Rowan Williams - a tribute
Being New Year's Eve, His Grace usually thanks God for the past year and prophesies the most significant events of the next. But (being manifestly fallible) His Grace makes a poor seer, so has decided no longer to indulge in necromancy. But here is what is known:
On 10th January 2013, the College of Canons will meet in the Chapter House of the Cathedral to elect Bishop Justin as the new Archbishop, having received a Congé d’Elire from the Crown.
On 4th February 2013, a ceremony will be held in St Paul’s Cathedral where the Dean of Canterbury will confirm to an episcopal commission that Bishop Justin has been elected according to statute; and the present Bishop of Durham will then legally become the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury.
On 21st March 2013, Bishop Justin’s Enthronement in Canterbury Cathedral will follow, when he will be placed in the diocesan throne in the Cathedral Quire, and in the Chair of St Augustine, by the Dean.
Until that date, it has been decided that His Grace will return to take charge of the Church of England, so he's got 80 days to sort out a few messes. He wishes to begin his second stint at Lambeth Palace by paying tribute to his immediate predecessor.
Opinions on ++Rowan fall into two main camps: on the one hand, there are those who remember him for perpetual near-schism over gay priests; further near-schism over women bishops; paralysis and inaction over the Pope's 'imaginative pastoral response' of the Ordinariate; and the folly of the announcement about the inevitability of sharia law in the UK.
On the other hand, there are those who pay tribute to the towering intellect of the theologian, philosopher, poet and dear friend.
His Grace is not going to add substantially to either. As with all biography and hagiography, the truth lies somewhere between the two, and this blog has attempted to bridge the gulf a number of times (see here, here, here and here (and not forgetting here]).
The reality is that people have been prophesying the demise of the Church of England since it was established: it was once referred to as being ‘crucified between two thieves’ - the respective fanaticism and superstition of ‘the Puritans and the Papists’. There is a modern parallel with a church now suspended between the decline in institutional religion and the burgeoning of generalised ‘spirituality’; between the secularisation of society and the plurality of faith communities. The postmodern context is marked by diversity, fragmentation and all that is transitory; beliefs and practices are culturally relative, and Anglicanism has ceased to be supra-cultural or catholic.
In a farewell documentary 'Goodbye to Canterbury' to be broadcast on New Year's Day, Dr Williams compares the iconoclasm of the Reformation to the destruction of our contemporary false gods: "When today's idols, false or otherwise, are built up and smashed down, I'm glad to have this place to retreat to, and remember that these are arguments that never go away. It's a mistake we make too easily to think we've progressed between the moral questions of the past, but what we can put behind us is institutions that have failed."
He reflects: "Institutions develop because people put a lot of trust in them, they meet real needs, they represent important aspirations, whether it's monasteries, media, or banks, people begin by trusting these institutions, and gradually the suspicion develops that actually they're working for themselves, not for the community. At the end of the middle ages, nobody would ever have expected the monasteries to vanish from the scene within a generation – yet they did, change does happen."
Rowan Williams has perpetuated the via media for a further decade, against all the odds and contra all the prophets of doom. Whether or not you agreed with him, you must concede that this is evidence of his considerable ability to sustain dialogue and relationship and keep people in communion with one another. It might be imperfect, but if the Lord's command for us to love one another means anything, it must be that we remain friendly (indeed, loving) when we do not agree.
The Church of England has always struggled with the tension between affirmation of the gospel and assimilation to the prevailing culture; between transformation and inculturation. Establishment commits the Church to full involvement in civil society and to making a contribution to the public discussion of issues that have moral or spiritual implications. If Rowan Williams has shown us anything, it is that these cannot easily be reduced to soundbites, neat headlines or trite blogposts: profound matters demand profound contemplation and an articulation which does them justice. More often than not, Dr Williams has been purposely woefully misunderstood and misreported by a ferociously judgmental and increasingly hostile anti-Anglican press. His successor will fare no better: it is the zeitgeist.
We are no longer in an age, if ever we were, where the Archbishop of Canterbury can impose a morality or a doctrine of God. Archbishop Rowan saw his primary function as being the acutely political one of calling the state to account by obstinately asking the Government about its accountability and the justification of its priorities. He may sometimes have been a thorn in the Prime Minister's side; he might even have been a 'disaster' on the political front and occasionally infuriating. But being the very incarnation of the command to love, he was always sensitive, vulnerable and respectful. He has been and remains a true Prince of the Church.