Rowan Williams

The former Archbishop of Canterbury seems too pleased with himself to reflect on his disastrous legacy

Faith Overrated The Church of England

(Illustration by Michael Daley)

Of all the modern thinkers who have been influenced by St Augustine of Hippo, from Pascal and Rousseau to Wittgenstein and Hannah Arendt, none ought to have been better qualified to follow in his footsteps than the former Archbishop of Canterbury, now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge: Rowan Williams. He is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most distinguished theologians to have occupied the throne of the “other” Augustine — St Augustine of Canterbury, who converted the Anglo-Saxons. His study of the Bishop of Hippo, On Augustine, will be published by Bloomsbury in time for Easter. He has written some 40 books, reads nine languages and speaks three. Already Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at 36, he was one of Mr Toad’s clever men at Oxford who know all that there is to be knowed. He is also a poet in the Celtic tradition of his countrymen and a life peer.

And yet Dr Williams is overrated. It is a harsh judgment on such a clubbable cleric, whose sibilant voice and Druidic beard made him instantly recognisable, who did his best to adapt the Church of England to the secular new saeculum, and whose public visibility gave a whole new meaning to the Anglican via media. Yet prelates are not there to be liked. As Primate of All England, Dr Williams was supposed to offer spiritual leadership to the nation. How well did he discharge his duties? As one of Britain’s most fêted public intellectuals, he has been a ubiquitous Christian presence in hostile company; but he is often merely a token presence. Typically, Dr Williams is more concerned to accommodate “the Other”, however inimical, than to assert the truth of his own creed. He has rarely mounted a vigorous defence of what is, after all, not only his personal faith, but the established religion of the land. Nor has he always seemed eager to stand up for the public role of the Church — now finally abandoned by Baroness Butler-Sloss’s Commission on Religion and Public Life.

As Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, he sometimes seemed to do the opposite. Most notoriously, in 2008 he declared that the adoption of Sharia law in Britain “seems unavoidable”; Muslims should not have to accept that “there’s one law for everybody”. Though criticised, he refused to retract views shared by Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice and later President of the Supreme Court. Their advocacy undoubtedly facilitated and accelerated the spread of Sharia courts or “councils”.

Such acquiescence in what some might see as the relinquishing of England’s Christian patrimony fits with his vehement opposition to Western intervention in the Middle East. In 2007 he denounced US action against Syria as “criminal, ignorant and murderous folly”. Dr Williams has been consistent in siding against the West since his youthful support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Unlike his predecessor, George Carey, he has seldom gone out on a limb for persecuted Christians. Unlike his successor, Justin Welby, Dr Williams never really left his previous profession behind.

What led such a conventional left-wing professor to suppose that he was equal to the task of acting on a global stage? In 2002, when Tony Blair appointed Dr Williams, even conservatives such as Charles Moore greeted him as “prophetic”. The favoured alternative was Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester: a man no less intelligent but far more tough-minded, with first-hand knowledge and experience of the Muslim world and the ability to articulate the dangers posed by radical Islam. Dr Williams was on the liberal, Dr Nazir-Ali on the traditionalist side of the bitter disputes within the Anglican Communion over women and homosexuality. Church unity seemed the most important issue facing Anglicans at the time, but with hindsight it mattered much less than the then emergent threat to Western civilisation. It is a tragedy that Mr Blair felt obliged to appoint a man to lead the Church of England who had plenty of charisma but lacked the charismatic gift of wisdom.

Augustine of Hippo was hard on those, including himself, whose pride blinded them to their limitations. He only achieved maturity as a writer after coming to realise that his intellectual gifts were of no account compared to the vocation to which God was calling him. What, then, of the spiritual journey of Dr Williams? He has yet to write his Confessions, but it is hard to imagine him wrestling with his conscience. Whatever spiritual depths may be concealed behind the obscurity of his prose, he has not hinted at repentance for any sins, either of commission or omission, during his archiepiscopate. Augustine taught us to love the sinner and hate the sin, yet Dr Williams finds it hard to condemn either. Long before Pope Francis, he made a virtue of refusing to be judgmental. Embracing the zeitgeist in this way does not absolve him of the sin of intellectual pride. Giving up academic life, he wrote: “I was being asked to leave behind an environment where I could feel more pleased with myself than bishops normally can.” Now that he has returned to his comfort zone as Master of Magdalene, is Rowan Williams still pleased with himself?