The Biography of the Archbishop of Canterbury: A Review

Reprinted from First Things

Rowan Williams is without doubt one of the most significant and learned theologians in the English-speaking world. Unfortunately, during his tenure at Canterbury, it has at times seemed that he has managed to get nearly everyone in that world angry at him, liberals and conservatives alike. As Rupert Shortt shows in his excellent new biography, Rowan’s Rule, this is to some extent the archbishop’s fault — Williams, although superlatively brilliant and profound as a theologian, and justly beloved as a pastor and spiritual guide, does not to the same extent possess the spiritual gifts of administration and political savvy. But many of the criticisms sent Williams’s way, Shortt argues, are unjust, often due to misunderstanding, projection, and a lack of perspective.

In Rowan’s Rule, Shortt sets out to provide Rowan’s critics with a true measure of the man, attempting to relate both the substance of his thought and the story of his life. Shortt is that rarest of breeds — a religion journalist who knows what he is talking about — and he succeeds brilliantly in his project, showing both that Williams is well worth listening to and that many of his critics may not have listened to him closely enough.


From the right, Williams has come under heavy fire for his supposed theological liberalism and typically Anglican wishy-washiness. To a certain extent, such criticisms are unavoidable. Williams is in fact in favor of women’s ordination, his revisionist position on same-sex relations is on record, and his understanding of Scripture has drawn objections from many, not only evangelicals. If that were the end of the story, Williams would seem to be no more than a conventional liberal, along the lines of the average Episcopal bishop. But as Shortt shows, nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, Williams is best viewed as part of the rebellion against the rebellion of the 1970s, working alongside his colleagues Oliver O’Donovan and N.T. Wright to bring the Church of England away from the arid liberalism of Honest to God and Don Cupitt and back to its roots in Word and sacrament, prayer and worship, tradition and Nicene-Chalcedonian orthodoxy. While many of his professors busied themselves with demythologizing the gospels and re-presenting Christian doctrine as anthropology, Williams insisted that Christianity at its core is answerable to God’s initiative, and most particularly so in the unique revelation of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Very much against the grain of British academic theology of the day, Williams’ first book, The Wound of Knowledge, showed through relating the history of Christian spirituality that “the theologian,” as the fourth-century monk Evagrius said, “is the one who prays” — which is to say that theology must always grow out of the encounter in worship and prayer with the surprising and extra nos Word of Christ, rather than taking its agenda from modernity. And in his second book, Resurrection, Williams showed that the church’s message of forgiveness and new life rests entirely on its real encounter with the risen Christ, who unexpectedly returned to his disciples from beyond the grave.

Likewise, although critics have pointed justly to a certain degree of fuzziness on the sources of authority (Scripture, but not quite? Or the church’s tradition and language, but what parts from which church?), Williams has always been forthright that the church’s authority is God in Christ, who speaks through Scripture, sacrament, and our ongoing reception of the same.

Arguably, it is just here where Williams parts company most with theological liberals — he insists that the first task of theology is to listen to God’s revealed and redeeming voice, and he truly has sought to hear this voice in Scripture and tradition. By thus placing Williams in his proper theological context, Shortt has performed a genuine service to those who would prematurely write off Williams as just another Anglican liberal. While Williams does not always line up with traditional positions, Shortt shows that it is simply misleading to view him as of a piece with the standard liberalism represented by Gene Robinson and Katherine Jefferts Schori.

All that is not to say, of course, that Williams is beyond criticism. Shortt certainly does not regard him as such, and points in particular to Williams’ views on politics and economics. One friend of Rowan’s, according to Shortt, averred that Williams’ politics “have always come out of a different and less sophisticated part of him.” The chief trouble, as Shortt sees it, is that Williams has not shown himself to possess a particularly subtle voice on the right use of state power, or a very helpful understanding of the genuine benefits of free-market economics for the welfare of the world’s poor. More often than not, Williams is prone to broad condemnations of war and globalization.

Shortt also notes, however, that Williams has elsewhere been quite critical of the “childishness” of utopian politics, which wrongly supposes that hard choices do not have to be made about the distribution of scarce goods, and that peace will simply break out when social constraints are removed. The puzzle, for Shortt and many other observers, is why Williams has not followed through on his own best insights.

