Since taking office, Archbishop Rowan Williams has been faced with near constant criticism from every direction. For liberals he seemed a traitor to their cause, while conservatives viewed him with suspicion or down-right disdain. Not much has changed in this, though in a best case scenerio his leadership could be seen as providing space for the formation of a moderate coalition within world-wide Anglicanism which has a chance of making it through the current conflicts and affirming the Anglican Covenant while shedding the folks on the extremes of left and right. While many have hammered Williams for not leading at all, I’ve come to the conclusion that he is, in fact, leading and leading in a manner that is consistent with his theology–not an easy thing for anyone to do, let alone an Archbishop in an established Church and head of a conflicted Communion. What is clear is that Archbishop Williams has inhabited Lambeth Palace in a time of definite change, challenge and transition. It has been a period of setting course into the future, even if the destination will remain murky for years to come.
In fact, Williams is best viewed as part of the rebellion against the rebellion of the 1970s, working alongside his colleagues Oliver O’Donovan and N.T. Wright to bring the Church of England away from the arid liberalism of Honest to God and Don Cupitt and back to its roots in Word and sacrament, prayer and worship, tradition and Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy. While many of his professors busied themselves with demythologizing the gospels and re-presenting Christian doctrine as anthropology, Williams insisted that Christianity at its core is answerable to God’s initiative, and most particularly so in the unique revelation of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Very much against the grain of British academic theology of the day, Williams’ first book, The Wound of Knowledge, showed through relating the history of Christian spirituality that “the theologian,” as the fourth-century monk Evagrius said, “is the one who prays”—which is to say that theology must always grow out of the encounter in worship and prayer with the surprising and extra nos Word of Christ, rather than taking its agenda from modernity. And in his second book, Resurrection, Williams showed that the church’s message of forgiveness and new life rests entirely on its real encounter with the risen Christ, who unexpectedly returned to his disciples from beyond the grave.
Likewise, although critics have pointed justly to a certain degree of fuzziness on the sources of authority (Scripture, but not quite? Or the church’s tradition and language, but what parts from which church?), Williams has always been forthright that the church’s authority is God in Christ, who speaks through Scripture, sacrament, and our ongoing reception of the same.
Arguably, it is just here where Williams parts company most with theological liberals—he insists that the first task of theology is to listen to God’s revealed and redeeming voice, and he truly has sought to hear this voice in Scripture and tradition. By thus placing Williams in his proper theological context, Shortt has performed a genuine service to those who would prematurely write off Williams as just another Anglican liberal. While Williams does not always line up with traditional positions, Shortt shows that it is simply misleading to view him as of a piece with the standard liberalism represented by Gene Robinson and Katherine Jefferts Schori.
All that is not to say, of course, that Williams is beyond criticism. Shortt certainly does not regard him as such, and points in particular to Williams’ views on politics and economics. One friend of Rowan’s, according to Shortt, averred that Williams’ politics “have always come out of a different and less sophisticated part of him.” The chief trouble, as Shortt sees it, is that Williams has not shown himself to possess a particularly subtle voice on the right use of state power, or a very helpful understanding of the genuine benefits of free-market economics for the welfare of the world’s poor. More often than not, Williams is prone to broad condemnations of war and globalization.
Shortt also notes, however, that Williams has elsewhere been quite critical of the “childishness” of utopian politics, which wrongly supposes that hard choices do not have to be made about the distribution of scarce goods, and that peace will simply break out when social constraints are removed. The puzzle, for Shortt and many other observers, is why Williams has not followed through on his own best insights.
Williams has also been criticized for lack of emphasis on the central truths of the Christian faith, and for pointing too much to how the gospel unsettles our judgment and not enough to the blessed assurance given to the saints. Shortt quotes Eamon Duffy, who argues that Rowan’s version of the Christian tradition at times “can seem like a never-endingly argumentative seminar, constant upheaval without any point of rest or leverage.” The judgment is, to a certain extent, sound. Particularly before his enthronement as archbishop, Williams’ work gave great weight to the apophatic moment in theology—to the need for our words about God to be open to judgment and the possibility of saying more.
But in his new role as the most visible Christian bishop in a very secular and uncomprehending England, Williams appears to have taken this criticism to heart. As Shortt points out, his recent book Tokens of Trust is a clear and winsome introduction to the basics of Christian faith; his short guide to the desert fathers, Where God Happens, was very well received; and his most recent book on Dostoyevsky’s fiction is (viewed from one angle) a profound apologetic for the Christian faith in response to the shallow and naively optimistic atheism of Richard Dawkins. Williams the archbishop, it appears, is not the same man as Williams the professor.
This has also shown itself to be true in Rowan’s conduct during the ongoing Anglican struggles about homosexuality. It is well known that as a professor Williams had been quite forthright in his support of same-sex relations, but he changed his tune after becoming archbishop. Many liberals have seen this as Williams’ great betrayal of their cause, charging him with giving in to conservative bullies or of sacrificing truth and justice for unity. Shortt, for his part, makes it clear that he believes Williams ought to have taken a firmer line on the advancement of same-sex unions. But all the same, he does step back and allow Williams to make his defense.
As a bishop, Williams believes that it is his responsibility to teach what the church teaches. “The bishop,” Rowan argues, “does not make decisions, doctrinal or disciplinary, alone: The church decides, and the bishop’s unique role is to guarantee all that the church decides.”