Oh Rowan, say it ain’t so
Last Friday morning, as increasingly I tend to do, I opened the news apps on my iPad rather than buying a daily paper and groaned.
The top ‘trending’ topic was that Archbishop Rowan Williams had announced his intention to step down at the end of this year. There had been rumbles for a while within church circles but I guess I was ignoring the rumours in the hope that the rumbles were wrong.
Already, various reviews and ‘obituaries’ of his ten years as Archbishop are starting to emerge both in print and online and, inevitably, they all make enormous play of the politics that he has had to engage in. The church has faced a perfect storm of cultural influences that have meant it has been an almost-impossible time to lead the worldwide Anglican Communion, regardless of any of the personalities involved.
One factor has been that cultural norms on sexuality in the western world are such that the United States’ church has been discussing issues concerning homosexuality and other forms of sexuality since the mid-sixties. They would say they haven’t been moving quickly in this area at all. Meanwhile, in Africa and the Far East, the subject is taboo and is still not up for discussion even today.
Another factor is that we live in a networked world. Primarily, people have found that geographical territory and boundaries are much less dominant. People instead affiliate in networks of the like-minded, wherever they may be.
So, regardless of who was Archbishop at a particular time, when one American diocese appointed a gay man as their bishop, the worldwide reactions were entirely predictable. The Americans thought they had got to such a point after much deliberation and prayer over many years. For the Africans, it was too fast and without any kind of consultation to which they had been party. In the aftermath, the networked nature of our world meant that conservatives in Africa and other developing countries joined forces with like-minded people in America and created churches within churches including ‘cross boundary’ activity that has put pressure on the very structures through which we relate to each other.
Archbishop Rowan has often been labelled as a bit weak because he has often sought to hold the middle line and has refused to come down hard on ‘offenders’. For example, he refused to conduct votes at the 2008 Lambeth Conference and instead opted for little focus groups of discussion.
There’s nothing weak about this gentleman. He has stood in the midst of some tremendous cultural forces, some very different global cultural norms and, like a showground strongman holding two horses pulling in opposite directions, he has tried to hold the whole thing together.
In 2008, I wrote him a letter of support to which he responded and said that he believed unity was absolutely key. He said he would do all he can so that, on the day of judgement, Christ would not ask him why he had not done more to hold the people together.
It is not weakness to sit in the middle of all that and try to hold things together, even if some would much rather you started throwing your weight around, disciplining people here and forcing your opinion through over there. It takes great strength to try and stay the course in the midst of such a storm. It takes great humility to be thinking of what the judgement seat may hold for oneself and what Jesus Christ himself would say to you when the world is screaming in your ear.
It may not make the newspapers, but it has been under Archbishop Rowan that the ‘mission-shaped’ church agenda has taken off and mainly because of his own leadership and emphasis.
Where the parish system has been creaking, he has overseen the development of Bishop’s Mission Orders. When I was ordained, other colleagues in my year group were amongst the first to be ordained as pioneers; men and women who, in the past, would have been labelled as troublesome or ‘square pegs in round holes’ or plain just rejected. The House of Bishops has undergone a startling number of new appointments in the last ten years and a good number of the new boys (and sadly it is still just boys) are mission-minded. There are churches that are growing, and not just in London, and different parts of the Western world are starting to look to the UK for lessons in how to reach out in post-Christian contexts.
Archbishop Rowan has also been prescient in his comments on the state of British society at several times in the last ten years; not least in commenting on the state of society in the run-up and then also the aftermath of the riots in 2010. He faced up to Mugabe and demanded an end to the persecution of Anglican Christians and told the Bankers a few home truths to boot.
The bookies have already started making the odds on who will replace Archbishop Rowan (you can get 20-1 on our own relatively new Bishop of Rochester) but whoever it is, they will have some enormous shoes to fill and I think we’re all going to miss him very much indeed. As the saying goes, sometimes you don’t realise how much you’ve lost until it’s gone.