Anglican Archbishop: too intellectual to lead?
The Archbishop of Canterbury faces criticism for his views on Islamic law and gay clergy. Is he just misunderstood?
When it comes to leadership in the Church of England, the former Bishop of Norwich once reportedly said: "If you want to lead someone in this part of the world, find out where they're going. And walk in front of them."Skip to next paragraph
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Rowan Williams, who celebrates five years as Archbishop of Canterbury next week, could never be accused of doing that.
Since he took over the delicate task of leading the Anglican church's 77 million strong worldwide communion, Dr. Williams has repeatedly found himself marching against the current of public opinion, government policy, or both.
There was his criticism of British involvement in the Iraq war, which put the government's nose out of joint. There were proclamations on issues ranging from stem-cell research, abortion, and the criminal-justice system to America's foreign policy record and the economic iniquities of globalization.
But nothing has troubled England quite as much as his remarks this month on the inevitability of certain elements of sharia law in Britain. Sharia, he said, offered a way of arbitration, particularly in marital or family disputes, that could provide an alternative to divorce courts. "Certain conditions of sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law, so it is not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system," he said.
The comments ignited a furor that has seen British tabloids call for his resignation and members of his own hierarchy publicly disown him. For some Britons, Williams's remarks came as an unwanted reminder of the forward march of Islam in their midst. For some in the church, there was a sense of outrage that Muslims would get special dispensation, while Christians get no such favors in secular Britain.
The episode says as much about the personality of the archbishop, say observers, as it does about the knee-jerk tabloid proclivity to judge first and inquire later.
Part of the problem was not what was said (sharia justice has been arbitrating in civil affairs of British Muslims for 25 years) but the way it was communicated. The sentiments were woven into a lofty speech that was not easily boiled down into snappy headlines.
Therein lies the conflict: Williams is a public intellectual, ponderous, studious, and given to rich, convoluted peroration, which doesn't always sit happily in the era of sound-bite journalism.
"He always gives a very careful, thoughtful analysis of crucial issues but it's perhaps difficult for people to translate into everyday speech," said Canon Roger Spiller, director of the diocese in Coventry.
Giles Fraser, the vicar of Putney, who was tutored by Williams during the archbishop's role as an Oxford University don, adds: "The challenge is for him to express himself in such a way that he is understood more widely. But it's also right that we have people who can raise subjects in words of more than one syllable."
Even the archbishop himself admitted afterward that he might not have expressed himself as clearly as he should on such a delicate issue. But he added: "I believe quite strongly that it is not inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities and to try and bring them into better public focus."