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Anglicans enthrone ‘a saint’


“We have a saint for our leader now,” claimed one of the Anglican bishops after the enthronement of Dr. Rowan Williams in Canterbury Cathedral Feb. 27. The new Archbishop of Canterbury would have winced to hear that, but certainly Anglicans have a star, an intellectual and a poet, who looks set to rival the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Cardinal Basil Hume as a holy man who speaks to the nation about God. That is the task, because the national church is in sharp decline. When its Sunday congregations, diminishing along with those of the other mainline churches in Britain, dropped below a million, those responsible for the statistics either withheld or massaged the data.

It was a beautiful early spring day in Canterbury for the enthronement ceremony in the cathedral where St. Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170 for asserting the rights of the church against King Henry II. Archbishop Williams’ many supporters -- like those gathered outside with placards inscribed “Thank God for Rowan” -- are hoping for springtime in the Church of England. But Williams is something of an unknown entity on the English establishment scene. He comes from Wales, where the Anglican church prides itself on its distinctive Celtic roots and on its disestablishment. Williams has been outspoken against pomp and circumstance. Assertions of special status, he has said, are against the gospel.

Yet at Canterbury all the panoply of establishment was on full display: processions of bishops and canons and choristers, state dignitaries, Roman Catholic cardinals, Orthodox and oriental patriarchs, members of the Free Churches (denominations such as the Mennonites and Quakers that traditionally advocate separation from a state church), representatives of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Here was a church still claiming to represent the nation, with close ties to the state, personified not only by the presence at the ceremony of the Prince of Wales and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but also by a bewigged retinue of legal personages, one of whom bore the Royal Mandate which was duly read out to the assembled company before the proceedings could unfold. Can Williams make headway against this, assuming he is still minded to?

Part of the apparatus of establishment is that the final choice of the appointment for Canterbury depends on the prime minister. It says much for Tony Blair that he confirmed without hesitation the selection by the church of a candidate who could spell trouble for him. It was quite certain, for example, that Rowan Williams would not be cheering the prime minister on in his determination to confront Iraq with force. The archbishop’s opposition to the impending war has been made plain at every stage.

Rowan Williams happened to be close by in New York when the Twin Towers fell. He witnessed firsthand on Sept. 11, 2001, the reaction of the citizens around him to those terrifying events. He was “blessed,” he wrote afterwards, in reflections he called Writing in the Dust, to be among a group of people who showed such qualities that in their company he faced death gladly. But it would be wrong, nevertheless, he added, to react to such terror with the terror of war. The joint statement he recently issued with the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, while accepting that “the moral alternative to military action cannot be inaction,” asserted that doubts persisted about the “moral legitimacy, as well as the unpredictable humanitarian and political consequences” of a war. The two archbishops urged continued weapons inspections and unequivocal compliance by Iraq with the U.N. resolutions.

The weather forecasters Feb. 27 were predicting storms to come, and one has battered the Church of England already. Williams’ predecessor, Archbishop George Carey, wrote him a consolatory letter recalling his own early difficulties and adding, with a touch of schadenfreude, “Welcome to the club.”

The latest heavy weather has come from the conservative wing of the evangelicals who have now gained ascendancy in the Church of England, especially after the ordination of women. Williams has a very high doctrine of fidelity and commitment as the context for love and marriage, which paradoxically leads him to doubt whether celibacy is required of homosexuals under all circumstances, and he has knowingly ordained a gay man.

His opponents accuse him of subverting the authority of the Bible by this approach. Williams has responded that he subjects his own views to those of the church as a whole, but as Protestant individualists his critics do not accept that stance. There were some of them on parade last week at Canterbury, sternly arrayed behind banners which proclaimed “Beware of False Prophets.” Others wore black armbands in mourning for the Church of England.

Besides leading the national church and speaking to the nation, an Archbishop of Canterbury also presides over the Anglican Communion with its 70 million members. Doctrine on homosexuality is something of a litmus test here too, and dissension over it nearly split apart the Lambeth Conference of 1998. The Africans and Asians accused the North Americans in particular of departing from biblical truth under the influence of secularism, only to be accused in their turn of fundamentalist dogmatism. Carey held the assembly together. However, the Third World bishops fear that his successor is more liberal. They have decided to give Rowan Williams a breathing space, but they will be back.

Closer to home there is another storm brewing, which when it breaks may have the capacity to shake throne and altar. After the death of his wife, Diana, Prince Charles said he had no plans to marry his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, but a very skillful public relations exercise has made the pair publicly accepted as a couple. The Church of England is now willing to marry divorcés in church under certain conditions, but not if one has been responsible for the break-up of a previous marriage. The Bishop of London, the diocese involved, would judge the circumstances in this case, but since Prince Charles on becoming king will be Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury would have a say. Asked recently how he would react, Williams replied, “It is possible to say no.”

But those clouds were not what occupied the minds of the Canterbury congregation last week. The bishops as they emerged after the service were smiling happily in the sunshine. They know they have a man of God who will be a teaching archbishop with a touch of steel.

The Christian faith in Britain is like a forest fire that has died down. Polled in the street, people say they are not religious -- but then immediately add that they are, of course, “spiritual”; and the recent census showed that over 70 percent of the population consider themselves to be Christian. The churches have tried to fan these embers into flame, but have not so far had much success. Now, helped by an Archbishop of Canterbury who does not know how to speak in clichés, they must go on trying to find a language that connects.

John Wilkins is editor of The Tablet, a Catholic weekly published in London.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003