Rowan Williams on Leadership

By now many of you will have read the extensive interview that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has given to the Guardian newspaper in the UK.

I think it’s worth spending a while examining what Williams is saying because it shows clearly how he understands his role. As such it’s very instructive as to how he’s lead in the past and will continue to lead in the future.

AR: What do you think the public role of Archbishop should consist of?

AC: Should or does?

AR: Should.

AC: Should. Setting some kind of tonal vision for the church, the Church of England; pastoral involvement and collaboration with the other bishops. And the Church of England being the way it is, trying to – to find, crystallise some sort of – some sort of moral vision that’s communicable to the nation at large. I think those – those are the ascensions of it. And I think that – that brings with it the elements of the times being what I once called comic vicar to the nation.

Williams sees himself as setting a “tonal vision” and that this arises (in part) from collaboration with the other bishops. It is a participative vision, he is truly (we might say) first amongst equals. But this view develops in a quite worrying direction.

AR: At [your meeting with journalists last year] – and I appreciate that was all on Chatham House rules so you don’t have to – are you happy to talk about this? – there was a very striking moment when you said that you didn’t see your role as being about moral leadership and the man from the Daily Mail almost fell off his chair.

AC: Yes, yes. Leadership is – is, to me, a very, very murky and complicated concept. Often, as I – I think I’ve said before, what people mean when they say leadership is making – making the right noises, affirming a particular set of views, convictions or even prejudices. It doesn’t always have very much to do with how you make a difference. And I think the question I always find myself asking of myself is: will a pronouncement here or a statement there actually move things on, or is it something that makes me feel better and other people feel better, but doesn’t necessary contribute very much?

AR: Can you give me an example of something where you have, where you have felt tempted to talk about something and come to that conclusion that you can achieve more by not to saying something.

AC: I think actually, over the religious hatred legislation. We had quite a lot of lobbyings you can imagine from people who wanted a firm lead, this is a piece of legislation that’s dangerous to the church just as, of course, there’s lobbying from other people. I thought it wasn’t particularly useful to make loud noises about this, that it was probably more useful to listen to what different groups had to say, transmit what could be transmitted to government, work at it in that way, and see if the dangers were real, and if they were, how you – how you got around them, what sort of drafting would be desirable. So that – that was an area where I deliberately decided to take a fairly low key. I think where we’ve ended up actually, is – is a reasonable enough placement.

Which is interesting. Williams doesn’t feel the need to speak up if he thinks it will have no effect. But is that really the approach of a Christian minister or are we ambassadors with a message that will not naturally be received? Does Williams even speak in these terms? How often, honestly now, have you heard him speak of raw gospel issues when talking to the public at large?

AR: And do you think this is true of bishops and clergy as well or is this just the way you see the Church of England or is it just your own particular position?

AC: I think it’s – it’s probably where the Church of England is actually. But let me give you one particular concrete case where I think I can talk about someone giving a lead of a sense that matters. A priest I know fairly well, in whose parish a particularly awful murder happened a few years ago, it involved the kidnapping and torture and eventual killing of a teenager by a group of other teenagers. He’s written about this and described the way in which he found himself simply landed with the job of trying to deal with a very traumatised family, a very traumatised community, some very confused public services, and to hold it together at various points, in – in the funeral service, in events, during and after the trial and so forth. At no point during that process did he sort of get up and say this is very shocking. His task was to accompany, crystallise, draw together, make some sense of it with people, which was a rather slower process than just making a pronouncement. Now I would actually say that that’s a kind of leadership, but not necessarily the kind that instantly wins the votes these days. And more than that, I think it’s – it’s an exemplary and costly and profoundly Christian way of doing it. I better know the story of Soham, I guess would tell something of the same story. You would talk, wouldn’t you, or some people would talk of the leadership exercised by the vicar there. But it’s not quite what the word normally triggers in people’s minds.

Now this cuts to the core of what Williams thinks his role is. “His task was to accompany, crystallise, draw together, make some sense of it with people”. His job is to express the consensus, not drive it. For Williams this is a costly and profoundly Christian thing. But is it really? Is merely summing up what other people are saying really any form of leadership?

Or is it, and allow me to be slightly contentious here, just sitting on the fence?

