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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, announced on March 16 that he will step down at the end of the year in order to take up the position of Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge.
Originally from Wales, Williams had a distinguished career as a professor of theology before being elected Bishop of Monmouth in the Church of Wales in 1991. In 1999, he was elected Archbishop of Wales. Three years later, he was chosen to be the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior bishop in the Church of England and the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Williams’ appointment was controversial from the start. Liberals in the church rejoiced. As a professor, he wrote an essay entitled “The Body’s Grace” that revealed his opposition to the church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality, and a series of letters written during his tenure as Archbishop of Wales revealed his belief that same-sex unions could be just as holy as heterosexual ones.
But the conservative wing of the church greeted him with suspicion, and he was snubbed by the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 2003. They let him lead prayers, but he could not speak or preach a sermon.
But it soon became clear that, whatever his personal views on the subject of homosexuality, Williams was determined to maintain church unity at all costs. In 2003, a gay priest named Jeffrey John was chosen to be an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Oxford. Other Anglican leaders objected to John’s appointment because of his longstanding relationship with another priest, even though it was a celibate one.
Fearing the dissolution of the Anglican Communion, Williams pressured John to withdraw his candidacy, and John ultimately acquiesced. Several years later, when John was being considered for the Bishopric of Southwark, Williams is widely believed to have vetoed his candidacy.
As the nominal leader of the Anglican Communion, Williams spoke out against the election of the openly-gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, and he was equally opposed to the Canadian Diocese of New Westminster’s decision to start blessing same-sex unions. But Williams was powerless to intervene, and he was equally unable to prevent conservative Anglican churches in Africa from trying to offer ‘alternative episcopal oversight’ to disaffected American parishes.
In a bid to keep the increasingly-fractious Anglican Communion together, Williams asked each autonomous province of the Communion to sign up to an ‘Anglican Covenant’ that would oblige them to consider the views of other provinces before doing anything that “may provoke controversy.”
Furthermore, churches that breached the rules could face disciplinary action, such as suspension from inter-Anglican bodies. But it now looks as if the Church of England itself may reject the Covenant. In order to proceed to a vote in the General Synod (the church’s lawmaking body), the Covenant would need to be approved by a majority of the 44 dioceses. So far, 17 have voted against it, and only 10 have voted in favor.
When announcing his resignation, Williams attempted to downplay the effect of the row over homosexuality. “It has certainly been a major nuisance,” he said. “But in every job that you are in there are controversies and conflicts and this one isn’t going to go away in a hurry. I can’t say that it is a great sense of ‘free at last.’”
Williams may yet see one last triumph before he leaves office. In July, the General Synod could approve legislation to allow the consecration of women bishops. But many Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals oppose the plan, and they could still make life difficult for Williams as he prepares to leave office.
Williams’ successor will be found through a complex process involving both church and state. A church body known as the Crown Nominations Commission will come up with a list of two names to send to the Prime Minister. By convention, the Prime Minister then forwards the first name on to the Queen, who formally approves the appointment.
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