Rowan Williams to step down

Rowan Williams is to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury in December this year.

It is a sad and ignominious end to an archepiscopal ministry which promised so much at the beginning and was met by great excitement. It will be hard for anyone to see his departure and particularly the timing of the announcement as anything other than a defeat.

I remember rejoicing so greatly when Rowan Williams was appointed. He seemed to have the intellect, the skills, the diplomacy and the gravitas. He also was on record as being supportive to causes I cared about, not least in his support of gay clergy in Wales and the fact that his own articles had been used to justify the inevitable move towards the public acknowledgement of those faithful gay folk which God has been embedding in the church for decades.

How wrong I was. In the end, Rowan Williams exercised his ministry on the principle that a particular form of church unity (and not one that was accepted by everyone by any means) trumped every other consideration. Personal loyalties were put aside. Personal convictions were shelved. Personal integrity was mangled in unseemly public displays of incompetence.

Rowan Williams’s obvious intellectual gifts were squandered in an environment which rewards the streetwise rather than the wise. This was most notable when he made ill advised comments about Sharia law being incorporated into UK law.

It is to his credit that the Archbishop of Canterbury has remained stately and dignified in public. However, the revelations surrounding his behaviour in private over episcopal appointments (the Colin Slee Memo) showed that beneath the surface lurked something more visceral and a good deal less pleasant.

Ultimately though, Rowan Williams will be remembered for the consequences of one decision and one decision alone – the sacrifice of his friend Jeffrey John who had been appointed as an area bishop in the Diocese of Oxford but not yet consecrated. The decision to deprive Dr John of his appointment in the face of a nasty campaign (later repented of by some) against him was to dog every subsequent day of his archepiscopate.

Once it had been established that Rowan Williams was prepared to lay down his friend for his life he could win nothing. Liberals and moderates suddenly realised that he was untrustworthy and believed him to have acted wickedly. Conservatives had known he was untrustworthy already but now knew they could bully him. And those who loved him (and these remain considerable in their defence of him yet) were bewildered at how this had all come to pass.

For many years matters were blamed on Lambeth Palace advisers whom he had inherited from George Carey. Then it was that Rowan simply believed in holding the church together so much that he was apparently prepared to do anything to ensure it did not split up on his watch.

History will judge whether he has succeeded.

It is hard to believe today that he has.

His resignation (or stepping down as we are to call it) comes at a time when his own authority had come under greater personal challenge than ever with the Church of England dioceses refusing to fall into line and endorse the Anglican Covenant which had been sold by Rowan Williams as the only game in town to keep the church together.

Fortunately for the Churches of the Anglican Communion there have been enough people prepared to call his bluff. The appearance this morning of a blog article by an English bishop describing the Covenant as a chocolate teapot on a hob which needed a good Christian burial shows the righteous contempt felt by its opponents.

Rowan Williams was dealt a weak hand – Akinola, Carey, Jefferts Schori and all the rest must have bewildered him in their contradictions. However, my suspicion is that he made bad situations worse and weakened the resolve of those who could help him.

The time comes now to move on. Either the Communion will survive or it will fail. I suspect that it will survive though there might be fractures along the way. That might be the best that can be.

The task for Archbishop Rowan’s successor is immense. The main criterion for success is the ability to retain personal integrity in the face of corrupting and malign powers. The secondary task though is to do the job in such a way as to ensure that one can leave well.

In this, as in so many ways, Archbishop Rowan Williams has failed.


  1. L Buckland says

    I’m saddened at your summary: would anyone else have done any better? Given such a collection of poisoned chalices – not one but a multiplication – it is beyond imagining how any other Archbishop would have survived without condemnation.
    We have a far less attractive prospect ahead of us, who on earth would ever be convinced that they should accept this position (abp of c) and if there is someone would we actually be glad at the choice?
    Some who angle for the role have no enduring skills; and we want no ‘old wineskins’.
    it must be, surely, the most utterly thankless task…

    • Yes, it is very sad indeed.

      Actually I think that someone else might have done better and still think that Rowan Williams could have made better choices.

      I actually think that Rowan Williams made remarkably few mistakes. It is just that the magnitude of those mistakes was enormous.

      I think he was the captain of his own fate and part of the reason that his ministry has been so engrossing is that he was responsible for his downfall. It is a genuine tragedy, in both senses of the word – awful reality and self-inflicted downfall.

  2. Andrew says

    The ultimate measure of the success of any public appointment is whether you can pass on a working system to your successor. The Anglican Communion is still together, and this is due to the Archbishop’s heroic efforts, even though some of his decisions turn out, with hindsight, to have been misguided. In this vital sense the Archbishop has succeeded, and is due our thanks. It is easy enough to criticise from the sidelines : you or I did not have to make the decisions!

    • I agree Andrew that it is easy to criticise from the sidelines. I’m far less sure about whether the Anglican Communion is a working system. Certainly the system that Archbishop Rowan inherited was working so badly for him that he attempted a fundamental reform which many have been unable to endorse. Whether that is a working system to hand on now is open to question, I think.

  3. Brother David says

    Exactly how I feel, every point that I would have touched upon, but much more nicely written.

  4. I think it’s important to add that +Rowan’s management of the high politics of the Anglican Communion has just been one aspect of his ministry. Visit his website – – and you’ll find a record of the enormous range of sermons, speeches, articles and interviews he has written and given. Read and listen to them and you’ll find they are of exceptional quality and interest. I’ve been fortunate to hear +Rowan a few times and, like almost all present, Christian or otherwise, have been enthralled and challenged. In an age where there is a temptation to a rather shallow and coarse atheism he bore witness to the continued intellectual vibrancy and credibility of Christian orthodoxy. I don’t think that is an achievement that should be taken for granted.

  5. Umeh Okey says

    I have listened to him speak sometimes and think him brilliant but to accredit him with reforms and unification of the church that I strongly disagree – we saw the Anglican communion in African almost breaking away from the church and most young men leave to other faiths – these were young people who would have been used by the Lord to touch the lives of people. Not to mention the pains and perils of those who left to other faiths and what they suffered. I think am tired of his reign and want to see a spiritfilled person handle that authority

  6. Rosemary Hannah says

    The core problem is that the two opposing sides, liberal/conservative, believing gender does not/does define roles, believing in the essential good/evil of same sex relationships both believe passionately that their beliefs are core to the health the church. Neither can, in conscience, give ground. The tragedy is that the conservative side believe that the liberal side are deserting the Bible and the Christian faith by believing what they believe.

Speak Your Mind