Archbishop Rowan Williams to stand down

Sat, Mar 17, 2012, 00:00

ARCHBISHOP OF Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams will, no doubt, enjoy his time as master of Magdalene College in Cambridge, which will be his new home from next January.

The 61-year-old churchman yesterday announced his decision to step down from his post at Lambeth Palace after a decade as the head – if not always the one in charge – of the Church of England. Musing on the skills needed by his successor, he said: “I think that it is a job of immense demands and I would hope that my successor has the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros.”

His time as archbishop of Canterbury has left its scars upon him, particularly as the Anglican faith tore itself apart over women bishops, gay clerics, and, more latterly, the question of gay marriage.

Few, if any, doubted his good intentions, even if his supporters were frequently impatient with his lack of political nous and his inability to put matters simply.

However, one can question if others could have done better, particularly given the fissures created within the worldwide Anglican communion over women bishops.

Dr Williams, desperately trying to maintain unity within the Church of England, was often forced to dance on the heads of theological pins to keep his flock together.

Some of the more traditional ranks, who refuse to heed the authority of a woman bishop, have already left the church. Dr Williams had feared an even greater exodus.

Women will eventually rise to episcopal posts, most accept, with male bishops being appointed to tend to the pastoral needs of those congregations who baulk at the change. For two years, however, the General Synod has debated the mechanics of such a double-headed creation, particularly one where the man will be subordinate to the woman.

Dr Williams, putting forward a compromise in 2010, argued that the male’s authority would come from legislation passed by the House of Commons on the issue, as well as the bishop. This plan came close to getting the agreement of the General Synod, but it was rejected by the Church’s House of Clergy, which takes a more liberal view.

However many conservatives there are in the Church of England, there are far more in the Anglican Church globally, who have taken an ever-dimmer view of Lambeth Palace.

Since 2008, they have been peeling away from London, boycotting the annual gathering on the banks of the river Thames and transferring allegiance to another body, Gafcon.

Named after the Global Anglican Future conference, it now includes Anglican provinces in Africa, parts of North and South America, Asia and the Middle East.

While geography divides them, most of Gafcon’s members are illiberal on gay rights and totally against the appointments of gays as bishops. In particular, they frowned at Dr Williams’s failure, as they saw it, to discipline the Episcopal Church – the constituent church that has moved furthest on gay rights.

In the way of the world, even for churchmen, talk has already moved on to the selection of his successor, with the black archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, leading early betting.

Once back in academia, where he spent so much of his time split between Oxford and Cambridge, Dr Williams is unlikely to have yearnings for his days of power.