Judith and I were recently privileged to spend an evening in Oxford listening to a lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury and then engaging in discussion with him along with others. This article set out some impressions and reflections.
The link with Rowan was the late David Nicholls, a close friend of mine since boyhood, who became an Anglican priest and a prolific writer on politics and theology. Following his death in 1996, a Trust was set up in his memory on which I serve as a Trustee. Rowan became our Patron and agreed to deliver this lecture because he had worked closely with Nicholls and Ken Leech (who has spoken at our Centre for Radical Christianity-CRC) in the 1980s in the Jubilee Group, a network of Christian socialists. Rowan, David Nicholls and Ken Leech made an interesting trio. They shared Christian socialism, orthodox theology and Anglo-Catholicism, while at the same time supporting women priests.
The theme of Rowan’s recent lecture was ‘Law, Power and Peace: Christian Perspectives in Sovereignty’ - a weighty subject indeed. The Bishop of Oxford, who was in the chair, commented that few Archbishops could have delivered such a lecture– the exception being William Temple. Rowan’s starting point was Nicholls’ book ‘The Pluralist State’, which argued for a state in which power is largely dispersed to semi-autonomous associations. Rowan was attracted by this devolved model.
He also debated international affairs. He questioned the simplistic claim that the Iraq War was fought for ‘freedom and democracy’ and asked whether the subsequent process of nation building had been sufficiently sensitive to the rights of minorities. He also argued that today’s ‘chaotic political and international setting’ requires some restraint on the autonomy of the ‘sovereign state’ in order to tackle such problems as climate change, environmental degradation, torture and genocide. He ended by advocating ‘inter-active pluralism’ in which the state had an arbitrative and balancing function in a way which allowed active partnership and exchange between communities themselves and between communities and state authority. This was profoundly linked with the Christian - certainly the Augustinian Christian - sense of the hopes and limits that can be seen in political life.
It was a formidable lecture, which illustrated the Archbishop’s exceptional breadth of knowledge and analytical and conceptual power – considerable strengths in a church leader. Subsequent discussion brought out Rowan’s understanding of other Christian traditions and his current engagement with Islam. But these are not the only attributes an Archbishop needs. He also needs to communicate a vision to church as a whole, including the non-academic, and to demonstrate a sense of purpose and decisiveness.
The rest of this article moves on from these discussions in Oxford to consider Rowan’s role as Archbishop. These are early days. Rowan became Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002. He is still only 55. If he retires in his late 60s like his last two predecessors, then he has a dozen or more years yet to serve. He could yet have a considerable impact on the church.
At our CRC event on 24 September, Bishop Spong criticised Rowan for a tendency to avoid conflict and to put unity before truth. Is this fair? It presumably related to Rowan’s handling of the Jeffrey John affair. This arose only months after Rowan had taken up office. A new Archbishop could not be careless about unity.
The John affair suddenly brought into sharp focus two fundamental problems that face Rowan. The first is his dual role of leading both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. These roles need to be separated and Rowan’s ideas of pluralism should be reflected by allowing different provinces to adopt different rules on sexuality issues, as happens in world Methodism. The second problem is increasing partisanship within the Church of England. Again, a pluralistic approach is needed in which differences are tolerated. But at the same time, Rowan must avoid becoming just an arbiter between factions and needs to become a leader whose vision inspires the majority in the church.
This leads to my concluding thought. Does Rowan have a strategy? Strategy is not easy in a diffuse body like the Anglican Church. But a clear sense of direction is crucial if Rowan is to make the best use of the dozen years that remain to him as Archbishop.