Rowan Williams exits Canterbury, round 1

Words cannot describe how much I pity the journalist who has to try to write — in roughly 18 inches of type — a mainstream news report on the decision by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to step down from his beleaguered throne at the ripe old age of 61.

Has there ever been a religious leader who disappointed so many different people in so many different ways?

Yet, even as I say that, I freely acknowledge that he will be remembered as the unlucky fellow who — through his willingness to make Anglican compromise after Anglican compromise, to shout “Peace! Peace!” when there was known peace — will be known managed to hold the global Anglican Communion “together,” whatever that word means, when the odds were totally stacked against him.

This is precisely the reality that is captured in The New York Times story on this long-awaited announcement.

The lede is long, long, long and, brothers and sisters, it had to be.

LONDON – After a decade of struggling inconclusively to keep the worldwide Anglican Communion from breaking apart over such intractable issues as women clergy, gay bishops and same-sex marriage, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, announced on Friday that he will step down at the end of year to take up a high position Cambridge University, switching from a turbulent era in the church to academia.

This story has holes in it, in large part because of length issues. However, I am sure that many Anglicans — on the left and right, for radically different reasons — would have liked to have seen at least one paragraph that captured the degree to which Williams had once been a well-published voice in favor of the modernization of Anglican theological on sexual morality. I believe that it’s likely that he will veer back to the candid left, now that he has stepped down.

However, he was willing to shelve many of his own views in order to accomplish one major goal, which was to avoid being the archbishop who sat in the throne of Canterbury while the Anglican Communion exploded into formal, as opposed to informal, schism. He is stepping down without having to look the queen in the eye and deliver that particular bad news.

The most serious flaw in this rather solid story is that it never delivers a fact paragraph or two containing the hard, cold statistics that face his successor in terms of life in local pews and at local altars.

As we have long stressed here at GetRelgion, coverage of the Anglican wars is incomplete without some acknowledgement that the conflicts are unfolding at the local, regional, national and global levels. In this case, at the very least, readers needed to know what is statistically going on (a) in the pews of British churches and (b) at the global level, where First World churches (mostly liberal in doctrinal approach) are in rapid decline, while Global South churches (mostly conservative on doctrine) are experiencing rapid growth.

Instead we simply read that Williams:

… will be leaving a church struggling with dwindling congregations and torn by corrosive debates over issues ranging from homosexuality to the role of women in the church. …

In his decade in office, Dr. Williams has never seemed a confrontational figure, seeking consensus on the most contentious issues coursing through the church at a time when the institution has also been challenged by some secular Britons seeking the exclusion of faith from public life, akin to the concept of laïcité in France.

Indeed, a recent survey conducted by a secular group found that almost a half of those identifying themselves as Christians had attended no church services over the past year other than those for weddings, funerals and baptisms. Many were not familiar with the Bible, the survey found, and the proportion of Britons identifying themselves as Christians had slipped from around three-quarters to just over a half.

And then there’s the slight confusion over the meaning of the word “liberal” in this description of the recent controversies over the “occupy” demonstrations near St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Tell me, what does the word “liberal” mean in this context in terms of creedal doctrines?

Within days of setting up a tented camp, virtually on the cathedral steps, the occupiers drew adversaries from among many of the most powerful people in Britain, including Prime Minister David Cameron and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson — who supported legal moves for the protesters’ eviction — and bankers and financiers who saw the camp as a threat to London’s appeal as a financial center.

A rancorous debate within the Church of England had hard-liners retreating in the face of a powerful group of liberal theologians led by Dr. Williams, who argued for an acceptance of the protesters and their cause. The liberals saw the protest as an opportunity to steer the church toward a renewed embrace of Gospel teachings on social justice.

To me, that sounds like a clash between political liberals and political conservatives, not between doctrinal liberals and doctrinal conservatives. That’s a completely different situation, in terms of traditions and ancient doctrines, than the clashes over the moral status of sex outside of marriage or the evolution of the Anglican priesthood. That’s a different level of debate, compared with clashes over the Virgin Birth of whether Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.

However, like I said at the beginning, this was an almost impossible story to write for a daily newspaper on this side of the Atlantic.

So, how did the British papers do? Hold that thought. That’s Father George Conger’s beat.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    This is one area where the news reports read very very differently depending on the source. For example, I think that this quote should be part of every news story:

    “I would hope that my successor has the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros,”

    And I think the Anglican Covenant that is mentioned in the Washington Post story should also be included along with the details given there because it’s a helpful marker to understand what is going one.

  • Jeff

    The criterion for success in coming slew of stories on Williams’s resignation is going to be how well they make clear his theological distance not only from orthodox Anglicans who want to stay faithful to traditional Anglican teaching on sexual morality but also from revisionists (especially Episcopalians) who not only want to abandon that traditional teaching but also are apt to hold highly heterodox positions on matters like “the Virgin Birth,” whether Jesus Christ was the Son of God incarnate and “whether [he] was raised from the dead.” The key thing to be conveyed about Williams is his status as a virtual party-of-one within Anglican debate: (tacitly) revisionist on sexual morality but (seemingly) orthodox on everything else. The fact that Williams was also an outspoken political as opposed to theological left-liberal, and in fact more outspoken on politics than on theology, will only make the task of conveying that harder for the MSM, which is already overly tempted to reduce everything to politics, and to tell every story through it own partisan left-liberal political lens.

  • Fr John

    I keep waiting for these guys to comment!

  • Jeff

    Fr John,

    I think most orthodox Anglicans — and maybe most revisionists, too — are so, so *over* Rowan Williams, after all these years, that they may not, in fact, have much to say.

    Everyone respects him as an academic theologian, no one respects him without reservation in his role as ABC, everyone wishes him well, but no one is sad to see him go — however fearful the orthodox at least ought to be about whomever it is who might come next.

  • Howard

    I think Jeff is right.

    It would be nice to see a story comparing him with Gorbachev, another man who famously tried to have it both ways. Both made the mistake of appealing to a compromise position that no one else accepted. In Gorbachev’s case, his institution (the Soviet Union) fell apart on his departure. It will be interesting to see what happens to the Anglican Communion.

  • tmatt


    That’s pretty much what I was trying to say. Trapped in the middle of almost everyone. Totally compromised.