A Coup for Cambridge
  • Monday, March 19, 2012

By John Martin

LONDON — The Church of England’s worst-kept secret is out now that Archbishop Rowan Williams, 61, has announced that he will become Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in January.

Speculation has been rife for months, fuelled by rumours that Williams was already in the diary for public events in Cambridge in 2013. The appointment is a coup for Cambridge University, as he is expected to attract a long queue of doctoral theology students from across the world.

After serving as Archbishop of Canterbury for a decade, Williams had made no secret that he was looking at his options for the future. Last autumn, for instance, he told members of the Compass Rose Society that he was not minded to take on a second Lambeth Conference, even though this was open to him. He said he would exit in plenty of time for his successor to plan well for 2018.

His job may essentially be chief parson of the nation, but the role of Archbishop of Canterbury is inevitably political. Four of his predecessors were martyrs (Alphege, 1012; Thomas Becket, 1170; Simon Sudbury, 1381; and William Laud, 1645). An archbishop is the target for people’s hostility towards the Established Church and the faith it espouses.

Williams has been at the centre of more than his share of domestic political spats. He called the Iraq War “immoral and illegal.” His support for green issues and concerns over global warming drew fire from conservatives. His suggestion that the legal code needed to acknowledge a growing Muslim population by incorporating some parts of Shariah into British law was greeted with near hysteria.

The Anglican Communion’s convulsive atmosphere created by huge differences over sexuality has meant great personal pain for the archbishop. His strategy was to keep people talking where possible, and to his great credit that continues.

“Crisis management is never a favourite activity, I have to admit, but it is not as if that has overshadowed everything,” he said in an interview with members of British Press Association. “It has certainly been a major nuisance. In every job that you are in there are controversies and conflicts and this one isn’t going to go away in a hurry.”

The archbishop has said the controversy is about a broader issue: how a communion of churches comprising a wide range of cultures can consult about major issues. He saw the proposed Anglican Covenant as the best guide to future consultation. Suspicions that the agreement would override the decision-making powers of provinces have triggered an anti-Covenant campaign which looks likely to succeed in the Church of England. The archbishop has asked whether everyone wants to see the divisions between Anglicans healed.

Rupert Shortt, the archbishop’s biographer, wrote in the Guardian March 16 that history would judge Williams as “a great archbishop of Canterbury in all sorts of ways, many yet unsung.”

“I sometimes wonder whether more fractious members of his flock realise how lucky they have been to have him,” Shortt added. “Institutionally, though, his decade in office will probably end in honourable defeat.”

Even so, Williams steps down confident that Christianity is not losing the battle against secularisation in Britain. “I don’t think that there is somehow a single great argument that the Church is losing. I think there is a great deal of interest still in the Christian faith,” he said. “Although I think there is also a lot of ignorance and rather dim-witted prejudice about the visible manifestations of Christianity, which sometimes clouds the discussion.”

His successor will be chosen by the Crown Nominations Commission (CNC). The first step in the process will be Prime Minister David Cameron’s appointment of a layperson, normally either a senior politician or judge and probably a woman this year, to lead the commission’s work. The CNC will offer two names to Cameron, who will tender the CNC’s first choice to the Queen. He has already signalled that while he supports same-sex marriage he will not insist that the next archbishop hold that view.

There have been a number of recent changes to the operations of the CNC. The Secretary General of the Anglican Communion attends as a non-voting member, so the Rev. Canon Kenneth Kearon will be present. A person chosen from among the Primates of the Communion will be present with the right to vote. Almost certainly this will be an African, with the choice probably between Bernard Ntahoturi of Burundi or Thabo Makgoba of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa.

Another first is that Canterbury Diocese will supply six members. Their connections and convictions will be closely scrutinized in the months ahead. The national component of the CNC is a standing group elected by the General Synod. Its composition and balance changed recently with the election of an evangelical, Tim Dakin, as Bishop of Winchester and his replacement by a liberal Catholic. In the event that the Archbishop of York is a candidate, his place on the CNC will be taken by a senior English bishop.

The Archbishop of York, the Most Rev. John Sentamu, 62, who fled Uganda to escape death threats from dictator Idi Amin, is clearly front-runner. He has grown in stature with each successive senior appointment and is adept at using symbolic gestures to make a point. He is godly, popular, with great media presence, and evangelicals will be solidly behind his candidature.

A Sentamu archepiscopacy is not a foregone conclusion. The Rev. Simon Cawdell, a General Synod member, told TLC that Prime Minister Cameron may think it politically risky to choose a very articulate opponent of gay marriage. “On the other hand, if he goes with a proponent of gay marriage he will very likely find himself choosing an archbishop who disagrees with him on just about everything else.”

There are not many English bishops in the right age range, and several able new bishops, but most of these lack the needed experience. The Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres (London), a former chaplain to Archbishop Robert Runcie, is much talked about. He may be considered too old at 64, and he has not ordained any women, although many women serve as priests in his diocese.

Other names being mentioned include Nick Baines (Bradford), Christopher Cocksworth (Coventry), Stephen Cottrell (Chelmsford), and Graham James (Norwich).

“My successor will need the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros,” Williams said in his interview with the press association. “I would like the successor that God would like.”

Photo: Rowan Williams with his parents, Aneurin and Delphine Williams, upon his graduation from Christ’s College, Cambridge, 1971.
From archbishopofcanterbury.org.

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