The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, announced Friday that he will retire at the end of the year to become Master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge. This transition will mark the end of a turbulent decade-long tenure as archbishop.
Williams was appointed in 2002 and confronted immediately with the issues of human sexuality that had been at issue for more than a decade in the Anglican Communion. In 2003, Dr Jeffrey Johns was appointed as Bishop of Reading. Dr. Johns, a senior cleric in the Church of England, was an openly gay man in a committed relationship, which he claimed to be a celibate one. However, amidst a storm of controversy, Dr. Johns asked for his appointment be withdrawn, at the request of Archbishop Williams. Later in 2003, the Episcopal Church would confirm the appointment of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man in a committed relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire.
In response, the archbishop formed a commission of bishops and theologians to consider the issues raised by this decision. In 2004, the commission released its findings in the Windsor Report, calling on provinces to refrain from ordaining non-celibate homosexual persons as bishop. The report also proposed an Anglican Covenant, an agreement member churches would be asked to adopt. This Covenant, drafted over the next several years, would include a disciplinary process that could potentially lead to some being excluded from full membership.
Dr. Williams also faced numerous problems at home. For over a decade, the Church of England has been debating a proposal to permit women to be ordained as bishops (women first began to be ordained as priests in 1994). This has raised opposition from evangelical groups within the Church of England, opposing the question on biblical grounds, and from the more Catholic wing, opposing saying it was against the tradition of the church and would impact dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church. In 2010, Dr. Williams and his counterpart, John Sentanu, Archbishop of York, suffered what some in the English press called a “humiliating” defeat when their proposed compromise on women bishops - allowing for a male bishop to serve alongside a woman bishop to minister to conservatives unable to accept a woman bishop - was defeated in the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod.
In addition, the proposed covenant, which Dr Williams has strongly promoted, is receiving decidedly mixed reviews within England itself. Needing to be endorsed by a majority of the Church of England’s dioceses, it currently faces steep odds. With over half the dioceses voting, only about 40 percent have voted to endorse the Covenant. Dr. Williams was also stung when Pope Benedict, apparently with little formal consultation with the Church of England, announced a new initiative in 2009 to receive Anglican clergy and lay persons into the Roman Catholic Church. Dozens of clergy and about 1,000 laity accepted the offer.
There has been considerable speculation about Dr Williams’ potential resignation in recent months. Some have seen the rejection of compromise on women bishops in 2010 and the lackluster reception of the covenant as almost a referendum on Williams’ leadership.
Dr. Williams will leave behind a complex legacy. His efforts to try to hold the worldwide Anglican Communion together have had mixed results. The majority of bishops from Africa and Asia did not attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference, instead setting up a different meeting. In addition, many Anglicans in Scotland, England, the United States, New Zealand, South Africa, and other places expressed dissatisfaction with the Covenant, arguing that the Anglican Church had held together for centuries without these kinds of formal agreements in place. In addition, many liberals have felt betrayed, as Dr. Williams expressed support for gay and lesbian persons as an academic and later as Archbishop in Wales.
Many in the Episcopal Church greeted Williams’ appointment as archbishop with enthusiasm, and continue to admire his scholarship and seek inspiration in his spiritual writings. However, his attempts efforts to seek a middle ground were felt by some to come at the expense of the Episcopal Church’s efforts to include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians more fully in the life of the church, and many resented his unwillingness to speak against dioceses that broke away from the church and forced it into costly litigation. His removal of Episcopal Church representatives to some international Anglican bodies -- but not the initial removal of representatives from churches which interfered in the internal workings of the Episcopal Church by setting up rival churches -- was seen as yet another double standard.
This summer at its General Convention, the Episcopal Church is likely to approve rites to bless same-gender relationships and reject the Anglican Covenant, while also continuing its partnerships with Anglican provinces, dioceses, and churches throughout the world. This determination to pursue both full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and robust relationships with Anglicans in Africa and beyond suggests that the Episcopal Church has chosen a path different from the one down which Williams has been trying to lead. His successor is likely to be greeted by Episcopalians with both a warm welcome and a healthy dose of skepticism.
The Very Rev. Dr. Thomas Ferguson is dean of Bexley Hall, a seminary in Columbus, Ohio affiliated with The Episcopal Church. He was previously The Episcopal Church’s ecumenical and interreligious officer.