Rowan Williams: People before politics?

By Simon Barrow
March 19, 2012

Time and again in the midst of "events, dear boy, events" (Harold Macmillan's famous response to an interrogation about what is the biggest difficulty in being Prime Minister), I keep coming back to Dutch theologian Harry Kuitert's observation that while "everything is politics, politics is not everything".

In other words, while nothing in life can be said to be innocent of the willful struggle for power, the willful struggle for power is not the be-all and end-all of life. At least, it isn't and can't be if you are a follower of Jesus, in whose life, death and (nonviolent) vindication by God we see the power of love eventually triumphing over the love of power. Those are the true "terms of engagement" for the Christian in the world.

Such are the thoughts that shape my initial response to the news that Dr Rowan Williams will cease to be Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of 2012.

Of course the first questions that fly at you in a media environment are quite different ones like, "What did you think of his time as ABC?", "Has he been a success or a failure?", "Did you agree with him?" and, "Who will/should succeed him?" All good posers... if less important and thoughtful than they may think themselves to be. But all, please note, deeply political questions. The definition of success and failure, for example, is far too easily manipulated into, "Did he help our group advance?" or, "Did he further the interests of the institution?" To which the answers are more easily 'no' than 'yes', given the way things are in the world.

Of course, I have views about all those questions and many others. (One only counts if one has "views", it seems, and in turn the "views" one has only count if they are more trenchant or more angular than others', unless the others are "famous", in which case it is news that they have said anything at all, no matter how banal. But I digress...).

The most important thing to ask about Rowan Williams, or any "leader", it seems to me - and undoubtedly the most difficult - is, "What kind of person is s/he, and is this what we want to become?" Those are questions about character and virtue, and possibly teleology. To answer them requires personal, not just abstract, knowledge. They cannot easily be answered by one person alone but require shared information and discernment (which implies the kind of community and process where that might be possible), and they are about a rationality where knowledge is shaped by sense-making love (a longing for wholeness, and for the other to be truly other so that the self can be truly self) rather than the acquisition of data alone.

In these terms, if not always in political categories or measurable outcomes, I have never doubted that Rowan Williams is a good person and that the underlying qualities he embodies are worthy ones. Then again, has he valued, in decision-making if not intention, church unity over justice for those at the margins? Probably. But that is as much if not more to do with how the role he has inhabited has been constructed as it is to do with his own fallibilities - about which he has always sought to be as refreshingly honest as one possibly can be in a public role. That isn't an excuse, it's an observation.

Not long before Dr Williams was selected to be the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, I was asked whether I thought the Church of England should choose him. My reply was along the lines of, "It would be crazy not. But given that the C of E is indeed crazy, I imagine it won't." I was proved wrong. Some gifts are impossible to refuse. So then a week afterwards I was asked, "Do you think it's good that Rowan Williams has been made Archbishop of Canterbury?" What I found myself saying back was, "What would be really good would be if, for even a brief time, the post of Archbishop of Canterbury could be made to be more like Rowan Williams really is." In other words, for the gifts the person truly brings to take centre stage over C of E prestige and expectation.

On that second point, I think I've been proved right, both by commission and omission. In my defence, the insight isn't original. It's what we ought to know from being baptised into the body of Christ anyway, but are very practised at forgetting.

What has happened with Rowan Williams, I rather reckon, is that a too-dysfunctional body chose a functional leader and then realised that too much of it didn't really want to be functional. It wanted to go on fighting for control. In which case, it becomes easy to blame a leader whose model of leadership is so quiet, and whose primary gifts are not administration and acting politically.

Equally, of course, just because you are shot at from all angles doesn't mean you're right. Dr Williams has not always been right. None of us have. He may even have been crucially wrong in some areas - not least in his instinct that being Archbishop means putting aside what can too easily be dubbed "personal views", as if the Holy Spirit recognised such distinctions. But to his credit (and cost) Rowan hasn't made "being right" the most important task to be undertaken, and nor has he or could he have resolved all the problems of his Church by being a bit louder, knocking heads together more, voicing his own perspectives, or taking sides more. That's the awkward truth. Or at least the part of it we find most difficult to face in the impatience for change.

In short, the real issues in regard to the Church of England do not concern whether a particular Archbishop got it right or got it wrong. They concern what kind of church it is and wants to be, now and in the future. A kind of 'state department of religion'? A deployer of assets along conventional lines? An adjunct to the establishment? A chaplain to might and power? Or something else, something rather different....?

Those, I believe, are the deeper choices. Rowan Williams probably was and is too much of a pastor and an academic (in themselves, thoroughly beneficial things) to 'take on' the institution at those questions politically. At least, head on. Which in one sense may be a pity. In another sense, however, it was not his gift, and the questions run so much deeper than the role of ABC ever can. So instead they become the key part of 'what remains' after any period of leadership gives way to another.

What also remains, if those involved give space for it, is the legacy of Rowan Williams the good person. The human person. God's person. The person for whom people come first. Rightly understood and received, that legacy could be very important spiritually and politically. Wrongly understood, or not understood at all, and it will be 'business as usual' in the Church of England, the Anglican Communion and the churches more widely. As always, we have laid before us the choice between life and death. Choosing life isn't as easy or obvious as it seems. That's why it takes patience, learning, prayer and time; as well as something more urgent for those who don't have time, because they are being crushed.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He worked for the Church of England at diocesan and national level from 1991-1996 and is now gloriously free of it in Scotland. With Rowan Williams, though with no prior planning by either, they both contributed to the book William Stringfellow in Anglo-American Perspective, edited by Anthony Dancer (Ashgate, 2005). His chapter is entitled 'Speaking nonsense to power'. Dr Williams' is called 'Being biblical persons'. They have similar themes, it might be suggested. Simon also contributed a chapter entitled 'Will Rowan Williams rescue us from idiocy?' in the book he edited in 2008 entitled Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia). It has just been re-published here:

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