Sunday, February 24, 2008
I confess to being very disappointed when Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, but as is too often the case I made my judgments about him prematurely and on the basis of limited (or even flawed) information. Perhaps I am a contrarian, but as the general opinion of the leading inhabitant of Lambeth Palace has tended to slip my attitude toward him has been one of increased admiration. That is not to say that I am in agreement of all that he does and says, but I respect the manner that he has attempted to remain faithful to the radical teaching of Jesus Christ while steering his ways through today's impossible and polarized landscape.
At times I am stunned at the accusations made against him, for many of them just do not stand up under careful cross-examination. I suspect that the vast majority those who yell the loudest or throw the smelliest eggs at him have neither listened to what he is saying nor read with care what he writes. I suspect that Rowan himself would not be very patience with those who take his every word as gospel, but I suspect also it must irritate him no end when people attack him for things he neither is nor has said. While he is warm in personal conversation, welcoming, and has a tremendous consideration for those who come into contact with him, he is also one of the most significant minds of our time -- certainly there hasn't been an Archbishop like him since the time of Michael Ramsey (and Ramsey did not have to deal with such a predatory press as that which savages Rowan on a regular basis).
This is all preparation for saying that during the last few weeks my respect and admiration for Rowan Williams has grown. This is not to say that I agree with all that the Archbishop has said or done, but I stand in awe of the manner in which he has handled himself. It is when a person is under great pressure that we see of what they are truly made, and it seems to me that if you look more closely at the man behind the events of the last few weeks (and years) then the Primate of All England has acquitted himself as an intelligent, holy, and gracious Christian leader should.
Lambeth Palace was, perhaps, more than a little naive in the manner it handled the press in the lead-up to the Archbishop's now infamous lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Maybe if he had to do it again he would alter the timing of his interview to the BBC and answered some of the questions put to him with different wording, but I respect him enormously for not backtracking from the substance of what he actually said (rather than he is reputed by journalists to have said), and neither did he apologize for raising a very difficult and emotional issue for a pluralistic and multi-religious society to address. He was subsequently sorry for any pain he might have caused, and that is entirely within character, but he spoke from the basis of mature reflection on the dilemma presented to British society by a large Islamic minority in our midst.
I have since gone through the lecture the Archbishop gave with a fine tooth comb, and while I am not entirely in agreement with him, he did not say anything that a faithful and orthodox Christian need be ashamed of. It is significant, I think, that we have heard support for the Archbishop from both the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and several leading evangelical ethicists, which suggests that Rowan Williams is not so far out on a limb as the press would like you to believe -- just that he has courage to put onto the table a pressing social issue that has strong theological overtones.
Through this whole sorry business the Archbishop has handled himself graciously and firmly, and with great integrity. It is this which I find myself admiring. A couple of the days after the storm broke, he preached in Cambridge at the memorial service for Professor Charlie Moule, and in the pulpit we saw and heard from a man who is captured by and committed to the living and risen Lord Jesus Christ. I have never heard a memorial service address with such conviction and depth. Then during the last few days both English archbishops were in Cambridge for the kick-off of the university's 800th anniversary and the Diocese of Ely's 900th, and although I was not present the addresses given and the way in which together they handled theological students and seminarians from across the spectrum reflected commitment, intelligence, and godliness.
Perhaps there is an inevitability in an aggressively secular society for Christian leaders, especially if they appear a bit quirky or are intelligent way beyond anything the lowest common denominator can imagine, to be attacked, misrepresented, and ridiculed by the forces that are at play. What is more difficult to stomach is when these individuals are set upon by those who should be their own spiritual kith and kin. Some of the things that have been said about Rowan Williams in the last few weeks, and by those who are fellow-travelers along the Christian way, have been at time scurrilous. I just hope the Archbishop doesn't sit up late at night surfing the web looking for them, for they would cause him a great deal more pain.
As I have watched Rowan Williams these last few months (and you get a much closer view in England than the USA), I have seen a man who is an example of Christ to me. He appears to be someone who has been so captured by the redeeming love of Christ that it is reconciliation and forgiveness that he seeks, even when being bombarded by viciousness from Christians and secularists alike (although for different reasons). As a person he seems to be in the process of thoroughly absorbing the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, of forgiving his enemy and turning the other cheek. Wherever we are on the spectrum of the conflict that is tearing at the very fabric of the church, this is an example from which we can all learn and seek to emulate.
Neither does the Archbishop shirk responsibility for what he says and does, or hide from his detractors. Some of the nastiest things have been said about him by those (often professing to be Christian) who are delighted to lash out on the Internet, but then hide behind fictitious aliases or wear the cloak of anonymity. To me this distasteful Internet practice demonstrates an unwillingness to stand behind your own words and convictions, and is in many respects both cowardly and dishonest. Rowan Williams can be accused of neither.
Like so many who are denigrated in their own time, I suspect that when the history of these times is written that Rowan Williams will be treated more kindly than many are treating him at the moment. While I am not asking readers to like him or even to agree with him, I would encourage them to (if only grudgingly) admire him and respect him as he attempts to do one of the most impossible jobs in the Christian world.