Williams, of course, is a great believer in Catholicity and there is no doubt that what is happening in the Anglican Communion causes him a personal sadness. To suggest otherwise would be unfair to him. But the crisis has arisen precisely because he holds this view of leadership without leadership. The job of the bishop, indeed of any shepherd of God’s flock, is not to summarise the consensus but to argue passionately for God’s truth. That Williams does not have this approach is very clear even when he defends the orthodox position. For Williams, Lambeth 1998 1.10 is “the mind of the church” and it is on this basis that ECUSA are out of line. Not, note carefully, because they are acting contrary to God’s word but because the have set themselves up against the global consensus which Williams sees himself as having a duty to communicate.

This is, of course, seen most clearly when the actual issue of contention is discussed.

AR: We can’t get through this without talking about gays –

AC: There comes a point in every interview where someone says…

AR: Well, let’s try and find a way to talk about it that doesn’t, sort of, end at a cul-de-sac. I suppose what puzzles people about you, is that people think they know what you truly think because you talked about it fairly openly before becoming Archbishop. And so it comes back to where we began, it’s a question of leadership. It feels as though you are not being true to yourself, that you are being forced into a role of politician and people say “why should anybody care what your beliefs are, if you can’t stand up for the things that are assumed to be your beliefs?”

AC: Yes, I understand that and hear it repeatedly. But I don’t think it’s a matter of being a politician here. This is where I want to go back to what I think about the church. I’ve been given a responsibility to try and care for the church as a whole, the health of the church. That health has a lot to do with the proper and free exchange between different cultural and political and theological contexts: people are actually able to learn from each other. And it’s got a lot to do therefore, with valuing and nurturing unity, not, as I’ve often said, not as an alternative to truth, but actually as one of the ways we absorb truth. That means that, structurally speaking, in the church as I believe it to be, it really is wrong for an Archbishop to be the leader of a party; in a polarised and deeply divided church it’s particularly important, I think, not to be someone pursuing an agenda that isn’t the agenda of the whole. Now, on this question of what the agenda of the whole is or should be, is a long job to decipher or untangle … And I suppose what I’m, therefore, saying, and it’s not something new, is if the church moves on this, it must be because the church moves, not because, rather like getting rid of Clause 4 [edit, for non-UK readers: Clause 4 was a famous clause of the Labour Party’s constitution removed under the influence of Tony Blair but considered by many to be an essential part of that same constitution], a figure of leadership says, “right – this is where we go.” My conviction, my views, my theological reflections on this and, indeed on other matters, they are things which I have to bring to that common process of discernment. It’s not as if I can say simply, “I know this is right, this is where we’ve got to go, come along, whatever the cost.” And if you ask is that a comfortable position to be in, no, not particularly, but I think it’s part of what’s intrinsic to the role of any bishop and, therefore, a priori, Archbishop, which is to try and make sense of people to each other in such a way that whatever movement there is, is just one bit running ahead with its agenda.

AR: Don’t we get back into this danger of being, sort of a ring holder, appearing to –

AC: Sure. Not having any convictions except being able to hold together, as it were.

It’s all there to see. Wiliams does not think that his job is to “banish falsehood and speak the truth” as he promised at his consecration, but to merely communicate the consensus. If the position on sexual morality changes it will be because the church moves, not because it is right or not according to God’s word.

That we are now in this terrible state should not be a surprise to anyone. Prior to the announcement of Williams’ appointment, but when news of it had been leaked by the Prime Minister’s office, several prominent evangelical clergy wrote an open letter in the Time of London expressing their concerns.


c/o 10 Downing Street
London SW1A 1AA

From the Revd David Holloway and others

Dear Prime Minister and Dame Butler Schloss,

As incumbents of larger Anglican churches and in the light of a report in The Times (June 20), we wish to register our opposition to the appointment to the see of Canterbury of the current Archbishop of Wales (Rowan Williams) who we believe “has admitted openly that he has ordained a man who he knew had a homosexual partner” and who acknowledges “that ‘conforming your life … to Christ’ doesn’t necessarily mean giving up a homosexual lifestyle” (Church of England Newspaper 30 May 2002).

