N.T. Wright (former Bishop of Durham, currently Professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrew’s, Scotland) on Rowan Williams:
‘Here to introduce Bach’s St Matthew Passion,’ said the radio announcer, ‘is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.’ My companion and I listened eagerly to a lucid account of St Matthew’s theology, and of how Bach’s music involves every hearer in the events of Jesus’ death. But at one moment the speaker paused, as though searching for a word. Didn’t he have a script? Next time I saw the Archbishop, I asked him. The BBC, he explained, sat him in a studio and asked him to talk about his favourite music. How many Archbishops could have done that, I wondered – at the same time as writing a book on Dostoevsky, debating with Philip Pullman, and plotting a visit to Robert Mugabe? Not to mention the thousand shocks that episcopal flesh is heir to.
Shocks there have been. Nobody in 2002 saw what was coming. That’s why many of us, courteously disagreeing on some issues, have remained convinced that Rowan was the right man for the job. Shallow, polarizing analyses remain irresistible for commentators; many in the church go along for the ride. But Dr Williams is a thinker’s thinker. He burrows down into an issue, reads it up, mulls it over, prays it through, and then speaks his mind. We have needed that. He is a classic Anglican theologian: not one for big, clunky systems, but solid, deep and rich in his study of the Bible and the Fathers. To hear Rowan expounding St John or St Augustine is to encounter Anglican theology at its best. Watch him translate that theology into pastoral mode: with children, say, or praying quietly with someone in the wings of a conference. Like all loveable people, he can be infuriating. But loveable none the less.
His mind has been, above all, for unity, always central to a bishop’s vocation. Not a shoulder-shrugging, lowest-common-denominator unity, but the hard-won, costly unity that makes demands on charity and patience rather than on conscience. He has worked hard for that unity within his own Anglican Communion and across denominational lines. He is one of a tiny handful of Anglican theologians to be a household name in Roman and Eastern Orthodox circles; and he has won friends in the free churches, too. When he was an official observer at an international Methodist conference twenty years ago, he complained in his closing remarks that they hadn’t sung his favourite Wesley hymn, ‘And Can it Be’, with its solid gospel affirmation, ‘No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine!’ They obediently stood up and sang it.
It’s worth reading in its entirety, in part because Wright comes from the Evangelical wing of the Church of England, and in part because the concluding paragraph lays out a vision of what Wright, and no doubt many other bishops, think the church should be:
Who, after all, is running the Church of England? We have Lambeth Palace, the House of Bishops, General Synod, the Archbishops’ Council, the Anglican Communion Office, and (don’t get me started) the Church Commissioners. How does it all work? In an episcopal church, the bishops should be the leaders.
Giles Fraser offers his very different perspective on the qualifications for the next Archbishop of Canterbury here. Money quote:
His much more pressing task is to speak clearly out of the Christian tradition in a way that will resonate with those who no longer think that religious belief has anything left to offer.
While Fraser and Wright come from very different wings of the Church of England, both express appreciation for the difficulty of Williams’ job, as well as for his faith, theology, and spirituality. Not so the Archbishop of Nigeria, who puts all blame for the shattering of communion on the Archbishop.