Rowan Williams 'speaks truth to power'
Once seen as an out-of-touch and dithering academic, Dr Williams has recently found his voice, writes George Pitcher.
If a week is a long time in politics, a year is usually no time at all in the Church of England. But this has been a long year for Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He had the General Synod vote on women bishops and the 10-yearly Lambeth Conference at Canterbury, both held in high summer and respectively threatening to destroy the Church of England and the Anglican Communion as we know them. Neither of these cataclysms came to pass.
Critics will be divided over the extent to which Dr Williams is to be credited with holding these ancient institutions together. But one thing he is surely to be credited with is holding himself together.
In the first half of the year, he was widely said to be holed beneath the water-line; he was an out-of-touch and dithering academic, who lacked any sense of leadership when what Anglicanism needed was a firm hand on the tiller.
There will be those who hold to that opinion at the close of the year; they will not always be dispassionate observers, of course, since many of them will have a vested interest in the seat of “power” shifting from the Canterbury to the evangelical-traditionalist southern hemisphere, where Africa leads the hard-line reaction to twenty-first century social developments.
But to those who say that Dr Williams is a dialectical vacuum, a silent irrelevance on the peripheries of our issues, there has been an answer in recent months. He has found his voice. At a time of unprecedented economic crisis, when the futures of the developing and developed worlds are empty canvases, we might expect our spiritual, moral and religious leaders to have something to say – and Dr Williams has responded.
Last week, he likened Government policy on public spending to “an addict returning to a drug”. Today, in the Daily Telegraph, Dr Williams warns against the dangers of sticking to political principles at all costs, a road that at its most extreme leads to the kind of abomination that was Nazi Germany and a mindset in which people’s lives are disposable and sacrificed on the altar of those principles.
Dr Williams evokes “the pensioner whose savings have disappeared, the Woolworths employee, the hopeful young executive, let alone the helpless producer of good in some Third-World environment” as some of those who could be sacrificed to economic or political principles.
Whatever we think of his analysis, he is “speaking the truth to power”, as the Quakers are fond of saying. That is a vital role for an Archbishop of Canterbury in this climate and we should welcome that he is doing so.
See A. Stephenson, Anglicanism and the Lambeth Conferences (1978).