The legacy of Rowan Williams to the Church of England

By Andrew Goddard

On the evening of 4 January, as the BBC News led with a new “civil part- nered bishops” row, Rowan Williams must have powerfully experi- enced how different life had become after stepping down as Archbishop of Canter- bury at the end of 2012. For over 10 years such stories were almost always tied to him and his views on sexuality and his leader- ship of the Church. Not any longer. Yet the stor y illustrates how much “unfinished business” remained as he left office and how fragile Anglican unity is. It therefore raises the question as to his legacy.

Rowan Williams and the Duke and Duchess of CambridgeFor the last six months I’ve attempted to look back over his primacy to offer an ini- tial tentative assessment of his tenure and legacy in Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013). It has been a fascinating and challenging task. I thought I had a fairly good idea of his ministry but quickly realised how little I knew and how wide it has been.

The temptation was to start with such headline-catching issues as sexuality and women bishops – another major issue stuck in the “unfinished business” tray for Justin Welby. That is where the media has concentrated and what sadly many Angli- cans think of in relation to Rowan’s tenure. Instead the book starts with one of his most significant gifts to the church – lead- ership in mission. This too is of course “unfinished business” but in a much more positive sense.

Through giving such rapid and strong suppor t to the vision of Mission-Shaped Church, developing Fresh Expressions and introducing Pioneer Ministr y and Bishops’ Mission Orders, Rowan has helped change both the culture and the structures of the Church to empower it for mission. He has also offered a pattern of being a missional leader as a bishop through establishing himself as a leading public intellectual speaking from a Christian perspective. Public conversations with a range of lead- ing figures from atheist scientist Richard Dawkins to author Philip Pullman and comedian Frank Skinner have of fered a model of gentle evangelism and apologet- ics through conversation.

This conversational pattern also marks

his extensive and significant work in inter- faith relationships, par ticularly with Islam with his great commitment to George Carey’s Building Bridges Seminar among other initiatives.

In addition to such public leadership there has been his extensive personal min- istry to individuals. Most of this remains unpublicised but his famous “letter to Lulu”, a five-year-old whose father sent Rowan her letter – “Dear God, who invent- ed you?” – elicited a reply that should put to rest claims that he is always incomprehen- sible. Justin Welby will approach this in dif- ferent ways, perhaps of fering a more evangelical conversion-focussed appeal. What is not in doubt is that he inherits a way of being Archbishop that has placed leadership in mission central and won the respect of many.

That missional approach also shaped Rowan’s engagement with the public square. Once again the media lens leads

most people to think simply of ‘the Sharia lecture’, generally seen as a major mistake. The lecture was, however, widely misun- derstood (for reasons in part but not wholly due to Rowan) and makes sense set in the context of his wider Christian social vision of what he called “interactive pluralism”. This vision is now more easily discerned in his recent publication, Faith in the Public Square (Bloomsbury, 2012) which brings together many of his lectures and speeches in this area.

His contributions in other areas, notably responding to the financial and ecological crises we are facing, have also been impor- tant but largely un-noticed was his commit- ment to speaking on behalf of the vulnerable and for those who were without a voice. Almost all his contributions in the House of Lords took this form.

It has been the internal life of the church where Rowan’s legacy is much more dis- puted. He has prevented major decisive

splits in the Church of England and wider Communion but these remain real possibil- ities and the cracks have increased and widened during his time. His commitment to maintaining unity through civil conversa- tion and helping Christians understand dif- ferent views has been a hallmark and major strength as has his personal ministry and visits across the Communion. Many, how- ever, wished for more decisive leadership and direction.

In the Communion the Windsor path he hoped would be accepted has failed or at least stalled with moratoria ignored, the future of the Anglican Covenant unclear and many leaders not attending Lambeth 2008 or the last Primates’ Meeting. His articulation of a vision of life in communion as Anglicans remains however a major gift and his support for indaba at Lambeth 2008 and then in the Continuing Indaba Process may have sown seeds that will bring forth some good fruit in the years to come as we address remaining deep divisions.

Across all these areas – and in his work with other churches – Rowan’s ministr y has been marked by significant lasting the- ological contributions and a desire to work for the Church’s unity through encourag- ing dialogue and interpreting dif ferent tra- ditions and perspectives to understand each other. He has sought to serve the Church and enable it to discern the mind of Christ rather than push his own agenda. The reality, however, is that almost all parts of the Church have, at some point, expressed frustration with his approach. He has proved, in his own words, an unreli- able ally.

Failure to lead has been a common accu- sation but those making it are often at log- gerheads about what sort of lead he should have given. With greater distance more may be persuaded that, in Tom Wright’s words, he “actually modelled a dif ferent, and Christ-like, form of ‘leadership’” and that “among his astonishing array of accomplishments, that may be the most impor tant”.

The Rev Canon Dr Andrew Goddard is Associate Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) and on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum. His book Rowan Williams: His Legacy has just been published by Lion

2 Responses to "The legacy of Rowan Williams to the Church of England"

  1. David Waters   30/01/2013 at 14:52

    One view: The hierarchy of the C of E exist to preserve itself, rather than for any common external purpose.

    Another view: The C of E is united by common ownership of assets, not common beliefs.

    Justin Welby should do the brave and decent thing, reduce the size and influence of the dioceses, and let each church / fellowship / congregation run their own affairs. A very 21st century concept.

  2. Bobn Baird   15/02/2013 at 23:53

    It may be a 21st century concept, but Congregationalism is a path to its own form of disunity.