits Canterbury, Round 2

There have been no surprises so far in the first day coverage of the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams’ decision to retire at year’s end. A little before noon London time the archbishop’s press office released his resignation statement. Within the hour a Press Association interview and a background item for editors were released.

Throughout the afternoon comments and appreciations from political and religious leaders came across the wires (really the internet) — and from these sources the first day stories were formed.

What makes the difference in the quality of stories is the quality of the reporters and the experience/biases/insight they bring to their jobs. The Times, Telegraph, Independent and Guardian news reports are of high standard and reflect the professionalism of their reporters. The Daily Mail takes a different approach.

Rowan Williams has today announced he is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury but not before having a swipe at the ‘dim-witted prejudice’ against Christianity in Britain.

After a turbulent decade in office the leader of the 77 million-strong Anglican Church will leave at the end of the year.

He is tipped to be replaced by Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, who would be the first black holder of the prestigious office.

But in a stark warning Dr Williams said ‘ignorance’ was damaging the church because too many people seem to oppose Christianity but ‘don’t know how religion works’.

Granted the Daily Mail has a different demographic than the broadsheets, but the article continues in this herky-jerky manner, jumping from assertion to assertion. It has no focus, no sense of itself — and no sense of the story.

The Sun article could have been written as a parody. It begins:

Dr Williams yesterday revealed that he would be standing down after ten years to take up a new post as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Bookies have given Dr Sentamu odds of 6/4, just ahead of the Bishop of London Richard Chartres at 7/4 and the Bishop of Bradford Nick Baines at 5/1.

William Hill [a bookmaker] spokesman Graham Sharpe said: “Since Rowan Williams became Archbishop of Canterbury, John Sentamu has very much come to the fore and has been the best-backed contender to succeed him for some while, although Richard Chartres, the beaten favourite when Williams was appointed, is also a strong contender.”

I must admit that I would not have had a bookie’s tout as my first quote. But the Sun is the Sun.

The stinker of the day, however, was the one surprise. The Italian newspaper La Stampa‘s usually excellent Vatican Insider offered opinion as news — and ill-informed opinion at that. Speaking of the controversy over women bishops in the Church of England, it wrote:

Since the Anglican Synod of York approved the ordination of women bishops in July 2010, the decision has gradually spread throughout the Anglican Communion, against the wishes of traditionalist communities. The Anglican Communion consists of 38 independent provinces and one of these is England. A number of provinces already have a bishop. The hemorrhage of faithful in the Anglican Church could be greater than expected as a result of the approval of the consecration of women bishops.

The Catholic Church opposes the process that will lead to the introduction of a law, next July that will authorise the ordination of women bishops. …  Opening up the Episcopate to women will have negative consequences in terms of the Anglican Church’s dialogue with the Vatican. It seems pretty clear that the approval of women’s ordination will lead onto the ordination of openly gay bishops. This is the path the Anglican world has chosen to go down, inattentive to the ever growing communities that are choosing to return to Rome precisely as a result of this “liberal” change. …

Pretty nasty, and wrong. The assertion that “women’s ordination will lead onto the ordination of openly gay bishops” is questionable. The first woman bishop was the Rt. Rev. Penelope Jamieson who served as Bishop of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island from 1990 to 2004. There are, or have been, women bishops in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Cuba and the United States — all predating the July 2010 vote by the Church of England’s General Synod.

The op-ed pieces are all over the place. For an American reader what might be amazing is the number of stories. There are so many out there that I have space only to focus on one newspaper for this article.

In addition to its news reports, the Guardian offers five analyses pieces as well as a cartoon. The best is by Stephen Bates, the newspaper’s former religion reporter. If you have time to read just one piece from all those I cite, read this one. While I do not share his politics, I have been a long time admirer of his work. His story is fair, thorough (irritating in places) but also heartfelt. He has sympathy for the subject of his article, but remains committed to telling the truth. In short, great writing.

The archbishop’s biographer, Rupert Shortt, has a weaker story. A fan of Dr. Williams, his article presents only one side of this complex man — and also makes mistakes of fact when it moves away from the man to the issues.

Soon after his move to Lambeth Palace, the [Dr. Williams] urged [the pope] to kick-start stalled talks on reunion between Rome and Canterbury. Benedict’s condition for allowing this was that the Anglican communion should streamline its structures and start talking with a more united voice. Williams agreed; the covenant has formed a major element in his strategy.

No, that is not how it happened. The Anglican Covenant arose from an internal Anglican document called the Windsor Report — not from without.

Opponents describe [the Anglican Covenant] as an authoritarian measure at odds with traditional church polity. So far it has been supported in more conservative parts of the communion, especially Africa and Asia, but rejected elsewhere. If the Church of England itself refuses to endorse the covenant, the plan will probably be doomed.

Yes, if the CoE fails to endorse it, it will be doomed — the rest is questionable. The opponents who see the covenant as being too strict and “at odds” with the church’s traditional polity are the liberals. It is also not supported in the more conservative parts of the communion — the archbishops of the traditionalist coalition of Asian and African provinces last year said they could not support the covenant because it was too lenient.

All of the pieces stress the archbishop’s intellectual attainments — his brilliance. Amelia Hill also saw it as part of the problem.

But his intelligence – or, rather, his sublime confidence in his intelligence – has led directly to some of the crises that have marked his tumultuous decade as leader of a global Anglican communion sharply divided on issues of sexuality and gender.

