Review by Jesse Zink
Two years before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote: “I long for the Church to be more truly itself, and for me this involves changing its stance on war, sex, investment and many other difficult matters …. Yet I must also learn to live in and attend to the reality of the Church as it is, to do the prosaic things that can be and must be done now and to work at my relations now with the people who will not listen to me or those like me — because what God asks of me is not to live in the ideal future but to live with honesty and attentiveness in the present” (Christ on Trial, pp. 85-86).
Andrew Goddard does not cite this passage in his evaluation of Williams’s term in office but he could have: it functions almost as a programmatic statement for his rocky tenure as primate of All England and titular leader of the Anglican Communion. Williams’s ten years in Canterbury were a constant struggle to hold together a national church and a global communion with “honesty and attentiveness” to those he encountered. Coming to grips with that tenure and offering tentative judgments on the legacy of Williams’s leadership is the task of Goddard’s book.
Goddard arranges his book topically. There are individual chapters about the effort to permit women to be ordained as bishops in the Church of England, the crisis sparked by the appointment and resignation of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading, and Williams’s work to hold together a fractious Communion in the Windsor process and a redesigned Lambeth Conference. These are the high-profile moments of his tenure and the ones that will be long remembered.
Goddard repeatedly stresses the ways in which Williams distinguished between his personal theological views and his responsibility to the church as a bishop. “Although many criticized this as hypocrisy, that is unfair,” Goddard writes. “It is simply a very countercultural expression of living under authority and his commitment to the unity of the body of Christ” (p. 110).
Goddard provides useful context for this. As a bishop in Wales in the 1990s, Williams declined invitations to preach at services in England at which women were to be ordained. Williams supported the ordination of women but the Church in Wales had not yet approved such a move. This sense of responsibility is, again, an example of the “honesty and attentiveness” to the Church that Williams highlighted prior to his time in Canterbury.
But Goddard also acknowledges that Williams’s efforts did not resolve tensions in the Communion: “His successor arrives … with the fuse much shorter and few processes in place to … prevent what appears to be a rapidly approaching and damaging explosion” (p. 112). Williams leaves behind a compelling model of church leadership on the one hand and unresolved tensions on the other.
A particular strength of this book is its sheer breadth and the attention it pays to issues that never seized the public spotlight but which nonetheless were a significant portion of Williams’s archiepiscopal ministry. Goddard devotes chapters to his promotion of Fresh Expressions in the Church of England, his low-profile but deeply significant work with people of other faiths (beyond the controversial and misunderstood 2008 lecture about Shariah), his outspokenness as a public intellectual on political matters, and his constant effort to, as he said in his first press conference, have Christianity “capture the imagination of our culture” (p. 76). Goddard notes, without citation, that Williams spent 20 percent of his time on Communion-related concerns, a helpful reminder that no matter how often Anglicans around the world turn to Canterbury, pressing Communion needs are only part of a whole raft of initiatives and interactions that occupy the archbishop’s time.
Goddard had fewer than four months to research and write the book and acknowledges that his conclusions and judgments are “initial [and] tentative” (p. 8). Each chapter provides a summary of Williams’s speeches, interviews, and sermons relevant to the topic at hand, along with commentary from Goddard and a handful of other individuals whom he interviewed. At times, the chapters feel like little more than lengthy quotations from Williams’s own writing. This is no bad thing, however. To read Williams’s original words in the context in which they were first delivered is refreshing. In any event, their complexity and depth defy easy summation. (At least two other books on Williams, Rupert Shortt’s Rowan’s Rule and Mike Higton’s Difficult Gospel, similarly rely on lengthy quotations.)
Goddard’s tight writing schedule presents other problems, as it causes him occasionally to pass over significant moments too briefly. For instance, he mentions Williams’s “historic meeting with [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe” (p. 144) but provides no additional information on what made it historic or why it was significant to Williams’s ministry. These are judgments that a tight publishing deadline likely cannot accommodate.
A larger disappointment is that the people Goddard interviewed to inform his judgments seem a limited lot. They are overwhelmingly male and from the Euro-Atlantic world. One wishes, for instance, to hear more from Anglicans from the Global South. Other important voices are silent as well. This is most notable in the chapter on the Reading appointment, in which it appears neither Jeffrey John nor Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, were interviewed. Goddard may have tried and failed to interview these people but as the book lacks any methodological summary, their voices are conspicuous by their absence.
A standard American judgment of Williams’s tenure appears to be: “He didn’t do what I wanted.” Many liberal Episcopalians condemn him for not doing enough to promote the cause of gay and lesbian Christians, while many conservative Anglicans lament his failure to resist that cause. When Williams announced his resignation, the loudest voices on all sides seemed to say, “Good riddance.” In this context, Goddard’s largely sympathetic tone is refreshing. By patiently wading through Williams’s speeches, sermons, letters, and other public writings, he has established the ground on which Williams’s legacy will be debated. That ground, it is clear, is expansive.
It is impossible to discuss Williams without reflecting on the deep personal holiness he brought to the position. This was manifest in a kenotic leadership that, as Goddard acknowledges, suggests “that part of his legacy should be a questioning of the whole concern to identify anyone’s legacy” (p. 313). Williams may have acted in ways that failed to please various factions in the church, but his personal conduct continually modeled what it means to live a life shaped by the good news of Jesus Christ.
This, Goddard concludes, may be Williams’s most lasting accomplishment: “what marked out Rowan’s time as archbishop is that he embodied and sought to nurture what needs to be widespread … seeing what is authentic, genuine, and good and true in others’ point of view” (p. 302). In other words, Williams’s tenure was marked by an inability to say “I have no need of you” — even and especially when so many others were demanding that he do precisely that. This deeply biblical position is surely at the root of any legacy Williams leaves and is, moreover, the place to begin building a church that is “more truly itself.”
The Rev. Jesse Zink is assistant chaplain and a doctoral student at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.