Rowan Williams for Cambridge

News that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will leave this office at the end of the year to become Master of Magdalene College in Cambridge prompts some reflections.

Williams is an intellectual of amazing range and depth. His doctoral thesis on Vladimir Lossky, undertaken at a time when interest in Orthodox thought was in its very early stages in the UK, has never seen the light of day, although a translation has been published in Kiev. Arius: Heresy and tradition is remarkable not only for its placing of its subject against the background of his time, but its ponderings on the possibility of the Church changing the way it sees things as it becomes more aware of its own deepest convictions; the notion that God was love all the way down excluded an Arian understanding of the Word as having been created, and necessitated parts of the Bible being interpreted in a way contrary to that in which they had almost universally been understood until then. He quotes Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Traditions, when vital, embody continuities in conflict’, suggesting he felt that his ponderings suggested a way of approaching difficulties in the Church of England. The papers collected in Anglican Identities discuss figures ranging from the Reformer William Tyndale to the 60s radical John A. T. Robinson, neither of whom one would have thought likely to be congenial to Williams, but he finds very positive things to say about them both. In Lost Icons he deals with a range of issues in society, most memorably the way in which children are treated, here as elsewhere acutely sensitive to the vulnerability of the weak and managing to give the impression that he has already read the books discussed by the people who write for his favourite newspaper, the one that comes in a Berliner format. He has a knack of saying things that never would have occurred to you but immediately seem self-evidently true, which must be a kind of prophetic charism. There is a fine study of Dostoevsky, and a deep interest in Hegel. So much writing of the highest quality, underpinned by an inner life one can only guess at from its fruits.

Yet his tenure as Archbishop has succeeded in bringing peace to neither the Church of England nor the Anglican Communion. Rowan Williams has often seemed like an Oxbridge don in a senior common room, keen to keep alive a conversation between people who’ve given up listening to each other.  Rather than attitudes to questions of gender or sexuality, the root problem is surely that there is no agreement on the criteria that ought to be used to settle such issues. Until there is, it’s hard to see progress being made.

So I believe the future for Rowan Williams is very bright. He will return to the town where he was an undergraduate as Master of a lovely college (seen illuminated at night across the Cam, Magdalene College is one of the most beautiful sites in Cambridge) and member of a distinguished Faculty of Divinity in one of the world’s great universities. It’s his successor in Lambeth Palace I worry about. Every one of the potential appointees that has been named has given hostages to fortune of one kind or another, and the inability of someone of the stature of Williams to bring about peace would daunt anyone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *