Rowan Williams – a tough act to follow

Now that the Crown Nomination Commission is in full swing tasked with the job of choosing the next Archbishop of Canterbury, there’s plenty being written and discussed on the subject, so I thought I may as well jump on the bandwagon too.

If you don’t know who the front-runners are or what their theological leanings are then the BBC, Channel 4 News and The Guardian have all produced their own idiot’s guides to those most likely to get the job.  The Guardian’s is even interactive to help you decide who you would choose!  As there are no nominations presented to the commission, the final choice could potentially come from a wide list of bishops, although in reality only a handful stand a chance.

Even though it’s never going to happen the thought of becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury fills me with dread.  In a recent poll conducted earlier this month over half of respondents agreed that Rowan Williams has been a good leader, which compared to most of our politicians’ current approval ratings is pretty impressive.  Yet during his time in the post Williams has been criticised repeatedly for being too hard or soft, too liberal or evangelical, too outspoken, too left-wing and a whole lot more.  It really shouldn’t be surprising given the nature of the job and all that it entails.  As Williams’ said a while back, the post of Archbishop of Canterbury is one of ”immense demands” and his successor will need the ”constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros”.

The Church of England has produced a prayer for the Crown Nominations Commission and is asking all who care about this appointment to pray that the commission who meet again today make the right choice.  I would urge you to spend at least a few moments doing this.

The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury is so wide ranging that I am continually amazed that Rowan Williams has found time to do it all and even write books at the same time.

With this blog’s focus on the relationship between the Church and politics, it seems right to consider what that will mean for Williams’ successor.  Fortunately George Pitcher who was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary for public affairs from 2010-2011 has written an excellent article on the subject in this week’s New Statesman.  Here are some extracts from his piece:

Lambeth Palace is treated as another chamber of parliament on the south bank of the Thames. It follows that the next archbishop, due to be announced shortly, walks into a highly political job. But should it be so? Should the archbishop want it to be so?

In Faith in the Public Square, his last book as archbishop, Williams calls the Church a “political seminar . . . God transforms society and not just human individuals”. This theme characterised his decade in office. Last year, while I was working for him, I heard him say in one of the speeches included in the book that “it’s not a matter of the Church binding its vision to the agenda of this or that party, not a matter of the Church creating a political party to embody its vision and its priorities. Much more, it’s a matter of the Christian gospel motivating a grass-roots politics and activism of generosity and mutuality.”

We start, therefore, with a paradox – the Church of England is deeply rooted in British political life, yet it transcends party politics. Williams has managed this difficult relationship with the nation’s politics remarkably well. With carefully chosen interventions, the outrage of politicians and in some quarters of the media may be seen to have demonstrated that he has got this aspect of his job bang on.

It’s a tough act to follow. Whoever succeeds him in the early days of 2013 will need to maintain the momentum that Williams has established, without being taken hostage by any parliamentary faction. It’s a prospect complicated by the politically atypical nature of the Christian world-view. If one is to generalise, Christian politics are often economically progressive and socially conservative. As Andy Flannagan, director of the Christian Socialist Movement, puts it: “The reality is that the group of passionate believers working with Citizens UK on a living wage campaign are also campaigning for a financial transaction tax, while also running a drug rehab centre and also campaigning for the definition of marriage to remain the same. Where do you fit those folks into your broadsheet?”

“The office can’t help but be thought of as political,” a very senior Church official told me recently. “Nor can its incumbent operate in a space hermetically sealed from the world of regular politics – precisely because the heart of the archbishop’s calling is to articulate the teachings of the gospel about how we as individuals form societies that work together for the common good. Salvation doesn’t come in isolation.”

George pitcher also quotes Steven Timms MP as saying, ““It seems to me that, with Rowan as Archbishop, there has been a new intellectual self-confidence about the Church of England. In a period when the question ‘Where do our values come from?’ has been a pressing one, his has been a distinctive, compelling and authoritative voice.”

There’s no denying that whoever eventually fills Williams’ shoes has an incredibly demanding job to do.  It may well turn out to be a far harder one than Williams had to face.  The increasing demands of the Anglican Communion and the Church of England could easily become a distraction from the need to challenge politicians and hold them to account over the decisions they make in these testing times.  Our country needs an Archbishop who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty in the political arena.  Back in 2010 Gordon Brown described Christianity as “the conscience of our country”.  If the Church’s voice is muted we are all worse off as a result.  We need a new Archbishop of Canterbury who will act as a key figurehead of the Christian faith bringing the hope of the Gospel into public view with confidence and courage.

For the sake of our country and the Christian faith, can we expect any less?

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Categories: Archbishop of Canterbury, Church, Faith in society

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1 reply

  1. Hear, hear! Gillan. Or rather, ‘Here, Here, and one full of the Holy Spirit and walking in close step with the Lord’. An lot to expect and ask for, but with Him nothing’s impossible…

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