The Turbulent Priest
Good riddance to Rowan Williams.

Dr. Rowan Williams


Charles C. W. Cooke

Once described as the “Conservative party at prayer,” the Church of England has taken a decidedly leftward turn in the last century, prompting the Earl of Onslow’s immortal observation that “one hundred years ago, the Church was in favor of fox hunting and against buggery. Now it is in favor of buggery and against fox hunting.” In the vanguard of its continuing drift was Rowan Williams, a self-described “bearded lefty” and terminal casuist who has also happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury for the last nine years, and thus effectively second only to Queen Elizabeth II in the spiritual hierarchy.

Among other things, Williams became infamous for a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the virtues of his own country — and his own church, for that matter. It is thus no loss to either Britain or the Anglican Church that Williams announced on Friday that he will be resigning his office, effective December 2012, and I must respectfully disagree with John O’Sullivan’s more flattering portrayal of Williams, and set the ball rolling on the “great many less flattering things” that O’Sullivan correctly predicted “will be said about him in the next few months.”

The nadir of the archbishop’s dubious work was a remarkable February 2008 interview with the BBC, during which he baldly suggested that the rule of law might not be such a good idea after all. This was neatly coupled with a call for the adoption of certain aspects of sharia law in Britain — an eventuality he claimed was “unavoidable.” “An approach to law which simply said, there’s one law for everybody,” said Williams, “I think that’s a bit of a danger.” This is the symbolic head of a church with 80 million worldwide adherents, publicly stating that the principle that the old-fashioned among us consider to be the bedrock of civilization is outmoded in the 21st century.

Such thinking should shock but not surprise, as Williams’s affection for Western civilization has always seemed lukewarm at best. It is questionable whether there exists a fire hot enough to distract him from the temptations of modernism. By chance, he was in New York City delivering a lecture on the morning of September 11, 2001, and witnessed al-Qaeda’s atrocities firsthand. In the days that followed, as the smoke settled and while most of us were still reeling, the archbishop stated both that terrorists “can have serious moral goals” and that “bombast about evil individuals” — of the sort practiced by Manichean rubes such as President George W. Bush, no doubt — “doesn’t help in understanding anything.” (Perhaps this is where the different-laws-for-different-people rule comes in: Hijacking passenger jets and flying them at 500 miles per hour into skyscrapers full of people is wrong for me, but who am I to judge if it is wrong for you? Heaven keep us from “bombast,” though, for that really is a universal vice.)

There is, of course, some truth in O’Sullivan’s contention that Williams’s tenure was “littered with avoidable errors,” that he made “bold statements that needed immediate corrections that themselves then needed further corrections,” and that he had “not really ironed out the wrinkles in his argument.” Indeed, that is true for most of us. But how people react in a crisis is nonetheless instructive, as are the bold brushstrokes they draw in haste. To compare the instinctive reaction of Archbishop Williams to the events of September 11 with, say, Tony Blair’s, is to see two different worldviews. The wake of a mass murder is no time for public equivocation, even if there are gray areas that will need examination further down the line.

Williams’s indifference to the pillars of the civilized world extended to capitalism, and in his post-9/11 paean to Western capitulation, Writing in the Dust, he argued that “every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game.” Such sentiments are quotidian in the halls of academia, but for a man directly appointed by the Queen of England to give them expression does not exactly help the cause of Western civilization, especially when conveyed in a book that was written as a direct result of a brutal attack on its most prized symbols.