What matters to Rowan

May 01, 2012
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When Rowan Williams publicly confirmed in March what some insiders had for months expected, that he would be standing down as Archbishop of Canterbury in the coming months, he was diplomatic about the reasons behind a move he didn’t have to make until 2020.

During a round of interviews, a rueful Williams did at one point admit to certain “frustrations” in the job. But he did not identify them explicitly.

Chief among these are believed to be the church’s preoccupation—near obsession—with matters of gender and sexuality. At home, the issue of women bishops is set to dominate the Church of England as it comes delicately to some sort of a head at General Synod this summer. Elsewhere, extremists in Africa and the US, on both sides of the divide over homosexuality and the Anglican Communion, lead some in Lambeth Palace to say: "a plague on both your houses."

These questions have been forced on much of Williams’s time as Archbishop. As he once told me, they “filled the sky” in the run up to the 2008 Lambeth Conference, which—despite apocalyptic forecasts­­—Williams navigated his very broad church through, after intense preparation and prayer. But Williams has always been the reluctant Archbishop of Canterbury, in the job through calling and not ambition. “I'm always tempted to say that anybody who wants to be Archbishop deserves to be," he told me after the Lambeth Conference.

It has been widely said that Williams prefers, or is more “suited to” academia. And it is true that when he leaves, probably in November, he is returning to Cambridge University, where he did his first degree. Alpha et Omega.

Williams does indeed despair at the way in which religion is covered as a sport, as it is sometimes over the river from Lambeth Palace, in Westminster. His thoughtful style and phobia of—and, let’s be honest, lack of natural skill in—sound-bites do not fit easily in the modern, relentless media culture.

But to dismiss Williams as somehow out of touch is to spectacularly miss the point about his ministry. For Williams’s priority in his final months in the post is one that affects us all: capitalism, and redressing its flaws. And unlike some of the arguments that dog the church today, it goes to the heart of what matters most about Williams’s faith.

Which brings us to Williams’s exclusive, lengthy feature in the current issue of Prospect. The piece is a review of two new books: Michael Sandel’s What Money Can Buy and Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky’s How Much is Enough? But it is also more than that. Written in Canterbury amid preparations for Holy Week, the piece could be seen as one of Williams’s parting shots as he prepares to change roles.

Williams writes:

“The Book of Revelation is seldom quoted in studies of economics, for many reasons; but when we read of the fall of Babylon the Great (or imperial Rome), with all its variegated commerce, the climax to the list of its trading enterprises may strike us with a new force. The city trades—according to the old translation—in “the souls of men.” Sandel’s picture is of a modern Babylon, where, to use yet another biblical phrase, the question, “What shall a man give in return for his life?” has been provided with a possible actuarial answer.” And from elsewhere:

"It is manifestly true… that all this demonstrates that markets are corrosive of morality to the extent that they define what is humanly desirable strictly in terms of material profit. But what might be needed to fill out the positive alternative? The clue is perhaps in this assumption of exchangeability. The effect of this is exactly what Marx defined as the dissolution of everything that seemed fixed and settled in itself: 'All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,' in the famous axiom of the Communist Manifesto. And, to stay with the categories of the early Marx for a bit longer, this result can be characterised as 'alienation'—but not only of the labourer from the products of labour."

In his conclusion, Williams writes of the need “to recognise our desperate need to rediscover some intelligible way of talking about humanity, interiority [and mutuality]… before we are submerged in barbarism; a barbarism whose chief victims will, as ever, be the poorest, in the west and in the whole globe.”

It is likely that when he breaks from the shackles of the job, as he has long considered doing, we will hear more clearly, not less, the true voice of Rowan Williams.