The choice of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Wales, as new head of the Church of England, likely means that the church will have a stronger and more controversial public voice than it has in the recent past, observers predicted.
Archbishop Williams was appointed 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, succeeding Archbishop George Carey, who is retiring in November. Archbishop Williams, who just four years ago was considered too controversial for the episcopate of Southwark, immediately waded into the fray at a press conference following the announcement of his appointment, saying that he would continue to protest the West’s war against terrorism.
He has strongly opposed the war in Afghanistan and gained credibility because he was visiting Trinity Church a block from the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11 at the time of the terrorist attacks.
He emerged from the experience with a survivor’s credibility as a herald for peace and reason on the subject of terrorism, and promptly wrote a short book about it.
Acclaim for the choice of Archbishop Williams poured in from around the globe, but was tempered by conservative evangelicals warning that his liberal views on homosexuality could split the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Archbishop Williams will be the first Archbishop of Canterbury since the 16th century to have been appointed from outside the bench of bishops of the Church of England, according to The Guardian.
Archbishop Michael Peers, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, described the archbishop as a leader who “truly deserves to be described as orthodox, a man who is steeped in the Anglican tradition, committed to social justice and possessed of a singular capacity to interpret Christian faithfulness to contemporary society.”
Archbishop Carey declared himself filled with joy over the selection despite previous reports that placed Archbishop Williams as his last choice for the job.
Meanwhile, conservatives foreshadowed a potentially bitter battle in the 70-million-member Anglican Communion. The Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Benn, tempered his welcome of Archbishop Williams, according to British press reports.
“I am hoping that he will be willing to change his mind on some moral issues in a way that is more in line with the clear teaching of the Bible and the declared position of the Anglican Communion,” Bishop Benn said.
Archbishop Livingstone Mpalanyi-Nkoyo of Uganda said, “We need to pray for Rowan Williams because we are not sure about his beliefs. For us in Africa, homosexuality is a sin. If he does not change his mind, there will be a lot of problems and divisions.”
Quoted in the Telegraph, Archbishop Williams, who at 52 is the youngest incumbent of recent times, said he felt “both a sense of privilege” and “enormous inadequacy” when he was offered the position.
Archbishop Williams speaks five languages well enough to deliver lectures and reads several more. Writing in the Church Times, Sarah Meyrick said “his already high international reputation was enhanced by his role at the 1998 Lambeth conference, where he chaired the section on mission, globalization, urbanization and young people: his address on making moral choices received a standing ovation.
Many clerics speak of his “tremendous humility.”
The Daily Telegraph dubbed him “Canterbury’s turbulent priest” a reference to the martyred Thomas Becket, who was thus described by the English king.
Bishop Barry Morgan of Llandaff sat with Archbishop Williams on the Welsh bench for 10 years. He told the Church Times that Archbishop Williams never thinks in cliches.
“He looks at the issues of the day, and then comes at them from a different angle, with clarity and integrity. He always has something pertinent to say, which is measured, well thought out and original.
“What he says is accessible, not obscure, and stems from his deep spirituality, a deep reflection on gospel values.”
His doctrinal beliefs are orthodox, the Church Times said, based on traditional Christian teachings on incarnation and the resurrection. However, he is liberal on other issues and is in favour of women bishops – which England does not yet have. He also supports the marriage of divorcees in church which General Synod approved this summer.
Hugo Young, writing in the Guardian, said that few recent Archbishops of Canterbury have been forces in the land, and “successive archbishops have been tepid moral therapists. Important religious dignitaries, of course, but with voices heard only in emergencies.”
Mr. Young said Archbishop Williams may well be different. “He’s a serious Christian apologist who is not apologetic. ”
Sparks, Mr. Young predicted, will likely fly between Prime Minister Tony Blair and the new archbishop. “We will witness a spectacle for which there was no 20th century precedent, the coexistence of an archbishop and a prime minister with equally pronounced views about the moral impulse of politics.”
Mr. Young predicted that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, “will certainly cause trouble.” A war against Iraq could be a flashpoint between the two men, he added.
“Williams went on record, even while his candidacy was considered, as an opponent of such an enterprise. He almost said all wars were wrong. There is no possibility, if a second Iraqi conflict happens, of the doctrine of the just war being waved approvingly through, in the way (then-Archbishop of Canterbury Robert) Runcie obliged John Major before the Gulf war in 1991.”