Rowan Douglas Williams, PC, DD, DCL, FBA, (born 14 June 1950 in Swansea, Wales) is an Anglican bishop and theologian. He is the current (104th) Archbishop of Canterbury, Metropolitan of the Province of Canterbury and Primate of All England, offices he has held since early 2003.
Williams was previously Bishop of Monmouth and Archbishop of Wales (making him the first Archbishop of Canterbury in modern times not to be appointed from within the Church of England), and had spent much of his earlier career as an academic at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford successively. His primacy has been marked by much speculation that the Anglican Communion (of which the Archbishop of Canterbury is symbolic head) is on the verge of fragmentation, and by Williams's attempts to keep all sides talking to one another.
He lectured at the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, West Yorkshire for two years. In 1977 he returned to Cambridge to teach theology, first at Westcott House, having been ordained deacon in Ely cathedral that year and was ordained priest in 1978. Unusually, he undertook no formal curacy until 1980 when he served at St George's Chesterton until 1983, having been appointed as a lecturer in Divinity at the University of Cambridge. In 1984 he became dean and chaplain of Clare College, Cambridge and, in 1986, at the very young age of 36, he was appointed to the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity at the University of Oxford and thus also a residentiary canon of Christ Church. He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1989.
In 1991 Dr Williams was appointed and consecrated Bishop of Monmouth in the Anglican Church in Wales. In 1997 he was proposed as a potential Bishop of Southwark. George Carey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, asked Dr Williams to distance himself from his writings sympathetic to the cause of gay rights, but he declined and was not nominated to the post. He continued in his post as Bishop of Monmouth and in 1999 he was elected Archbishop of Wales. In 2002 he was announced as the successor to George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury - the senior archbishop of the Church of England - and primus inter pares of the Anglican Communion. As a bishop of the disestablished Church in Wales, Williams was the first Archbishop of Canterbury since the English Reformation to be appointed from a position outside the state Church of England. He was enthroned on 27 February 2003 as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 2005 he was inaugurated as the first Chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University. This was in addition to his ex officio role as Visitor at King's College London and at the University of Kent. The University of Cambridge awarded him an honorary Doctorate in Divinity in 2006. In April 2007, Trinity College and Wycliffe College, both associated with the University of Toronto, awarded him a joint Doctor of Divinity degree during his first visit to Canada since being enthroned.
Dr Williams is a noted poet and translator of poetry. His collection The Poems of Rowan Williams, published by Perpetua Press, was longlisted for the Wales Book of the Year award in 2004. Beside his own poems, which have a strong spiritual and landscape flavour, the collection contains several fluent translations from Welsh poets. He got into trouble with the press for allegedly supporting a 'pagan organisation', the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards, which promotes Welsh language and literature and uses druidic ceremonial but is actually not religious in nature. His wife, Jane Williams, is a writer and lecturer in theology. They married in 1981 and have two children, Rhiannon (born 1988) and Pip (born 1996).
Traditionally, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams acts as a governor of Charterhouse School
Williams' appointment to Canterbury was widely predicted. A churchman who had demonstrated a huge range of interests in social and political matters, he was widely regarded, by academics and others, as a figure who could make Christianity credible to the intelligent unbeliever. As a patron of Affirming Catholicism his appointment was a considerable departure from that of his predecessor, and his views (not least those expressed in a widely published lecture on homosexuality (see below)) were seized on by a number of Evangelical and conservative Anglicans. The issue had begun to divide the communion, however, and the Archbishop, in his position as nominal 'head' of the Anglican Communion, would be bound to have an important role.
The secular press did not know what to make of him: some attempted to ridicule him on trivial grounds (such as having a beard); others took him to task for not providing soundbites and for his occasional obscurities. The Church Times columnist Andrew Brown drew a comparison with his predecessor: "The trouble with Rowan Williams is that he can never remember that he is Archbishop; the trouble with George Carey was that he could never forget."
In 1983, he wrote that orthodoxy should be seen "as a tool rather than an end in itself..." It is not something which stands still. Thus "old styles come under increasing strain, new speech needs to be generated". He sees orthodoxy as a number of "dialogues": a constant dialogue with Christ, crucified and risen; but also that of the community of faith with the world - "a risky enterprise", as he writes. "We ought to be puzzled", he says, "when the world is not challenged by the gospel." It may mean that Christians have not understood the kinds of bondage to which the gospel is addressed. He has also written that "orthodoxy is inseparable from sacramental practice... The eucharist is the paradigm of that dialogue which is 'orthodoxy'". This stance may help to explain both his social radicalism and his view of the importance of the Church, and thus of the holding together of the Anglican communion over matters such as homosexuality: his belief in the idea of the Church is profound.
