What happens when someone with a monastic bent, steeped in the church’s tradition while gifted with a creative mind and a poetic spirit, is asked to take on the responsibilities of Christian leadership and eventually, in the midst of great ecclesial tensions, to become the Archbishop of Canterbury? One could anticipate that this story would be rich with potential and fraught with challenges. Time has borne that out, and Rowan’s Rule is a helpful telling of the story thus far.
Given that Rupert Shortt had already written a shorter volume on the current archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams: An Introduction, 2003), the full cooperation of Archbishop Williams in the preparation of this volume implies a certain confidence in the author, who was a former student of Williams. Rupert Shortt has rewarded that confidence with a reflective and engaging portrait that, while at times critical, offers sympathetic insight into the life and thought of one who has been frequently misunderstood as he has sought to guide the Anglican Communion through difficult waters.
Shortt’s narrative is complemented by the extensive use of quotations from the archbishop’s writings, speeches and poetry. Rowan’s Rule is not a book about the current situation in the Anglican Communion—Shortt notes that this “is the story of an individual, not of an institution”—but in the latter half of the volume in particular, covering the years since the archbishop’s enthronement in Canterbury in 2003, the two are necessarily intertwined.
Rowan’s Rule treats at length the archbishop’s leadership on the issues that have caused great turmoil in the Anglican world: same-sex blessings, the election to the episcopate of persons in same-sex unions and the deeper ecclesiological issues concerning the way authority is exercised in the church and the nature of the relationship between the churches of the Anglican Communion. Here Shortt works with sources (principally speeches and letters of the archbishop) that are already in the public domain, but his presentation has the merit of offering a comprehensive picture of Williams’s theological perspectives. This provides a helpful context within which to interpret his response to particular issues. Shortt traces a shift in the archbishop’s thinking toward a more conservative approach to these issues and offers reasons for that shift, but I am not convinced that he adequately takes account of the very different responsibilities of a theologian and a bishop in the church, a distinction the archbishop has taken to heart.
What emerges most clearly in the biography is Archbishop Williams’s own way of exercising authority. Shortt presents him as “a man of God rather than a manager,” who “does not (and cannot) run the Communion” (italics mine). Faced with conflict, the archbishop has fostered a Christ-centered searching of the Scriptures and Tradition, opening a space for dialogue in order to see the complexity of issues under discussion. Shortt notes the pertinence of a comment made by the archbishop in 1992, in a review of the biography of the recently retired archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. He compared Runcie to Pope Paul VI: “Such figures...carry the unresolved tensions of their communities in their own persons, and guarantee that uncomfortable truths are not buried. There are worse ways of leading churches....”
Most readers will be especially interested in the portrait of Rowan Williams as a person with a deep but searching faith. In this regard the first chapters are the most engaging, beginning with his Welsh childhood and his move at age 11, accompanied by his parents, from the Presbyterian church in which he was baptized to a local Anglican church. Shortt traces the early theological influences on Williams through his student years at Cambridge and Oxford, identifying St. Augustine as “Rowan’s single greatest influence, and the greatest of all Christian thinkers in his view.”
We learn that during the mid-70s Williams thought seriously about entering a monastic community, quite possibly a Roman Catholic one. More than once in the book we read that he could not accept papal infallibility—a statement that Shortt does not expand upon—but for a time this did not seem definitively to rule out his becoming Roman Catholic. While at Oxford, Williams, who enjoyed the theater, played the part of St. Thomas More in a college production of “A Man for All Seasons.” One of his friends from those days is cited, noting parallels between the actor and the man he played: “two devout men of razor-sharp intellect seeking to thread their way through a maze with integrity.”
Shortt notes that the principal challenge during these years was to apply his immense theological learning to his own life, “which involved tracing clean spiritual lines amid mental complexity.” In the end, this led him “to opt for the commoner path to fulfilment through marriage and fatherhood.”
Rowan’s Rule is at its best in presenting Archbishop Williams’s account of the integrity of Christian faith. The archbishop “never felt Christian belief was something to be apologised for.” In his words, “If we are not self-created, we are answerable to a truth we don’t produce.” And that answer is a response to an experience of the holy: “the holy, which makes you silent and sometimes makes you laugh and which above all makes the landscape different once and for all.”
While the book has a splendid introduction, it lacks a proper conclusion, ending abruptly less than two pages after an account of the Lambeth Conference of 2008 (the publisher was probably beckoning). But all told, it is a fine book—valuable to anyone seeking to understand current tensions within the Anglican Communion and, more broadly, worthwhile reading because it depicts a profoundly Christ-centered life, offering a window into one highly gifted person’s searching faith in searching times.