George Pitcher, former secretary for public affairs to the ABC, provides an inside look at the “court” of Lambeth Palace. It’s a must read:
But the trouble with not squaring up to the apparatus of the Archbishop’s government machine is that it breeds, and is encouraged to develop, an internal, self-serving authority, like an overweening civil service. You should never underestimate a palace’s tendency to attract courtiers. The one at Lambeth is no exception. They preen and jostle for favour (somewhat pointless, as Rowan treats everyone the same). They build professional silos and guard their sometimes limited responsibilities jealously. They meet weekly around the table in the Pink Drawing Room and there is no higher endeavour than filling the Archbishop’s diary over a year in advance.
Jane Kramer of the New Yorker offers a different perspective:
The choices he had were simple: he could lead the Church of England, which was eager for his attention; or he could continue to reach out to the churches that ignored him; or he could resign. He was tired, and, being a good man and a Christian in evident anguish, he resigned. I think that he missed the old Rowan Williams, too.
Rowan Williams’ belief in the Church and his view of academic life are closely related. His decision to leave Canterbury and take up the position of master of Magdalene College at Cambridge should not be seen as a retreat from the difficulties of Church life. Instead, for Williams, this will be a transition from one kind of priestly ministry to another.
It is often said that Williams is an unusual churchman – too scholarly, too ponderous, too sensitive to complexity – but it should equally be said that he is an unusual scholar. Although he has made important contributions to several academic disciplines – not only theology but also history, political philosophy and literary criticism – his deepest commitment has always been to the cultivation of community rather than to any particular intellectual project. If his critics complained that he was an unusually academic archbishop, Cambridge will also find him to be an unusually priestly scholar.
Simply put, Williams believes in the Church more than he believes in his own opinions. All his troubles as Archbishop of Canterbury have stemmed from this fact. He believes in processes of communal negotiation more than he believes in the enforcement of any fixed viewpoint. It is this mindset, this belief in the Church, that has drawn so much criticism, even from within the Church of England. Giles Fraser, the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, reports hearing a bishop say: “The problem with Rowan Williams is that he is too bloody Christian.”
Myers warns the academics of Cambridge that they will be as unhappy with Williams as many Anglicans have been:
But his belief in the Church shapes the way he understands academic life: it is the community, not the autonomous individual, that has access to truth. If this belief is the heart of Williams’ distinctive style of Church leadership, it is equally the whole basis of his approach to higher education. What he will really bring to Cambridge, in other words, is the same thing he brought to Canterbury: a belief in the Church.
What is unique about Rowan Williams is simply the fact that he is a priest. If anything will come to define his new position at Cambridge, it will be that he approaches academic life just as he approaches Church leadership: as a Christian and as a priest.
Opposite the Clint Eastwood school of leadership, Williams’ self-understanding as a leader has been that of a servant or gracious host, making sure everyone has a seat at the table, no matter how unpresentable or unruly. He prefers keeping the ball in play, mainly because it’s what he presumes Jesus would do.In these fractious times, this is the kind of hospitable patience our churches and institutions may need for their own good, even if they don’t know it. As President Obama is now well aware, our culture celebrates or crucifies leaders by tallying up foes vanquished, reforms instituted, swift decisions not second-guessed.
Contrast this with a leader of 80 million who would rather be known for simply encouraging adversaries to stay engaged with one another. It may not show up in the stat box, but it counts for the fragile bonds of unity that keep Christians in communion, at least for the foreseeable future. If the church is the household of God, Williams’ peculiar style of leadership can remind us that the habits most proper to our common life are perhaps not acts of bravado, but better table manners.