Welsh Primate to lead Anglican world

Article by James M. Rosenthal and Matthew Davies

Downing Street today announced that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Wales and Bishop of Monmouth, is to succeed George Carey as 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rowan Williams, born in Swansea in 1950, has been one of the names often mentioned as a possible successor to the Archbishop of Canterbury since the retirement of George Carey was announced in January this year. A respected theologian, Archbishop Williams has written a number of books on the history of theology and spirituality and has been involved in various commissions on theological education, both in his province and beyond. He is the author of many well-known books including the recently published Love’s Redeeming Work (Oxford). He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1990 and is chairman of the Trialogue Conference, which brings together professionals from the worlds of Spirituality, psychotherapy and literature. 

Archbishop Williams was elected Bishop of Monmouth in 1991 and enthroned as Archbishop of Wales in 2000. Since then he has gained enormous support for his leadership and his handling of some of the more controversial decisions facing the Anglican Communion today.

Distinguished as being the only person to have been professor of divinity at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Archbishop Williams is now the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be selected from outside the Church of England since the Reformation.

According to the bishop’s website he is “both a contemporary and rigorously intellectual thinker, recently citing the cartoon The Simpsons as an example of humility and moral debate. He has attracted a lot of media attention in relation to his radical views on both homosexuals in the church and church/state relations.”

In his presidential address to the Church in Wales’ governing body, the archbishop spoke from the perspective of one who was within a few hundred yards of the World Trade Center in New York when the terrorist attacks took place. He called on all to consider the nature of power and helplessness and to remember that the only certainty is that “a faithful God holds us firmly in life and death alike.” 

“No ‘Star Wars’ shield of missile defence could have averted last Tuesday’s atrocities. No intensive campaign to search and destroy in Afghanistan will guarantee that it will never happen again. If we fear and loathe terrorism, we have to think harder. Indiscriminate terror is the weapon of the weak, not the strong; it’s commonly what the ‘strong’ aren’t expecting, which is why they are vulnerable to it. It is the weapon of those who have nothing to lose. If we want it not to happen, we have to be asking what it means that the world has so many people in it who believe they have nothing to lose.”

He also said, “Anger always blurs the real human features of those we’re angry with. Frustration requires that we don’t allow ourselves to imagine what it’s like to be the other… The two fears, the two angers, don’t connect.”

The address ends by his stressing the importance of faith in our understanding and acceptance of death, “The church is supposed to be a community of people you’d be glad to die with?and if that is true about the church, then faith becomes the one wholly inflexible ground for resistance to violence, precisely because it teaches us how to face death – not in excited expectation of reward, but in the sober letting-go of our fantasies in the sure hope that a faithful God hold us firmly in life and death alike. Only if we are learning in this way how to die and to love, can anything we say have any way in weight in a violent world.”

News of his appointment to the historic See of Canterbury has brought a plethora of responses and good wishes from around the Anglican Communion:

Speaking from Ireland, the Archbishop of Armagh, Robin Eames, said, “I believe that Rowan Williams will bring to the leadership of the Anglican Communion: scholarship; integrity; and sensitivity. His deep spirituality will provide a firm foundation for the many diverse issues which will confront us in the years to come. As senior primate I welcome him to his new office and wish him God’s richest blessings.”

On hearing the news, Njongonkulu Ndungane, Archbishop of Cape Town, said, “We thank God for the gift of a man who has great depth of spirituality, an incisive mind and a pastoral heart. He makes Anglican history as the first Archbishop of Canterbury who comes from outside the traditional ranks and it bodes well for the bonds of affection that bind our global communion, as does his track record for leadership on issues of our day.”

The presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Frank Griswold, also issued a statement to ACNS, “I am very pleased with the appointment of Rowan Williams to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. He is well known and highly respected across the Anglican Communion, in ecumenical circles, and here in the United States. The combination of a keen mind and a contemplative heart, together with an ability to relate classical Christian tradition to the needs and struggles of our world, make him eminently qualified to take up this important and challenging ministry of service.”

Vice-chairman of the Anglican Consultative Council, Presiding Bishop John C. Paterson, told ACNS, “I look forward to working with the new archbishop, who is already well known and highly respected in many parts of the Anglican Communion for his scholarship, for his commitment to the service of our Lord and for his already proven gifts of leadership in the Church. This is undoubtedly the right appointment from the perspective of the Anglican Communion at this critical time in its development.”

Leo Frade, Bishop of Southeast Florida, spoke of his personal encounter with Archbishop Williams during the Lambeth Conference 1998. He said, “I had the pleasure of meeting Archbishop Rowan Williams during Lambeth ’98 as we dealt with world debt issues.

“I believe that he carries a vision that not only will be a blessing for the church in the British Isles but for Anglicans in all continents of this planet. I am assured that Archbishop Williams will be a voice that will effectively and unashamedly proclaim the love and justice of our Lord Jesus Christ and will make our church relevant in this new century.”

Dean Ross Jones of St George’s College, Jerusalem, told ACNS, “The Church in Jerusalem is excited by the selection of Archbishop Rowan Williams as the next Archbishop of Canterbury. God has provided the right man at the right time. Thanks be to God!”

Clergy from the Church of England have responded warmly to the news of the appointment. Father Philip Chester, St Matthew’s, Westminster, London, home of Affirming Catholicism, expressed great joy of the news. Fr Chester said, “I warmly welcome the appointment of Archbishop Rowan Williams. His vision, holiness and humility are the greatest encouragement to parish clergy who pray that the Church of England will open its windows to the world and discover a new spring time of God’s grace.”

“We are friends and Christian brothers, ” said Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria speaking of the archbishop-designate. “I wish him well. My hope is that he will prove his detractors wrong. I respect him, he is a well learned man of God and I look forward to sharing in his ministry for us all.” the archbishop concluded.

Links and reaction:

Interested in keeping up-to-date on news, opinion, events and resources from the Anglican Church of Canada? Sign up for our email alerts .