In many ways it was a daring appointment, and in this choice the entire Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church in the United States is a part, has decided to join the modern world. It represented a specific decision to reverse the dreadful and misguided reign of his predecessor, George Carey. Carey had positioned Anglicanism in the right-wing evangelical camp of Bible quoters.
Rowan Williams is only 52 and could serve in this position for almost two decades, giving him time to put his stamp upon the Church. He is a product of England's middle-class who has developed his intellectual skills at both Oxford and Cambridge. He was a theology professor at Oxford prior to being elected a bishop in Wales only a few years ago. Shortly thereafter his fellow bishops in Wales chose him to head the entire Anglican Church in Wales.
Williams has the academic skills to engage changing ideas in our culture. One hopes he will use these gifts to hammer out a Christianity that is both relevant and believable. Christianity desperately needs to escape the language of antiquity that has portrayed sacrifice and shed blood as signs of salvation.
The Jesus who "died for our sins" has simply got to go in our post-Darwinian world. Christianity must move beyond a rescuing Jesus, who overcame a fall that never happened, even metaphorically, to restore human life to a status it has never had, even mythologically. Williams' task is nothing less than to articulate a new Christianity for a new world.
This appointment should also help to bring to speedy conclusions the battles over issues of human sexuality that have raged inside most churches for decades. Williams is a forceful advocate of the full equality for women in every aspect of ecclesiastical life. One should expect, very shortly, the nomination of a woman to be a bishop in the Church of England. This step will finally bring that Church into harmony with the Anglican Churches in the United States, Canada and New Zealand, and it will push Anglicanism in Australia, South Africa, Scotland, Wales and other national branches of this church in the Third World in the right direction.
On the other great church debate involving human sexuality, Rowan Williams has been an outspoken advocate for accepting and recognizing the reality of homosexual persons in the total life of the church. For some time now this debate has been at a flash point in this communion, as it has been for most churches. The new Archbishop has stated that he has himself ordained to the priesthood a gay man that he knew was living faithfully with his partner.
One of the characteristics of this debate in the Church of England has been that much of it has reeked with dishonesty. Today, bishops serve in high-profile positions in the Church of England, despite being forced to confess publicly, in the case of one bishop that "my sexuality is ambivalent," or to acknowledge in the case of another, that an arrest took place while in his 20s where the charge of soliciting a homosexual liaison in a public place was affirmed. Perhaps the lame excuse that this was a "youthful indiscretion" will now be dropped for the sake of integrity.
Still another bishop, who was himself outed as a gay man by a group who demanded that he stop his public negativity toward homosexual people, resigned his episcopal post and joined a monastery.
Dr. Williams has also indicated his support for the blessing of the sacred commitments of gay and lesbian couples including those couples which involve at least one and sometimes two clergy. It is about time. No one who knows anything about the Church of England doubts the existence of these committed clergy couples. One of England's most homophobic bishops was well-known for developing code language that enabled him to put ordained clergy partners who were living in committed relationships into adjacent parishes, "provided they maintained two separate houses." Perhaps now ecclesiastical duplicity on this issue will begin to subside.
As a potentially outspoken head of a world Christian body, Rowan Williams just might be a subtle force exerting influence on who the College of Cardinals will elect to be the next Pope. If the leader of world Anglicanism is willing to engage the issues of the modern world, then the leaders of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy might also be encouraged to move into relevancy.
What are Rowan William's weaknesses? Like all human beings he certainly has them. I for one, question his personal toughness. Like so many church "liberals" my sense is that Rowan Williams, whom I know fairly well, has little backbone, that he bends with the breeze to avoid controversy, and that he has developed an exquisite ability to spin theological smokescreens that enable people of diverse positions, to think that he agrees with them.
He was fairly shameless in positioning himself inside an uncritical "orthodoxy" in an attempt to "deliberalize" himself during his campaign for the office at Canterbury, which of course, he denies that he conducted. He did this, however, by attacking and even ridiculing in both the United Kingdom and in Australia, the work of others in this communion who seek to restate the Christian experience in contemporary concepts.
Perhaps now that he has reached the pinnacle of his profession, this somewhat pitiful need to seek popularity at the price of principle will disappear. I hope so, but his first correspondence to the other Anglican primates, upon being chosen for this post, represented an abdication of principle for the sake of popularity that was breathtakingly disappointing. He, in effect, indicated that he would make no effort to advance his convictions on issues of sexual orientation until the Church had changed its official policy. To me that was like saying "though I do not myself believe in slavery, I will make no attempt to end it until the Church is ready to move." It suggests that Church unity and personal popularity are more important than truth. Despite this weakness I rejoice in his appointment and hope that my residual doubts will prove unwarranted.
My great hope is that Anglican Christianity may now be able to repair the damage that the previous Archbishop inflicted on the whole communion and begin the task of restoring dialogue between a faith that is in steep decline, and the 21st century which seems to have little room in it for the religious ideas of yesterday. Rowan Williams will have my support while I wait to see whether he is big enough to be not just a leader, but a great leader of world Christianity.