Leader of Anglican Church announces resignation

As the Church of England shudders amid a controversy over homosexuality, its head has announced his resignation. Rowan Williams is a wise intellectual – but did he cut it as a leader?

After ten years as spiritual leader of the world’s 85 million Anglicans, Rowan Williams has announced his resignation as Archbishop of Canterbury. With a gentle, learned manner and the tousled appearance of an absent-minded professor, Williams has become a familiar figure in public life.

As Archbishop, he constantly sought unity. Yet from the moment he was ordained he became a divisive figure. In 2008, for instance, he suggested that Muslim teachings should be integrated into the British legal system. The media were outraged: the head of the Church of England, they said, was advocating the sort of repressive Sharia law practiced in Iran – although in truth, his claims were part of a complex argument.

Williams has always had a reputation as a radical: in his student days he was arrested while campaigning against nuclear weapons. When the Church refused to ordain gay ministers, he was on the point of quitting. He sidestepped the issue of homosexuality, but it did not go away: his time as Archbishop has been dominated by it.

In America, the Church of England is a liberal institution. In 2003 American Anglicans fatefully ordained Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop. The backlash shook Anglicanism to its roots – especially in Africa, where socially conservative attitudes reign.

In spite of his personal views, Rowan Williams wanted above all to hold together the broad Anglican community. A surprising turnaround was completed in 2010, when he backed a covenant that aimed to keep the Church united by blocking gay bishops. The covenant has alienated him from much of the Church’s liberal wing, and now looks set to fail. Some believe Anglicanism faces schism – a split that could finally tear the Church apart.

Yet many outside the Church admire him still. He is a respected poet, a commentator on social issues and a thoughtful advocate for morality in public life. Perhaps in his next role as master of a Cambridge college, these intellectual qualities will serve him better.

God is in the detail

Rowan Williams has many admirable qualities, say some; but he is a thinker, not a leader. Debates over Sharia law, for example, may be important academically but they are completely inappropriate territory for a Christian leader. Constant attempts to reason and compromise just lead to squabbling. A leader, they say, needs to be decisive and pragmatic; not a head-in-the-clouds philosopher.

What a sad reflection on public life, others reflect, if we are too cautious and sensitive to accommodate original thinkers. No wonder public life is filled with drones: anybody who fails to watch every word is subjected to a witch hunt. Ah well, they say – our hysterical society will get the colourless leaders it deserves.

You Decide

  1. Do great thinkers make great leaders?
  2. Should religious institutions have an influence in making law?


  1. Rowan Williams struggled to keep the Church together. Write a ‘sermon’ calling for unity among a group you identify with.
  2. Think of a leader you admire, and write a paragraph about what made them great. Were they a thinker, or a doer?

Some People Say...

“A little less conversation, a little more action.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this really matter to anyone beyond a few die hard Anglicans?
There are more than a few – it’s one of the biggest single Christian denominations, and spreads far beyond England. Besides this, the Archbishop is an important figure in British public life. For instance, opposition from the Church of England is one of the main obstacles to the legalisation of gay marriage in England.
Right. So what happens now?
A new Archbishop will be chosen by the British Queen and Prime Minister, with advice from top figures from the Church. The favourite is John Sentamu, the charismatic Ugandan Archbishop of York. Although he also has an academic background, Sentamu’s style is more media friendly. Already he has columns in theSun and the Daily Mail.

Word Watch

Sharia Law
Most Muslims believe in living by a defined set of laws based on the Quran and the life of Mohammad – this is Sharia law. Many westerners associate ‘Sharia’ with the strictest forms; but in fact there are many different interpretations verging from the repressive to the relatively permissive.
Campaign against nuclear weapons
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), founded in 1958, was one of the biggest protest movements of its time. Its circular logo, based on the semaphore code for the letters C, N, and D, became a universal symbol for peace. CND was revived in the 1980s when the leaders of the USA and the UK had less tolerant policies to the USSR – this was when Rowan Williams was active in it.
Christianity today is splintered into almost 40,000 branches or ‘denominations,’ but originally it was one united religion. The first major split was the ‘Great Schism’ in 1084, between the Eastern and Western Churches. So although any major and decisive break can be called a schism, the word has particular significance when it comes to the Church.

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