Monday, 19 March 2012

Losing Rowan

Being Principal of a Cambridge College is obviously a much less prestigious and challenging role than I had imagined. Recently The Independent carried what turned out to be a report of the appointment of a new Master of Emmanuel; the report appeared under a headline announcing the Director General of the National Trust was ‘standing down’. Last week it carried an article about the appointment of the new Master of Magdalene; the article spoke of the post as ‘quiet retirement in academia’.

Meanwhile, there are two parts of the ‘bigger picture’ which this almost universal level of reporting doesn’t touch as it swings into a focus on the betting odds for the appointment of anew Archbishop.

First, at the political level, it is quite possible that this summer the Church of England will very narrowly fail to agree to have women Bishops (a goal prized by liberals) and quite clearly decline to enter into the proposed new Anglican Communion Covenant (a goal prized by conservatives), thus failing to do two things which the present Archbishop of Canterbury had urged it to do. If this does happen, his resignation will have removed in advance the need for any speculation about whether his position then becomes untenable or whether in fact he is uniquely well equipped and well placed to help people see where to go from there. It is a new Archbishop of Canterbury who will be the one who has to pick things up afresh from there - if ‘pick things up afresh’ is a reasonable way to put ‘try to be the sort of focus of unity even a man of Rowan Williams’ rare qualities was not able to be’.

Secondly, at the philosophical level, the Church of England continues to exist on the knife edge between the liberal danger of such pliability in the face of the insights and norms of the world that it no longer holds the faith and the conservative danger of such ossification in the face of the traditions of the church that it no longer makes sense in the world. Another later post might spell this out more fully; the point here is simply that Rowan Williams sees this clearly, that most of those who criticise him within and without the church do not, and that we would be lost if a new Archbishop does not.

The Archbishops of Canterbury appointed in my life time had all first been appointed Bishop from a post as either a Professor of Theology (Ramsey and Williams) or Principal of a Theological College (Coggan, Runcie and Carey), with Catholics with degrees of liberal or affirming hew (Ramsey, Runcie and Williams) being interleaved with Evangelicals with degrees of openness (Coggan and Carey). Some may expect it is the ‘turn’ for an evangelical, and with the increasingly evangelical nature of both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, this would make some sense. Twice the new person was there sitting in office as Archbishop of York (Ramsey and Coggan) and once as Archbishop of Wales (Williams) but twice not (Runcie and Carey). Williams’ appointment ‘from outside the Church of England’ was much less of a break with this pattern than people think (given that he was ordained in the Church of England and served in it until he became Bishop of Monmouth). But, given that the present Archbishop, with all his skills, may have found it impossible to hold the ring, it is difficult to think that anyone else from this sort of pool or outside it likely to be able to make a better fist of things in the next ten years.


Elizabeth said...

What a beautifulimage heading thispost.

Peter Mullins said...

Thanks, Elizabeth, for this and for your comment on my piece a few days later. I had a gap between taking a step-son to work and going to the doctors so walked along the road and saw this on a railing - the small camera in my pocket didn't focus the edges perfectly but I have the picture as my screen saver at the moment so I must be fond of it myself.