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?

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Anglican leader: Dr. Rowan Williams said he could have expressed his view of Islamic law more clearly.

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."

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."

Williams studied theology at Christ's College, Cambridge, and earned a doctorate at Oxford in 1981. An unashamed enthusiast of intellectual pursuits, he collected academic honors and languages (he speaks seven) with assiduous regularity, and, in 1986, was appointed Oxford's youngest ever professor of divinity at the age of 36. His career in the church formally began in 1992 when he left academia to become Bishop of Monmouth. Eight years later he was elected Archbishop of Wales.

A self-declared "hairy leftie" who also counts poetry and his family (he has two school-age children) among his passions, the archbishop in private is a gentle, thoughtful man who can appear slightly aloof until engaged, friends say.

"He is a man with a monumental intellect but he is also a man of considerable personal humility," says Robin Baird-Smith, the archbishop's publisher. "People who say he's an intellectual snob are completely missing the point.

"He listens extremely well and he's extremely accommodating. He takes very seriously what you say and there is no question of him patronizing you," he adds. It is this ability to identify with the common man that sometimes appears that Williams is happier giving a service at a parish church than he is negotiating the politics of a church with members in 160 countries.

But asked whether his academic background was a disadvantage to leadership in a era of shallow headlines, Mr. Baird-Smith disagrees. "It makes him exactly the person we need at the moment. When everything is dumbed down and sound bites, this man offers people great hope."

Mr. Fraser remembers the archbishop as a "real thinker" who inspired his students. "He was really always someone who would challenge you and make you think deeper about things. That is what he was trying to challenge the church and the country to do about a whole range of complicated issues."

But if the country was unsure about his sharia remarks, the church has been equally uncertain over his leadership during a tumultuous period in which the Anglicans have been deeply split between those who favor the ordination of gay clergy and those who see homosexuality as sinful. The division is so deep that Fraser says Williams has inherited "one of the worst jobs in the world."

The schism widened further Monday, when the Church of Uganda threatened to secede from the rest of the Anglican fellowship unless the liberal wing of the church change its stance on homosexual clergy and same-sex marriage. The Ugandans have already announced a boycott of the upcoming Lambeth Conference, a 10-year convocation of Anglican bishops.

Questioning his leadership, some senior members of the General Synod, the 'parliament' that oversees Anglican affairs, have called for Williams to step down. Col. Edward Armitstead, a Synod member from the diocese of Bath and Wells, said: "Rowan Williams is a godly, gracious and clearly very able person in many ways, but I don't think he's got the gift of leadership that the church needs at this present time.

"The church is facing difficulties with falling attendances, diminished financial giving and fewer men and women coming forward for ordination to full-time ministry, and it really needs a clear Christian leadership."

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