Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and symbolic head of the Anglican Communion, has announced his impending retirement after nearly a decade. At 61, he intends to return to academia for the final phase of his public life as master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Williams’ term as Archbishop has been challenging for him, the Communion, and the faithful around the world as the church has struggled to maintain its relevance and integrity in the modern world.
One of the largest issues facing this (and most protestant denominations) is that of gay rights. Large and vocal diocese in Africa and Latin America are very conservative. Perhaps the wealthiest and most influential sector of the Communion, however, is the Episcopal church in the United States, which took major strides in recognizing same-sex partnerships and transgender rights this year. Navigating this divide has been Williams’ greatest challenge, and his quiet middle ground has frustrated both supporters and opponents of equality.
Dr. Williams offered a final interview to the Telegraph, addressing his challenges and failures as well as those of the church. On the issue of being a public spokesman and a spiritual leader at the same time, he acknowledges, “I don’t think I cracked it.” Describing himself as a “hairy lefty” (I would hardly qualify him as a lefty) and alluding to his personal progressive views, he expresses the frustration of trying to hold together the Communion in the face of major social change. Most tellingly, he offers this analysis of the Communion and its leadership:
We’ve not exactly been on the forefront of pressing for civic equality for homosexual people, and we were wrong about that.
It’s a pleasant change of pace from his usual vague vacillations, but he tempers it with a long discussion of the “tangle” of mixing civil and ecclesiastical demands in the realm of marriage. A thoughtful academic to the core, his final welcome words are muddied by his persistent wandering in the moors of the middle ground.
Sadly, his likely successor is John Sentamu, Archbishop of York. A native of Uganda, where LGBT citizens are threatened with death by the state itself, his position on marriage equality is quite clear. One of only four English bishops to refuse to sign the 1999 Cambridge Accord that affirmed the human rights of the LGBT community, he has said,
Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman […] We’ve seen dictators [redefine marriage] in different contexts and I don’t want to redefine very clear social structures that have been in existence for a long time.
While this may please the conservatives in the Communion, it hardly serves as good shepherding to the millions of LGBT Anglicans and is likely to further fracture relations between Canterbury and the Episcopals. What a sad and pathetic choice for a successor.