Williams has also been criticized for lack of emphasis on the central truths of the Christian faith, and for pointing too much to how the gospel unsettles our judgment and not enough to the blessed assurance given to the saints. Shortt quotes Eamon Duffy, who argues that Rowan’s version of the Christian tradition at times “can seem like a never-endingly argumentative seminar, constant upheaval without any point of rest or leverage.” The judgment is, to a certain extent, sound. Particularly before his enthronement as archbishop, Williams’ work gave great weight to the apophatic moment in theology — to the need for our words about God to be open to judgment and the possibility of saying more.

But in his new role as the most visible Christian bishop in a very secular and uncomprehending England, Williams appears to have taken this criticism to heart. As Shortt points out, his recent book Tokens of Trust is a clear and winsome introduction to the basics of Christian faith; his short guide to the desert fathers, Where God Happens, was very well received; and his most recent book on Dostoyevsky’s fiction is (viewed from one angle) a profound apologetic for the Christian faith in response to the shallow and naively optimistic atheism of Richard Dawkins. Williams the archbishop, it appears, is not the same man as Williams the professor.

This has also shown itself to be true in Rowan’s conduct during the ongoing Anglican struggles about homosexuality. It is well known that as a professor Williams had been quite forthright in his support of same-sex relations, but he changed his tune after becoming archbishop. Many liberals have seen this as Williams’ great betrayal of their cause, charging him with giving in to conservative bullies or of sacrificing truth and justice for unity. Shortt, for his part, makes it clear that he believes Williams ought to have taken a firmer line on the advancement of same-sex unions. But all the same, he does step back and allow Williams to make his defense.

As a bishop, Williams believes that it is his responsibility to teach what the church teaches. “The bishop,” Rowan argues, “does not make decisions, doctrinal or disciplinary, alone: The church decides, and the bishop’s unique role is to guarantee all that the church decides.” Moreover, Williams as archbishop has come to believe that Anglican unity is no small thing — in fact, it matters a great deal that Anglicans continue to speak the same language of faith, even if in different idioms. For Williams, preserving the catholicity of the church is not just a matter of sacrificing truth for unity; it is a principled stand.

Of course, it remains to be seen to what extent Anglican catholicity can in fact be preserved. One of the strengths of Shortt’s book is his narration of Anglicanism’s ongoing turmoil, and of Williams’ role throughout. Shortt is a good journalist; he mostly reports the viewpoints of various parties and tries to get out of the way. Here, the portrait he gives us of Williams’ prior tenure as a diocesan bishop in Wales is invaluable — while beloved by many in his old diocese, administration seems not to have been his forte, and he was criticized by some for being overly hesitant to make decisions and enact needed discipline. This will sound familiar to anyone who follows the Anglican crisis. Shortt argues that these qualities may yet be viewed, in retrospect, as a strength, if Williams is able to keep people talking to each other long enough to reach a consensus. But they just as easily may not, and only time will tell.

In the book’s introduction, Shortt quotes a few lines from Wordsworth:

“That best portion of a good man’s life” is “His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.”

Some of the book’s high points are Shortt’s attempts to relate a few of those portions of Williams’ life that, for the most part, are away from the public eye. One does get the sense, as do so many who have met him, that Williams is above all a man of deep faith, humility, and prayer.

Mounted on the wall in his study, Shortt relates, is a large nail imprinted with the letters INRI. Williams is, whatever his faults and errors may be, a man who knows himself to stand under the judgment of Christ. Even more than his vast intellectual achievements, that may yet be his most enduring gift to the troubled church he serves — to point us all, again and again, to the cross of Jesus.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hylden is associate rector at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana, where he also serves as a chaplain at Ascension Episcopal School.

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One Response

  1. Benjamin Guyer

    I will have to read the Shortt biography at some point. Does he write anything about the Jubilee group that Williams was part of in the 1980s? I have been reading through some of their material recently and it offers a rather different perspective on Williams, who appears less New Left and more far left (not least in the Speaking Love’s Name pamphlet), with a genuinely strident disdain for a number of traditional Christian practices and beliefs (not least those concerning the family and human sexuality). I recognize that many want to see Williams as a response to a certain sort of theological liberalism – e.g., Cupitt or Hick (Robinson less so) – but Williams’ own navigation of creedal orthodoxy with far-left political commitments appears pretty idiosyncratic. I’m not really sure that Williams rejected liberalism so much as replaced one form of heterodoxy with another. Of course, I am still digging on this matter – hence, if Shortt writes anything about the Jubilee group, I would be most interested to know.


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