The Church of England being what it is, no Archbishop of Canterbury can succeed: but Rowan Williams has failed more disastrously than most

Dr Williams is likely to be a better Master of Magdalene than he was Archbishop of Canterbury (PA photo)

Rowan Williams’s decision to leave Lambeth Palace and to move at the end of the year (I suspect with enormous relief) into the Master’s lodge at Magdalene, Cambridge, evokes in me two distinct reactions: firstly, well, lucky old him: a prestigious job he can actually do, with no compulsory pastoral work involved, in a very agreeable place indeed, rather than a job in which he has failed disastrously — at least partly because it is one which is absolutely impossible for anyone to pull off successfully; clever old thing to swing it.

My second reaction is that though everyone is being very complimentary about his time at Canterbury — “As a man of great learning and humility,” said David Cameron, “he has guided the church through times of challenge and change. He has sought to unite different communities and offer a profoundly humane sense of moral leadership that was respected by people of all faiths and none” — despite all that, actually he has been a much greater disaster than was actually necessary. He hasn’t “guided” the Church of England at all. He has lurched, with it, from one crisis to another, as often as not making things a lot worse. He is supposed to be a distinguished theologian (a proposition about which there is, to say the least, more than one view) and also a man of integrity: but he has consistently failed to handle crises with any theological coherence (theology, incidentally, is supposed to clarify complex problems, not make them more obscure than they need be); and, as for integrity, instead of remaining true to his beliefs, he has sought to avoid conflict between opposing views in his Church not by attempting to convince those he believes are wrong but by retreating in the face of internal political pressure, sometimes changing direction in mid-stream.

The classic example is one I have written about before: the case of Dr Jeffrey John, the homosexual but (the crucial qualification) celibate Dean of St Alban’s, who was not appointed Bishop of Southwark because of Dr Williams’s veto, and who a year or so before that was not appointed Suffragan (auxiliary) Bishop of Reading, having already accepted it with Dr Williams’s encouragement, only to be told by the archbishop after he had himself been pressured by some very bigoted evangelicals (who didn’t care if Dr John was celibate or not, celibacy not being on their agenda: if he was that way inclined he was in his bones a flagrant sinner) that he must now withdraw his acceptance.

This he did after having been pressured by the same Dr Williams who had previously encouraged him to accept: this was done, according to one insider quoted by the Sunday Times, “with shocking unkindness and bullying over two miserable days. This was not just pusillanimous; it was cruel.” So here we had, as one commentator puts it, “a … woolly-minded, wordy man of inconsistent and incoherent views presiding over a miserably divided church”. The point is that this supposedly distinguished theologian simply didn’t think clearly and theologically: he went with the Anglican anti-theological flow.

As I wrote in this space after the Crown Appointments Commission caved in to pressure from Dr Williams and failed to appoint him, as its members had intended, to Southwark, “one is tempted to see this story as yet another example of a consistent Anglican incapacity to think theologically. The point about Dr John is that he is ‘celibate’: and by that he means that he and his long-term partner are chaste, that they abstain from any kind of sexual act. In other words, his behaviour is entirely consistent with article 2359 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches that “Homosexual persons are called to chastity” and that “By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom… they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

Not only did Dr John’s appointment to Southwark not take place: the C of E did not even escape being “split from top to bottom” by his non-appointment: the fact is that Anglicanism is intrinsically divided by its theological incoherence; but, partly as a direct result of Rowan Williams’s treatment of Dr John, there is now an increasingly unpleasant edge to its divisions. Dr Williams should have resolved this matter theologically: that would have been the way a theologian of his much vaunted “integrity” should have behaved. He would have needed to keep his nerve: but the fact is that whatever he decided to do, including making the wrong decision and caving in to the baying of the theological Neanderthals, would have needed courage.

All Archbishops of Canterbury fail, quite simply because the Church of England isn’t a Church at all, it’s a theme park: you wander about and choose the rides you want to go on. It’s not there to change you but to reflect what you already are. It has no consistent theology; it has a portfolio of theologies, each one inconsistent with the others. We all know that. But Rowan Williams has simply avoided the theological dimension, and used his prestigious position as a platform for whatever philosophical or political musings his restless mind comes up with. One minute he is praising Cameron’s vision of the Big Society: a few weeks later he is attacking it, presumably having forgotten what he previously said. His mind ranges endlessly over the possibilities for our society; nothing will deter him from voicing the most eccentric and potentially divisive views. He has behaved not like a pastor but like an academic. The most notorious example, of course was the World at One interview in which he said that the adoption of Sharia law in this country was, wait for it, “unavoidable”. This is how the BBC website reported the story:

Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4’s World at One that the UK has to “face up to the fact” that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system.

Dr Williams argues that adopting parts of Islamic Sharia law would help maintain social cohesion.

For example, Muslims could choose to have marital disputes or financial matters dealt with in a Sharia court.

He says Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said “there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts – I think that’s a bit of a danger”.

The whole point, of course, is that our entire democracy is built on the fundamental principle that there is one law for everyone, high or low, believer or unbeliever, and that the law protects our liberties as well as constraining and channelling them. There’s no habeas corpus in Sharia law; there’s no right in English law, furthermore, for a man to put away his wife by simply repeating “I divorce you” three times. Williams’s pronouncements on Sharia law were, said the Sunday Times commentator Minette Marrin, “a truly astonishing revelation of his unfitness for his office”. And so they were.

For the Master of Magdalene to have come out with these speculative reflections would have been just fine. But then, of course, there would have been no interview on The World at One. Nobody would have noticed; but then, there would have been no universal condemnation, no nasty media coverage, either. It is surely good, for him as well as for the Church of England, that Dr Williams is off to Cambridge now. He will doubtless cause as much local bemusement and irritation there as I remember him doing in Oxford in the 80s; but outside Cambridge, nobody will ever know.