The blogosphere is abuzz about a Daily Telegraph article Sept. 10 saying that Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, intends to leave office next year for a return to Cambridge University, where he taught from 1980 to 1986. Naturally enough Lambeth Palace is not commenting on the story. Nor are there indications from Cambridge. But that is to be expected.
This would be almost a decade ahead of his official retirement age. Archbishop Williams came to Canterbury at a younger age (52) than his immediate predecessors: George Carey, 56; Robert Runcie, 59; Donald Coggan, 65; Michael Ramsey, 57; and Geoffrey Fisher, 58. If he remained in office until age 70, he would have served longer than those five predecessors. Carey broke with precedent by retiring at 67.
Circumstantial factors suggest there may be substance to the story. First, a decade seems about right as a term for such a demanding role. Carey and Runcie both served around 10 years. Second, Archbishop Williams possesses viable alternatives. Few bishops or archbishops contemplating early retirement have work options. He has the time and intelligence to fill an academic post for the remainder of his vocation. Third, no one would be surprised if Williams let it be known he has had enough.
The role of Archbishop of Canterbury is all but impossible, not least because of its political responsibilities. The archbishop is second citizen after the monarch and occupies a seat in the House of Lords. He is the Primate of all England and joint president of the General Synod. He has a diocese and can count on the help of a suffragan bishop, but like his predecessors has always taken the role seriously. Then there are responsibilities across the Anglican Communion which have mushroomed in the last 30 years.
If Archbishop Williams left in 2012 it would give his successor time to plan the Lambeth Conference of 2018. It is believed that this prospect had an influence on George Carey’s decision to retire in 2002. Of Archbishop Williams’s five immediate predecessors, only Fisher presided twice over a Lambeth Conference.
Other factors make a 2012 departure plausible. Next June is the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the archbishop would want to see this through. In 2012 General Synod will deal with legislation regarding both the proposed Anglican Covenant and women in the episcopate. Approval of both would provide a plausible segue to a new archbishop. It would be another matter altogether if either measure, or both, failed.
In the normal course of events Canterbury tends to swap between the evangelical and Catholic wings of the church. This would suggest that an evangelical of stature should be in poll position. The Archbishop of York (John Sentamu, 62) and the Bishop of London (Richard Chartres, 64) are available should the Church choose a “caretaker.” (Bishop Chartres denied the Telegraph’s claim that he has suggested an early retirement for Archbishop Williams.)
An election to fill a vacancy on the Crown Nominations Commission, caused by the Rev. Canon Tim Dakin being appointed Bishop of Winchester, will be hotly contested. The online wagering site Paddy Power published odds on 10 possible successors to Archbishop Williams, but four are too old or already retired. The list of bishops included Sentamu, Chartres, and Nick Baines (Bradford), Christopher Cocksworth (Coventry), Stephen Cottrell (Chelmsford) and Graham Kings (Sherborne).
John Martin, in London