John Shelby Spong once accused Williams of being a 'neo-medievalist’, preaching orthodoxy to the people in the pew but knowing in private that it just isn’t true. In an interview with Third Way Magazine Williams responded: 'I am genuinely a lot more conservative than he would like me to be. Take the Resurrection. I think he has said that of course I know what all the reputable scholars think on the subject and therefore when I talk about the risen body I must mean something other than the empty tomb. But I don’t. I don’t know how to persuade him, but I really don’t.'
Although very much an Anglo-Catholic, his sympathies are broad. One of his first publications was in the largely evangelical Grove Books series with the title "Eucharistic Sacrifice: the Roots of a Metaphor".
His interest in and involvement with social issues is longstanding. Whilst chaplain of Clare College, Cambridge, Williams took part in anti-nuclear demonstrations at US bases. In 1985, he was arrested for singing psalms as part of a protest organized by the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament at Lakenheath, an American air base in Suffolk; his fine was paid by his college. At this time he was a member of the left-wing Anglo-Catholic Jubilee Group headed by Father Kenneth Leech and he collaborated with Leech in a number of publications including the anthology of essays to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Assize Sermon entitled Essays Catholic and Radical in 1983.
He was in New York at the time of the 11 September, 2001 attacks, only yards from Ground Zero delivering a lecture; he subsequently wrote a short book, 'Writing in the Dust', offering reflections on the event. In reference to Al Qaeda, he claimed that terrorists "can have serious moral goals and that "Bombast about evil individuals doesn't help in understanding anything. He has subsequently worked with Muslim leaders in England, and on the third anniversary of 9/11 spoke, by invitation, at the Al-Azhar University Institute in Cairo on the subject of the Trinity. He stated that the followers of the will of God should not be led into ways of violence. He contributed to the debate prior to the 2005 United Kingdom General Election criticising assertions that immigration was a cause of crime. Williams has argued that the partial adoption of Islamic Sharia law in the United Kingdom is "unavoidable" as a method of arbitration in such affairs as marriage, and should not be resisted. .
His words were critically interpreted as proposing a parallel jurisdiction to the civil law for Muslims (Sharia), and was the subject of demands from elements of the press and media for his resignation. He also attracted criticism from elements of the Anglican Communion.
In response, Williams stated in a BBC interview "... certain provision[s] of Sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law; ... we already have in this country a number of situations in which the internal law of religious communities is recognised by the law of the land as justified conscientious objections in certain circumstances in providing certain kinds of social relations" and that "we have Orthodox Jewish courts operating in this country legally and in a regulated way because there are modes of dispute resolution and customary provisions which apply there in the light of Talmud." Williams also denied accusations of proposing a parallel Islamic legal system within Britain. Williams also acknowledged that Sharia, "In some of the ways it has been codified and practised across the world, it has been appalling and applied to women in places like Saudi Arabia, it is grim.
On 4 July 2008 Sharia again became a topic of media interest, following comments by Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. He supported the idea that Sharia could be reasonably employed as a basis for "mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution". He went further to defend Williams's position from earlier in the year, explaining "It was not very radical to advocate embracing sharia law in the context of family disputes, for example, and our system already goes a long way towards accommodating the archbishop's suggestion." and "It is possible in this country for those who are entering into a contractual agreement to agree that the agreement shall be governed by a law other than English law.
The same year as he made the above comments, and as a practical consequence of the views he expressed, Williams founded the 'Institute for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality' (which in 1996 became the 'Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality'). He was then Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, and this work characterised him amongst liberal Anglicans as a significant figure in the effort to make the Anglican Church's moral stance on homosexuality more accepting.
When he became Archbishop, questions of whether and how Williams would apply his views as Archbishop, specifically with regard to homosexual relationships among the clergy, were put squarely in the spotlight, through the issue of the proposed consecration of gay priest Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. Following protest from a number of bishops from various parts of the Anglican Communion, Williams asked John to withdraw his candidacy, but then arranged his appointment as Dean of St Albans, one of the oldest Christian sites in England, in a move that was widely seen as a moderate compromise to maintain the latitudinarian unity of the Anglican Communion.