From my experience in covering Dr. Williams for The Church of England Newspaper — which is what it sounds like, though it is not the official newspaper of the church, there is no such animal — Ms. Hill is correct. A number of Dr. Williams’ blunders arose from his refusal to take advice. The Sharia law fiasco being the most notable among many self-inflicted media messes.

Commentator Giles Fraser and the Guardian’s editorial also damned him with faint praise. Fraser writes from the perspective of a liberal activist who has been let down by one of his own.

One does not choose morality as one chooses cornflakes. So whilst his instincts may have been gay friendly, his increasing appreciation that the African church was dead against any accommodation with homosexuality made him side with the conservatives. He wanted a global Anglican community built around core values. And so, in effect, he became a split personality – with Williams the man at odds with Williams the archbishop. After the bitter Lambeth Conference of 1998, Williams, and several other bishops, made gay Christians a promise: “We pledge we will continue to reflect, pray and work for your full inclusion in the life of the church.” Unfortunately, it was a promise he would fail to keep.

The editorial board argued the job had become too big for the man.

Rowan Williams failed as archbishop of Canterbury, because the job description makes success impossible. But the announcement of his resignation makes clear that he failed at one particular impossible task he set himself: to hold together the Anglican communion. That gathering – now more of a dispersal – of 38 churches worldwide continued the schism between liberals and conservatives which has been under way since the 1990s. Both here and abroad, Dr Williams made enough sacrifices for unity to alienate his liberal supporters without satisfying his conservative enemies. But this is what he felt was his duty as archbishop, and in the patient and humble way he followed this thankless path, jeered at from left and right, he offered an example that not only Christians found attractive.

This is a defensible argument, but one I would not advance. It is reminiscent of editorials about Jimmy Carter circa 1979, and it also makes assumptions about liberals and conservatives that is not entirely straight forward. However this is not the place to wax eloquent about the byzantine world of church politics.

I expect the second wave will focus on who is likely to succeed Dr. Williams, and in a few weeks we will begin to see the pendulum move from favorable to unfavorable stories. But I must say, so far so good. An all round good job (exceptions noted.) And, this will keep me gainfully employed for months to come.

My concern, however, is how those outside of Anglican or British circles will be able to follow what is going on. From simple issues (What exactly is the Archbishop of Canterbury?) to the complex, (Why is the archbishop disliked by the left when he is an admitted “hairy lefty”?), these stories assume a degree of knowledge that is most likely not there. Even the British tabloid speculation as to who might be the next archbishop is based on an ill-founded assumption of how the process works.

What do you think GetReligion readers? Will this story catch on outside of English and Anglican circles? What hook might there be to catch a wider audience?

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  • Jerry

    First, thanks for the pointer to your preferred story. I was happy to see one of my notes in the “part 1″ fulfilled: mention of the Anglican covenant. I also think there’s truth in the cartoon you referenced.

    I also think it’s worth underlining your comments on La Stampa. It shows how Italian media can get the fact wrong. When I for grins looked at their English site, my opinion of them went down to the basement because of this story which asserts that the Shroud of Turin “at last” might have an explanation when in fact, it’s already proven to be much too young to be the image of the Christ although skeptics continue to try to explain away the evidence. So whatever else La Stampa might be, I would not rely on them for good reporting based on their Shroud article.

  • Michel

    You’ve got a great typo in your headline: Rowan Williams Exists. I have to admit, there were times when I doubted it.

  • tmatt

    Typo fixed. Thanks!

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: when in fact, it’s already proven to be much too young to be the image of the Christ although skeptics continue to try to explain away the evidence.

    No, that’s not true. As I understand it, the Shroud was damaged in the middle ages in a fire, and was repaired. The samples for carbon dating were taken from the repaired portion, so they don’t actually tell us anything about the age of the Shroud itself.

  • Julia

    Re: La Stampa

    Note that all the non-Vatican articles in this special section of the on-line newspaper called Vatican Insider are written with the angle of how outside events will affect the Vatican. Vaticanistas’ stock in trade is analysis of what’s going on and predicting what’s coming next at the Vatican – so there is almost always an element of opinion.

    It’s like reading Politico or Roll Call, which both write about Congress and the White and non-political news from the angle of how events affect Congress and the White House. For straight news, you look elsewhere.

    If you want a straight Italian news story about ++Williams stepping down, you should go to the regular pages of La Stampa.

    And I thought the La Stampa article was less “nasty” than the constant horrible stuff written about Catholic news events in the Times of London. I’m glad I now can’t get behind the pay-wall to see the latest scurrilous reporting

  • teahouse


    off topic but

    which asserts that the Shroud of Turin “at last” might have an explanation when in fact, it’s already proven to be much too young to be the image of the Christ although skeptics continue to try to explain away the evidence

    It is most definitely not proven to be too young. Yes, it has been carbon dated to around 1300 but there are quite a few pierces evidence that also need to be considered (but is mostly ignored by Shroud skeptics), which, together with methodical concerns about the test, put that result into question.

    Funny when scientific skepticism is suddenly disallowed.

  • teahouse


    I agree with you.

    Sure, La Stampa views the situation under a specific angle and under that angle, the article is not bad (the factual errors aren’t that glaring).

    You are also spot on on The Tabloid Times.

  • Fr John
  • Julia

    Great to see George on Anglican Unscripted.
    Very interesting assessments of the owner of the “vigorous” eyebrows.