by Richard Hall
from Signs of the Times No. 24 - Jan 2007
Back in November the Archbishop of Canterbury gave an interview to the Catholic Herald. This was just before his visit to the Vatican. Inevitably he was asked about the ordination of women and the obstacle that that has created to unity with the Roman Catholic Church.
His comments in reply seemed on the face of it to be lukewarm: he thought that the ordination of women had not "transformed or renewed the Church of England in spectacular ways", but equally had not "corrupted or ruined [it] in spectacular ways". He also said that he "could just about envisage a situation in which, over a very long period, the Anglican Church thought about [women's ordination] again", although "practically" there could be no going back. He nevertheless made quite clear his firm conviction that the ordination of women is right.
All this was translated in the Catholic Herald headline on 16th November into "Anglicans could 'think again' on women priests, says Williams". The Daily Telegraph used an almost identical headline in broadcasting this interpretation to a much wider readership. Dr Williams responded with a short statement suggesting that there had been "wilful misrepresentation" of his views and concluding, "My convictions mean that I feel nothing less than full support for the decision the Church of England made in 1992 and appreciation of the priesthood exercised." On 19th November the Independent on Sunday carried a thoughtful and largely sympathetic "Sunday Profile" by Peter Stanford in which he concluded that the failure by Dr Williams to send out clear signals on difficult issues and his alienation of liberals without winning over traditionalists and evangelicals could well mean that he would return to academic life after a "disharmonious Lambeth Conference in 2008". In this article I want to reflect briefly on why some people are questioning Dr Williams's suitability for the job and also on the implications arising from the very act of questioning.
One understanding of what happened is that Dr Williams made remarks to the Catholic Herald journalist that were capable of being extracted as free-standing soundbites (and distorted in the process). If the Archbishop insists on expressing himself in a complex, academic way that is scrupulously fair to those with whom he disagrees, he is bound to lay himself open to these misadventures; but if he did not so express himself he would not be the Rowan Williams that so many people respect and love. One has to read him so very, agonisingly, carefully though. For example, I myself nearly misquoted him in my opening paragraph. What he was saying to the Catholic Herald was that the ordination of women had not transformed or renewed the church spectacularly; he was not making that assertion about women priests, so the allegation that he slighted women priests is incorrect. It is worth commenting here, incidentally, that the strongest affirmation of the rightness of the ordination of women is not to single out "women priests" for special praise but to refuse to regard them as a separate entity at all.
But the issues raised by November's episode and the ensuing media comment do not end there. It is becoming increasingly evident that Dr Williams distinguishes sharply between what he personally believes or would like to see in the Church and what he thinks he can or should say when speaking as Archbishop. In the concluding section of The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today: A Reflection for the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Anglican Communion (2006) he denies that the Anglican Communion's disagreements can be resolved by an Archbishop's decree and sees his role as follows: "The Archbishop of Canterbury presides and convenes in the Communion, and may do what this document attempts to do, which is to outline the theological framework in which a problem should be addressed; but he must always act collegially, with the bishops of his own local Church and with the primates and the other instruments of communion." That is true, but surely it does not have to preclude a rather more direct, even passionate, advocacy of what Dr Williams personally believes.
Finally, what are the implications of questioning the nature of Dr Williams's episcopacy?
A bishop is technically elected by the chapter of his cathedral, but this is in no sense a democratic process. He is consecrated for office and serves, in the words used in legal documents, "by divine permission". In the 21st century we shall not say that it is therefore blasphemous to wish for a bishop's resignation, for we rightly value freedom of thought and speech. The consecrated status of a bishop's office should however remind church members to be on their guard against any tendency to satirise the Archbishop on account of his style or to trivialise his office in the same way as has befallen politicians. Moreover let us face the implications were Dr Williams to resign prematurely as a result, at least in part, of unthinking criticism from within the Church. They are disturbing. The Church of England would be saying that to be a world-class theologian, to have been a successful bishop and archbishop in the Church in Wales and above all to be a holy man is not sufficient qualification to be our leader. We'd be saying that we needed a PR whizz-kid and a modern chief executive type, we'd be falling into the trap of resisting the leadership of those with whom we disagree about a few things (even when we agree with them about much more), and we'd be treating someone as a mere instrument, a means to an end, instead of as a God-given human being. That would be a sad day indeed.