In an 19 August, 2006 interview with a Dutch newspaper, Nederlands Dagblad, Williams stated that "in terms of decision-making the American Church has pushed the boundaries" in its policies regarding homosexuality. Williams argued that the Church had to be "welcoming", rather than "inclusive", a distinction he characterised by saying: "I don't believe inclusion is a value in itself. Welcome is. We don't say 'Come in and we ask no questions'. I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ." Moreover, the Archbishop appeared to distance himself from his more liberal 1989 essay, explaining, "That was when I was a professor, to stimulate debate... It did not generate much support and a lot of criticism – quite fairly on a number of points." However, in a later interview with Time magazine in June 2007, he stated that he had not changed his own mind, although he is now constrained from expressing personal views at variance with the corporate view of the Church. In answer to the question "You yourself once thought it possible that same-sex relationships might be legitimate in God's eyes" he responded: "Yes, I argued that in 1987. I still think that the points I made there and the questions I raised were worth making as part of the ongoing discussion. I'm not recanting. But those were ideas put forward as part of a theological discussion. I'm now in a position where I'm bound to say the teaching of the Church is this, the consensus is this. We have not changed our minds corporately. It's not for me to exploit my position to push a change."
On 24 January, 2007, it was revealed that Williams and John Sentamu had written to Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, on behalf of the Church of England, united in support of the Church's bid to be exempt from laws on adoption by gay couples. In a letter they wrote, "rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well-meaning".
In contrast to his diminished outspokenness on the acceptability of homosexual relationships as a matter of theology, however, he has continued to affirm the civil and human rights of homosexuals. For example, in his Advent Letter for 2007 he said: "...it is part of our Christian and Anglican discipleship to condemn homophobic prejudice and violence, to defend the human rights and civil liberties of homosexual people and to offer them the same pastoral care and loving service that we owe to all in Christ's name.. In "The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today", an address to the Anglican Communion in June 2006, he said: "It is possible – indeed, it is imperative – to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage, to appreciate the role played in the life of the church by people of homosexual orientation, and still to believe that this doesn’t settle the question of whether the Christian Church has the freedom, on the basis of the Bible, and its historic teachings, to bless homosexual partnerships as a clear expression of God’s will.
In 2008, it was reported that Williams had stated in 2000/1 that homosexual relationships could "reflect the love of God" in a manner comparable to heterosexual marriages, and that he believed that passages in the Bible which are often cited in support of the view that homosexuality is a sin, in fact are aimed at heterosexual people seeking variety in their sexual experience, rather than at gay people.
In this, Williams has maintained traditional support amongst Anglicans and their leaders for the teaching of evolution as fully compatible with Christianity. This support has dated at least back to Frederick Temple's tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury.
On the 5 October 2007 Williams visited Iraqi refugees in Syria. In a BBC interview after his trip he described advocates of a US attack on Syria or Iran as 'criminal, ignorant and potentially murderous'. A few days earlier, the former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton had called for bombing of Iran at a fringe meeting of the Conservative Party conference.
Rowan Williams became Archbishop at a particularly difficult time in the relations of the churches of the Anglican Communion. His predecessor, George Carey, had sought to keep the lid on explosive relationships between the theologically conservative primates of the Communion such as Peter Akinola of Nigeria and Drexel Gomez of the West Indies and liberals, such as Frank Griswold the then Primate of the US Episcopal Church and others elsewhere.
In an attempt to encourage dialogue in 2003 he appointed Archbishop Robin Eames, the Anglican Primate of All Ireland, as Chairman of the Lambeth Commission on Communion, to examine the challenges to the unity of the Communion, stemming from the consecration of Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire, and the blessing of same-sex unions in the Diocese of New Westminster. (Robinson, formerly married with children, was in a long-term same-sex relationship.) The Windsor Report, as it was called, was published in October 2004. It recommended solidifying the connection between the churches of the Communion by having each church ratify an "Anglican Covenant" that would commit them to consulting the wider Communion when making major decisions. It also urged those who had contributed to disunity to express their regret.
In November 2005 following a meeting of Anglicans of the 'global south' in Cairo at which Williams had addressed them in conciliatory terms, 12 Primates who had been present, sent him a letter sharply criticising his leadership ("We are troubled by your reluctance to use your moral authority to challenge the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada"). The letter acknowledged his eloquence but strongly criticised his reluctance to take sides in the communion's theological crisis and urged him to make explicit threats to those more liberal churches. (Questions were later asked about the authority and provenance of the letter — two additional signatories' names had been added although they had left the meeting before it was produced.) Subsequently the Church of Nigeria appointed an American cleric to deal with US/Nigerian church relations, outside the normal channels. Williams expressed his reservations about this to the General Synod.
Most recently, he set up a working party to examine what a 'covenant' between the provinces of the Communion would mean, (in line with the Windsor Report). The strains on the working of the Communion remain evident.
For a detailed bibliography for 1972-2005, see kai euthus