Such actions and views fly in the face of the clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures and the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference 1998. Rowan Williams would not have the confidence of the vast majority of Anglicans in the world, who are now in the third world and who, as loyal Anglicans, take the Holy Scriptures as their supreme authority. His appointment would lead to a major split in the Anglican Communion (including the Church of England).

Yours sincerely

David Holloway, Vicar of Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne
Mark Ashton, Vicar of the Round Church at St Andrew the Great, Cambridge
Richard Bewes, Rector of All Souls’ Langham Place, London
Jonathan Fletcher, Vicar of Emmanuel, Wimbledon
Angus Macleay, Rector of St Nicholas, Sevenoaks
Hugh Palmer, Vicar of Christ Church, Fulwood, Sheffield
Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s, Oxford
William Taylor, Rector of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, London

What was true then is doubly true now. But it is not just Williams’ own position on sexual morality that has caused the recent upheavals, it is his view of the church itself and his place within it. He is, simply put, the leader who will not lead. He is the shepherd who would prefer to ask the sheep where they would like to dine tonight rather than leading them to green pastures. GC2006 will only further demonstrate it. The Global South do not want a leader who will include wolves at the dinner table for the sake of consensus, they want one who knows what a wolf is and is convinced that he must fight them. In Williams they will never have such a leader.

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. detroitfather

    That’s a useful summary. It seems that few want the Truth any more, or even believe in absolute truth. What they want is (mere) human consensus, which always begins with compromise to the truth and ends with violence to the truth.

  2. prester_scott

    I would further add that it’s highly unlikely there will ever be another Archbishop of Canterbury who’s any bolder for the Faith than Williams… at least, not as long as the C of E is established.

    This is why I’m not in the Canterbury Communion and I attach no importance to that affiliation whatsoever.

    p.s. lj-cut please.

  3. anitra

    Wow. I’m not familiar with the Anglican church, but this drives home to me how the “leadership” of so many churches (Protestant and Catholic) act today. It’s no longer about the truth that God has revealed; instead, it’s political – going along with whatever the majority want.

  4. sophiaserpentia

    I take his comments to mean that what he views as most important for the health of the church is the preservation of fellowship. By that view, the best way to ensure that the church accomplishes its mission is to hold it together, while at the same time recognizing that different interpretations on doctrinal matters are going to exist.

    1. yechezkiel

      The problem is that ++Williams has shown no willingness to differentiate between doctrine and theologeumena. “In the essentials, unity[!]” There should certainly be differences allowed in all else other than the essentials, but ++Williams and his ilk seem very uncomfortable in finding them.

      Aristotle’s observation that most do not have friends, but rather, partners in weakness is apt, here. What is the meaning of fellowship without unity in the essentials of the Faith? Is is not just a parternership in weakness?

      1. sophiaserpentia

        In my opinion the essential thing, more essential than everyone believing the same thing, is doing good works. I mean, literal good works out in the world, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, comforting the sick, opposing injustice. We are never going to achieve unity of belief or understanding. Therefore unity more soundly rests on respect for one another’s humanity and willingness to do good. I would feel much more secure standing shoulder to shoulder with someone i knew did good works, even if i disagreed with them vehemently on points of doctrine, because we are working together for good. IMO it is not constructive, even perhaps wrong, to elevate particulars of doctrine to a position of greater importance than promoting justice.

        1. yechezkiel

          Here we will part ways. While persons of all faiths have engaged in good works, I believe that right belief enables right action more easily than wrong belief. I think that it is evident in history, that most ills of societies and persons are ills of philosophy and faith, first.

          1. sophiaserpentia

            And we know this because Christian nations have had less ills than those with other religions?

            1. yechezkiel

              I’m not sure what defines a “Christian nation,” if the term has any significant meaning.

              1. sophiaserpentia

                Well, in response to your assertion that society’s ills necessarily follow from philosophical or religious errors, then we would find that societies with more ills would necessarily be characterized by holding incorrect beliefs or adhering to erroneous doctrines. Otherwise your statement could not be true. Therefore for your statement to be correct, and presuming that you consider Christianity to be the most correct religion, we would find that a nation’s social ills would be directly correlated to the percentage of its population which professes to be Christian.

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