Williams, Rowan

Williams, Rowan
▪ 2003

      In selecting Welsh Archbishop Rowan Williams to serve as the spiritual head of the world's 70 million Anglicans, British officials chose a man with a reputation as an intellectual who could relate to popular culture. When his appointment as the 104th archbishop of Canterbury was announced in July 2002, he was widely hailed as a leader who had the potential for giving Christianity a voice that would be respected in modern society. At a news conference, Williams said, “If there is one thing I long for above all else, it is that the years to come may see Christianity in this country able again to capture the imagination of our culture, to draw the strongest energies of our thinking and feeling into the exploration of what our creeds put before us.”

      Williams's stands on political and theological issues made him a figure of controversy in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. He had criticized the 2001 bombing of Afghanistan as “morally tainted” and said an invasion of Iraq would be “immoral and illegal” unless it was approved by the United Nations. He favoured the consecration of women bishops and acknowledged having ordained a man who was an open and active homosexual. While lecturing in Australia in May, he said, “I am not convinced that a homosexual has to be celibate in every imaginable circumstance.”

      At age 52, Williams was the youngest man to be appointed archbishop of Canterbury since Charles Manners Sutton in 1805. A native of Wales, at his enthronement in 2003 he would become the first leader of the Anglican Communion from outside England since the 16th century.

      Williams was born on June 14, 1950, as the only child of a couple in Swansea, Wales. His parents were Presbyterians at the time, and the family joined the Anglican Church in Wales when he was in his early teens. He earned his bachelor of arts and master's degrees in theology from the University of Cambridge and his doctorates in philosophy and theology from the University of Oxford. Williams was ordained to the priesthood in 1978 and spent nine years at Cambridge as a tutor, dean, and chaplain before becoming professor of theology at Oxford in 1986. The Oxford appointment made him the youngest person ever to hold such a position there and the only person to have been a professor of theology at both Oxford and Cambridge. He became bishop of Monmouth, Wales, in 1992 and archbishop of Wales in 2000. Williams, who was married and the father of two children, would become the first archbishop in 120 years to take school-age children to Lambeth Palace.

Darrell J. Turner

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in full  Rowan Douglas Williams 
born June 14, 1950, Swansea, Wales
 104th archbishop of Canterbury (from 2002), a noted theologian, archbishop of the Church in Wales (Wales, Church in) (2000–02), and the first archbishop of Canterbury in modern times chosen from outside the Church of England.

      Williams was born into a Welsh-speaking family. After attending the Dyvenor Secondary School, he entered Christ's College, Cambridge, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in theology; he was awarded a doctorate of philosophy in theology by Wadham College, Oxford, in 1975. After teaching at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, he held a series of academic and ecclesiastical appointments, culminating in his professorship of divinity at Oxford (1986–92). He became bishop of Monmouth in 1992 and was enthroned as archbishop of Wales in 2000. His nomination as archbishop of Canterbury in 2002 generated significant controversy because of his liberal views on homosexuality and other matters, though he was supported by stalwarts of the church such as the Reverend Desmond Tutu (Tutu, Desmond). Williams opposed the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and harshly criticized the Iraq War in 2003.

      Upon assuming office, Williams faced numerous challenges concerning interfaith relations and internal discipline. He made efforts to improve relations between Christians and Muslims, and he strove to maintain good ties with the Roman Catholic church, meeting early in his reign with Pope John Paul II in Rome. Although warmly welcomed by the pope, Williams was cautioned by Rome over the consecration of homosexuals as bishops (Williams himself once ordained an openly gay man). Despite differences, Rome and Canterbury continued to work toward better relations. Williams attended John Paul's funeral in 2005—the first archbishop of Canterbury since the 16th century to do so—and he also attended the installation of Pope Benedict XVI. He visited Benedict at the Vatican in 2006, and they issued a declaration of friendship and continued dialogue while recognizing important differences between the two churches.

      Within the Church of England the ordination and consecration of openly homosexual individuals remained a controversial issue that threatened to divide the Anglican Communion (the worldwide association of Anglican churches). In 2003 Williams appointed a special commission to address the matter. The commission also explored how Williams could more effectively implement his moral authority over the communion of churches. The issue, however, continued to trouble the church and its archbishop in the following years, as the Episcopal church in America ordained homosexuals, including an openly gay man as bishop, while the Anglican church in Africa staunchly opposed the practice.

      In 2008 Williams faced further controversy when he suggested that the English legal system should adopt parts of Sharīʿah, or Islamic law, as a means to promote social cohesion. He argued that Muslims in England might feel more comfortable addressing financial or marital issues in a Sharīʿah court than in a secular court. Although Williams found support among members of the church hierarchy who recognized his right to raise the matter even if they disagreed with his opinion, others interpreted his remarks as undermining the long tradition of English secular law.

      A fellow of the British Academy since 1990, Williams has published collections of articles, sermons, and poetry. He is the author of On Christian Theology (2000), Arius: Heresy and Tradition (2002), Writing in the Dust: After September 11 (2002), and Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (2007).

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Universalium. 2010.

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