March 12, 2011

Why Is Rowan Such a Disappointment?

Arms of the See of CanterburyYesterday, some friends and I were discussing how Rowan Williams has been such a disappointment as Archbishop of Canterbury. Whereas many of us expected him to be a progressive primate who would move both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion forward, he has instead been an instrument of reaction under whose leadership the Anglican Communion threatens to either fall apart or to descend into irrelevance. Those of us who welcomed the end of George Carey’s tenure had high hopes for the new resident of Lambeth Palace, but those hopes were not to be realized. We prayed that the Jeffrey John affair would prove an aberration, but Rowan’s missteps began happening with such predictable regularity that that it soon became statistically impossible to credit them either to momentary lapses in judgment or simple bad luck.

What went wrong? The answer, I think, is twofold.

First, Rowan Williams, in becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, reached his level of incompetence. He became yet another illustration of the Peter Principle. He was a fine writer and theologian, one who seemed to work well with others. When he became Archbishop of Canterbury, however, it became clear that what he was not was a competent politician, and that’s what he needed to be, what Archbishops of Canterbury have often needed to be. (Some spectacular failures in this regard come immediately to mind.)

His abandonment of his friend Jeffrey John proved a fatal mistake from which Rowan has never recovered. He no doubt thought—I offer the most generous analysis here—that sacrificing John would buy him goodwill among Evangelicals. As any seasoned politician might have told him, however, he was merely throwing bloody meat to the sharks. He proved that he could be intimidated, and those who should have been considered his theological enemies were quick to learn the lesson of the demonstration.

Second, Rowan came to the bizarre conclusion that he should put aside his own personal beliefs—perhaps even his own personality—in order to play the role of Archbishop of Canterbury as he understood it. It is this completely unexpected decision that has so confounded many of the people who recommended him for his current post. After all, Rowan was selected as Archbishop of Canterbury for his accomplishments, his personality, and, presumably, for his personal beliefs.

One can hardly fault the Archbishop of Canterbury for trying to keep the Anglican Communion from disintegrating; doing so is surely a task entailed by his job description. In abandoning his own beliefs, however, he has allowed others to frame the rationale for Communion unity—the establishment of a reactionary worldwide church distinctively un-Anglican in its ethos—and his rudimentary political skills have managed to alienate Anglicans of every persuasion, save for the dyed-in-the-wool institutionalists.

Rowan Williams does not want to see the Anglican Communion self-destruct during his incumbency. I fear the only way to guarantee that outcome, however, is for him to step down. Although this would likely bring an Evangelical to the See of Canterbury, it is difficult to see how anyone could do a worse job than the incumbent. Rowan is playing the role of Archbishop of Canterbury as best as he can according to his understanding of that role. Alas, he has proven to be a very bad actor.


  1. I fear this is spot on. He is a good man in many ways and a spectacularly poor choice for the job.


  2. How I wish your summary were not true--I believe Dr. Williams allowed his ¨sensibilities¨ to get in the way of using common sense when facing grandstanders, excluders and blatant schismatics at The Anglican Communion--to me it appears that ++Rowan continues to live in a vacuum packed ¨pasted together¨ world of his own peculiar fashioning and making--the ABC seems to be way out of touch with the basic hands on management skills necessary to lead as well as not showing much enthusiasm to face fresh spiritual realities/challenges as they are revealed (the world around him as it really is and not as he wished it were)--the Anglican Communion needs mouth to mouth resuscitation as well as the inspiration to stand quietly, be counted/accountable (speak out against injustice and other, and varied, outrages) and then take a chance and breath in and out naturally and grow freely--trusting in God instead of fretting about the latest Gafcon ¨demonizing¨ pronouncements/demands doesn´t seem spiritually courageous or emotionally healthy to me for anyone.

  3. Rowan never recovered his footing after his misstep in the Jeffrey John affair. I felt we'd travel a rocky road with the ABC after he asked his good friend to stand down from his appointment. How could he do that?

  4. Thanks you for this. I think your key insight is that Rowan has chosen to attempt setting his own personality, beliefs, passion and commitment aside rather that leading from a place of generous self-differentiation.

  5. I can understand why Rowan would have wanted to set aside his own beliefs etc. His immediate predecessor wreaked havoc in the Communion precisely because he pushed his own agenda through at all cost against everybody else.

    It was natural that Rowan should have tried to be more neutral and a more uniting figure.

    I also think it's no good heaping all the blame on him as if he were a kind of failed Daddy to a group of unruly children.

    The whole Communion is responsible for this mess. Every single person who failed to act in an adult way, who employed money and political manoeuvres to push their own goals through regardless of cost, who used and abused Rowan - every single person is to blame.

    I am still not sure that Rowan siding more with those who are closer to his beliefs would have saved the Communion. It's more likely that we'd be sitting here now accusing him of sacrificing the good of the Communion for his own personal beliefs.

  6. Erika,

    I did not mean to say that everything is Rowan’s fault. I was trying to explain why he has proven a disappointment.

    Two decisions have made all the difference: convincing Jeffrey John to step down and agreeing to a Primates’ Meeting in October 2003.

  7. Lionel
    I agree with you.
    The point I was trying to make is that I believe we are projecting a lot of our disappointment onto Rowan as if he had genuinely been able to change the fate of the Commmunion.

    Ruthless people who clamour for power will exploit any weakness and any system to get what they want.

    Yes, they exploited the weakenesses you highlighted. But they would have exploited a more decisive Rowan just as much, claiming persecution and bias under his reign.

    It's down to all of us.

  8. I think almost anyone would do a better job than Rowan. If we had a conservative we would at least know where we stood, and they would at least be true to themselves. If we had a liberal then they would defend our LGBT sisters & brothers. Rowan is a liberal acting like a conservative, so we don't know where we are, and he is selling his soul... For his own sake as well as ours he should resign.
    Trevor Donnelly


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