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Appreciating Rowan Williams' Leadership

Posted: 03/16/2012 5:04 pm

Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, announced from London this morning that he was stepping down from his post as head of the Anglican Communion -- almost 80 million Christians -- at the end of 2012. He'll be returning to the classroom and to academia as Master of Cambridge's Magdalene College, returning to his writing and his role as one of the world's leading theologians, and leaving behind the dueling churches of the Anglican Communion he has tried to unite for the past decade.

For Christians in the States, this may seem like a remote decision that has little to do with us. Some Anglican and Episcopal progressives on my Facebook feed today are applauding the decision, thinking that the Archbishop had betrayed one or another of their causes by not more ardently championing them. Some conservatives are also celebrating, knowing that typically a liberal Archbishop of Canterbury is followed by a more conservative one. All of these angles of vision are tremendously limited; the stepping down of this Archbishop is momentous, and reflects the tremendous difficulties of bridging the religious, political and cultural divides in world Christianity.

Myself, I am lamenting -- and grateful. I have known Rowan Williams personally for five years, and count him as a close friend, so what I say should be read in that light. I think of him as perhaps the preeminent English-language theologian living today, as well as a gifted poet and playwright and a close observer of Western culture. These parts of his identity have had to take a back seat during the past decade because of what he and I refer to as his "day job" as symbolic head of the third largest denomination of Christians on the planet.

Although we have generally avoided talking about his day job in favor of discussing our writing, our families, and our current passions for pop culture and literature, I have known from the beginning that the job Rowan Williams took on 10 years ago is one of the hardest on the planet. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the nominal head of the Anglican Church, but unlike the Pope, he is not designated the leader of his Church or given the structural authority to lead. He is asked to hold together almost 80 million very disparate Christians, to reconcile -- for example -- homophobic African Anglicans and gay American and Canadian ones through the power of his words and ideas, and through the once-a-decade convocation of leaders called the Lambeth Conference.

In 2008, Rowan Williams planned a Lambeth experience that drew on the great strength of the Anglican tradition, the fact that our denomination is organized around common liturgy, a Book of Common Prayer. Anglicans pray together; common worship is our orthodoxy, much more than any beliefs we might or might not hold about social issues. Those bishops and archbishops who chose to attend the 2008 Lambeth were united in their high regard for the preaching, teaching and prayer that the Archbishop planned and offered, but many conservative church leaders chose to hold an alternative meeting in Jerusalem rather than attend. It was a sublime example of what some traditions call "preaching to the choir." Those who most needed to be there didn't come; those who were on board or on the fence didn't need to be convinced so powerfully.

And there is the dilemma for Rowan Williams, and for whatever Archbishop of Canterbury may follow: He has no authority to compel, only power to influence, and even as erudite and persuasive an Archbishop as Rowan Williams can only convince those who are willing to listen.

Years from now, Rowan Williams' biographer argues, we will know how supremely effective this Archbishop has been at a patently impossible job. Elsewhere, the Guardian notes how Williams is considered "perhaps the most intellectually distinguished archbishop of recent times." If one such as this -- a deeply good, holy, intellectual communicator -- cannot bring together a deeply divided Church, who or what can? I was trained as a priest, studied church dynamics and problem solving, conflict management and pastoral issues, and when I look at the problems he has faced, I can only throw up my hands.

If Rowan Williams could not convince followers of Christ to love each other, I cannot conceive of anyone -- or anything -- that will.

I said I was lamenting, yet grateful. I lament because I hoped that the Archbishop would have many more tangible achievements to put on the positive side of the ledger as he leaves. Those of us who voted for Barack Obama may have similar feelings as he nears the end of his term. We expected great things from a brilliant individual, yet the systems of politics and personality have shown us how difficult it is for even a brilliant individual to accomplish anything worthwhile in a human institution.

I am also grateful. I often say that those who seek to be supreme leaders are rarely qualified for it. Rowan Williams, for his part, accepted this call, knowing full well how difficult it would be. He, who is most-suited temperamentally for the deep one-to-one conversation, the sermon delivered from the pulpit, and for the long hours at the writer's desk, took on this most public of offices, and vowed to use his considerable skills as speaker and theologian to try and draw the Body of Christ closer together.

He has also, as I have noted at Patheos, used this exalted pulpit to speak about things that matter -- war and peace, human rights, religious freedom, justice. In recent years, especially, he has spoken as a representative of Jesus should, arguing against the cuts of a British government largely trying to balance its budget on the backs of the poor, the needy and of students. Some took these comments as political; more understood them as purely Christian. Jesus stood up for those out of power, those who were marginalized, those who were most in need, and Rowan Williams was simply emulating Jesus in these things.

After the end of the year, I look forward to some long quiet weekends in Cambridge with my friend; imagine trying to schedule quality time with a friend who is one of the busiest and most recognizable figures in the world.

But all the same, I am sorry he is stepping down. Rowan Williams is a good man with a compassionate heart, and he is exactly the sort of person who ought to be a Christian leader. The next Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever he is, will inherit more problems than he can solve -- and step into shoes bigger than he can yet imagine.