Facing your failure and living with difference: why I give thanks for Rowan Williams’ tenure as archbishop of Canterbury

Two years before he was appointed archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams wrote

I long for the Church to be more truly itself…. Yet I must also learn to live in and attend to the reality of the Church as it is, to do the prosaic things that can and must be done now and to work at my relations now with the people who will not listen to me or those like me—because what God asks of me is not to live in the ideal future but to live with honesty and attentiveness in the present. (Christ on Trial, pp. 85-86)

As of today, Williams is no longer archbishop. For many in the church (including Williams himself, I imagine), this is a cause for relief. His tenure is viewed as a disappointment by liberals, who think he betrayed them and his own views by his actions in office, and by conservatives, who think he didn’t go far enough in using the powers of his office. The general public sees him as a figure who made (apparently) impolitic remarks on sharia and failed to get General Synod to pass legislation allowing for women to be bishops.

But before he fades much further into the past, I think it’s worth taking the time to give thanks for Williams’ tenure in Canterbury. And the place to start is with this quotation, which could serve as a programmatic statement for his tenure. On the one hand, Williams is saying, there is a vision of the church he aspires to and which he longs to see realized. On the other hand, he recognizes that the reality of the church is such that any one person’s understanding of it is insufficient. Elsewhere, he was written

Believing in the Church is really believing in the unique gift of the other that God has given you to live with. (Tokens of Trust, p. 106)

The fact that—try as we might—we cannot create a church of people who think like we do is central to Williams’ understanding of what the church is to be and do. As a leader in that church, Williams’ tenure has been about reminding us of that reality. Given the divisiveness and polarization that so mark and mar our politics (ecclesial and otherwise) these days, that reminder is both prophetic and timely.

In his closing address at the 2009 Anglican Consultative Council meeting, Williams told delegates:

the Gospel seems to be saying to us: first face your failure; your failure, not your neighbour’s; your failure, your turning away; not theirs, not his, not hers; then ask how can it be made glorious? ….But perhaps, just perhaps, thinking about those potentially glorious failures, opens us out onto the prayer that turns us back to Christ-like self-giving that lets the glory through. That’s what we hope for in our fellowship, our very fragile, very flawed, very precarious Anglican fellowship.

Repentance has always been a theme of Williams’ theology and it is something he has held up before Anglicans—often to their derision. Who, after all, wants to talk about their failures? There are many reasons why I think this is important to emphasize but I’ll note just one here: Williams reminds us that we are human and that means fallible, imperfect, and incomplete. That sounds obvious but it’s something that is frequently elided in this world of ours that puts so much focus on accomplishment—in the church and otherwise.

Williams’ tenure was not perfect. He made many mistakes. But his deeply-held theological convictions have issued in a profoundly human and profoundly humble leadership—even when it has led to his humiliation, as it has, repeatedly—that I have found refreshing and honest in this day and age, and which I shall miss.

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