Anglicans Enthrone `a Saint': New Archbishop of Canterbury May Face Storms, but for Now, He's a Star. (Analysis)

By Wilkins, John | National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

Anglicans Enthrone `a Saint': New Archbishop of Canterbury May Face Storms, but for Now, He's a Star. (Analysis)


Wilkins, John, National Catholic Reporter


"We have a saint for our leader now," claimed one of the Anglican bishops after the enthronement of Dr. Rowan Williams in Canterbury Cathedral Feb. 27. The new Archbishop of Canterbury would have winced to hear that, but certainly Anglicans have a star, an intellectual and a poet, who looks set to rival the late Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Cardinal Basil Hume as a holy man who speaks to the nation about God. That is the task, because the national church is in sharp decline. When its Sunday congregations, diminishing along with those of the other mainline churches in Britain, dropped below a million, those responsible for the statistics either withheld or massaged the data.

It was a beautiful early spring day in Canterbury for the enthronement ceremony in the cathedral where St. Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170 for asserting the rights of the church against King Henry II. Archbishop Williams' many supporters--like those gathered outside with placards inscribed "Thank God for Rowan"--are hoping for springtime in the Church of England. But Williams is something of an unknown entity on the English establishment scene. He comes from Wales, where the Anglican church prides itself on its distinctive Celtic roots and on its disestablishment. Williams has been outspoken against pomp and circumstance. Assertions of special status, he has said, are against the gospel.

Yet at Canterbury all the panoply of establishment was on full display: processions of bishops and canons and choristers, state dignitaries, Roman Catholic cardinals, Orthodox and oriental patriarchs, members of the Free Churches (denominations such as the Mennonites and Quakers that traditionally advocate separation from a state church), representatives of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Here was a church still claiming to represent the nation, with close ties to the state, personified not only by the presence at the ceremony of the Prince of Wales and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but also by a bewigged retinue of legal personages, one of whom bore the Royal Mandate which was duly read out to the assembled company before the proceedings could unfold. Can Williams make headway against this, assuming he is still minded to?

Part of the apparatus of establishment is that the final choice of the appointment for Canterbury depends on the prime minister. It says much for Tony Blair that he confirmed without hesitation the selection by the church of a candidate who could spell trouble for him. It was quite certain, for example, that Rowan Williams would not be cheering the prime minister on in his determination to confront Iraq with force. The archbishop's opposition to the impending war has been made plain at every stage.

Rowan Williams happened to be close by in New York when the Twin Towers fell. He witnessed firsthand on Sept. 11, 2001, the reaction of the citizens around him to those terrifying events. He was "blessed," he wrote afterwards, in reflections he called Writing in the Dust, to be among a group of people who showed such qualities that in their company he faced death gladly. But it would be wrong, nevertheless, he added, to react to such terror with the terror of war. The joint statement he recently issued with the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, while accepting that "the moral alternative to military action cannot be inaction," asserted that doubts persisted about the "moral legitimacy, as well as the unpredictable humanitarian and political consequences" of a war. The two archbishops urged continued weapons inspections and unequivocal compliance by Iraq with the U. …

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