Those of you tightly knit into the Anglican Communion will already know that The Most Rev'd and Rt. Hon. The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, will retire from that post at the end of this calendar year and will return to academic work. For those of you reading who are outside of our Anglican world, since his enthronement on February 27, 2003 as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, he has served as the Primate (chief Episcopal leader, and in this case an Archbishop) of All England and is the primus inter pares (first among equals or peers) of all of the heads of Anglican provinces around the world. He is a focus of unity and while he cannot explicitly tell any province what to do, historically the Archbishop of Canterbury's moral authority is widely respected. His influence extends far beyond England as he gives leadership and focus to the Anglican Communion. He's also central in representing Anglicanism in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogues.
A simple Google search will net you plenty of responses to the news that +++Rowan is stepping down (some glowingly positive, others frankly downright uncharitable), but I'd like to offer something more personal here. +++Rowan is my Archbishop of Canterbury. I know some of you have lived through many Archbishops of Canterbury, but he has been in office the entire time I've been an Anglican. Since I began walking the Canterbury Trail as a Wheaton College undergraduate, I've known no other in that office.My journey from Southern Baptist student to Episcopal Priest (a complicated one, for sure!) unfolded alongside +++Rowan's Archiepiscopacy and within the context of the Anglican Communion he faithfully sought to lead. In reflecting on these past years, I'd like to highlight a few ways in which he demonstrated to me how to be an Anglican.
-His Grace is capable of such theological nuance and understanding that the Pope refers to him as "My friend, Rowan," the Orthodox gave him a D.D., and he can honestly speak with liberals and conservatives, low Evangelicals and high Anglo-Catholics. He demonstrates how, at our best, Anglicanism can contain a great degree of comprehensiveness and also relate honestly and charitably to those outside of our portion of the Church Catholic. Going beyond this, he has also demonstrated great charity in relating to those of other faiths, which is increasingly important in an age of secularization. Even those who disagree with him cannot deny his intellectual gifts.
-His Grace debated Richard Dawkins, the so called "high priest of atheism," and got him to admit that he's only 6.9 out of 7.0 (98.6%) that God doesn't exist. If you're unfamiliar with Dawkins, the previous sentence might as well have read, "His Grace struck a rock and water sprang forth!" Anglicans need to continue to follow his example and develop such rigorous and well grounded lay and ordained leaders so as to be able to stand up to the onslaught of secularism and atheism. For some to observe that the Archbishop seemed to engage the science better than Dawkins engaged the philosophy and theology gives us all a high goal indeed.
-In all of the mudslinging in the Anglican world during his tenure, and even at the most intense and challenging moments, I've never heard His Grace stoop to the petty name-calling and petulance to which so many on all sides of every issue have resorted. To be the focal point of tension and to remain charitable for a decade is no small feat.
-Finally, in his writings and talks, His Grace has been (and will continue to be) an example of a church leader who actively engages the world around him. Karl Barth talked about this as having a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. It is sometimes tempting for us to retreat into the ghetto of the church, but the Archbishop over the years has consistently weighed in on a wide range of issues, sometimes prompting the secular press to push back and ask what the Church has to do with wider culture. Theology concerns the entirety of human existence, and +++Rowan seems never to have forgotten this.
+++Rowan, Archbishop of Canterbury, has demonstrated admirably how important a rigorous life of the mind is to clerics and to all Christians. He has related charitably to a diverse group of people, taken on the pressing in of secular fundamentalism, kept a cool head in the midst of conflict and not allowed the Church to forget its God-given role in speaking to culture, nor let the culture get away with thinking the Church has nothing to do with it.
I'm sure he's made mistakes (just like the rest of us), but as I approach the first anniversary of my priestly ordination, I will not speculate as to what I would have done in his place! Instead, I will just say "Thank you, Your Grace, for being my Archbishop of Canterbury as I followed God's calling on my life into the priesthood, serving in The Episcopal Church."
We should all charitably give thanks for all of the good that +++Rowan has done in his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, while of course also praying for the Crown Nominations Committee, the Prime Minister and the Queen for wisdom and for our next Archbishop of Canterbury to faithfully lead the Church of England and our Anglican Communion. We should also hope for him to possess, in the words of His Grace, "the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros!"
With Continued Prayers for a Holy Lent,