Rowan Williams: Shaking Up the Church

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed Rowan Williams last July as archbishop of Canterbury—the Church of England's leading primate—it’s fair to say that feathers were ruffled.

For one thing, Williams, the former archbishop of  Wales, is the first Welshman to become archbishop of Canterbury in over 1,000 years. But that break with tradition paled into insignificance next to his outspoken views on politics, homosexuality, and the exploitation of children.

During his career, the 52-year-old Williams, who has described himself as a “hairy leftie,” has knowingly ordained a homosexual, been arrested during a peace protest, become a druid, and attacked the marketing of movie-related toys and games to children. Small wonder, then, that he has scarcely been out of the news since his appointment was announced.

“The new archbishop has charisma,” said Andrew Rawnsley in London’s The Observer on July 28. “He has a muscular mind and the nerve to speak it.”

Shortly after his appointment, Williams told a gathering of journalists that “I would only support military action [against Iraq] that the U.N. had called.” He then signed an antiwar petition that was delivered to Downing Street, giving moral weight to opponents of Tony Blair's militant stance.

At around the same time, the conservative Times of London published an excerpt from Williams’ 2000 book Lost Icons, in which he argues that companies like Disney exploit children through aggressive marketing and merchandizing. “Williams has got hold of the wrong end of the lollipop,” Matthew Parris wrote in The Times on July 27, but other commentators praised the archbishop for taking a stand against the mega-corporation.

On Aug. 5, Williams sparked another debate when he was inducted into the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards, a historic order of druids. Standing in a stone circle similar to the one at Stonehenge, the archbishop laid his hands on a giant sword and took the Bardic name of Aneurin. Church traditionalists accused him of promoting paganism, but Williams defended the spiritual integrity of his country’s tradition.

A more serious row is brewing over his history of ordaining a man he knew to be a homosexual. In early October, when two conservative church groups called for his resignation over the issue, Williams announced that he would not impose his “personal theories” on the church, but stopped short of recanting his liberal views on sexuality. As with other divisive issues, the new archbishop’s position on homosexuality could determine the direction the Anglican church takes in the 21st century.

Reader Response:

Dear WPR:
Sarah Coleman's short resume of the new Archbishop of Canterbury is seriously misleading in one respect. She describes him as having "become a druid." This is not so. Williams made the following statement in December 2002 which, to anyone who has researched the subject, is an entirely fair and adequate summary of the situation:

"The reporting about the Gorsedd of Bards has been a mixture of the malicious and the ignorant. There is no pagan connection; This is the premier cultural association of Welsh-speaking Wales, and its leadership has been consistently and explicitly Christian over pretty well all of its 200 years of history. The ceremonial is a mildly absurd Victorian invention. There is, despite the constantly repeated statements otherwise, no invocation of gods and goddesses. At the induction ceremony, hymns are sung from the standard Welsh hymnals, including prayer that Wales be faithful to the Word of the Covenant and the blood of the cross. There has been a good deal of simple falsehood around this matter, as well as an ignorance of Welsh culture and Christianity that has caused considerable hurt and anger in my country."

I hope that World Press Review will publish this letter to put the matter beyond doubt.

—Simon Barrow
Brighton, United Kingdom