Rowan Williams

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{{Infobox Archbishop of Canterbury| | Full name = Rowan Williams| image = | birth_name = | began = 27 February 2003 | term_end = Incumbent | predecessor = George Carey | successor = | birth_date = June 14, 1950 (1950-06-14) | birthplace = Swansea, Wales | death_date = | deathplace = | tomb =


Rowan Douglas Williams, DD, PC, FBA (born June 14, 1950 in Swansea, Wales) is the 104th and current Archbishop of Canterbury, metropolitan of the province of Canterbury, Primate of All England, senior archbishop of the Church of England and the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Williams is also a distinguished theologian and poet.


Williams was born in Swansea, Wales, into a Welsh-speaking family. He was educated at Dynevor School, Swansea; Christ's College, Cambridge, where he studied theology; and Wadham College, Oxford, where he took his DPhil in 1975.

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.

Since he became a bishop several institutions have granted him honorary degrees and fellowships, such as Kent, Cambridge, Oxford and Roehampton universities.

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).

Dr Williams' summer residence is in the Oxfordshire town of Charlbury and when resident on Sundays he worships at the local church.

Traditionally, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams acts as a governor of Charterhouse School

Dr Williams is also patron of the Peace Mala Youth Project For World Peace since 2002, and led the ceremony that launched the charity as one of his last engagements as Archbishop of Wales .

He speaks or reads eight languages: English, Welsh, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Latin and Greek.

Appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury

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."

Theological views

He is a scholar of the Church Fathers, as well as a historian of Christian spirituality. 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".

Social and political views and involvements

Archbishop at the Armenian Genocide monument in Yerevan.
Archbishop at the Armenian Genocide monument in Yerevan.

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 September 11, 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, especially when he claimed that terrorists "... can have serious moral goals" and that the attackers on 9/11 should not be called evil: "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 al-Sharif 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 General Election criticising assertions that immigration was a cause of crime.

Iraq War and possible attack on Syria or Iran

He was to repeat his opposition to American action in October 2002 when he signed a petition against the Iraq War as being against UN ethics and Christian teaching, and 'lowering the threshold of war unacceptably'. Again on 30 June 2004, together with the Archbishop of York, David Hope, and on behalf of all 114 Church of England bishops, he wrote to Tony Blair expressing deep concern about UK government policy and criticising the coalition troops' conduct in Iraq. The letter cited the abuse of Iraqi detainees, which was described as having been "deeply damaging" - and stated that the government's apparent double standards "diminish the credibility of western governments". In December 2006 he expressed doubts in an interview on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 about whether he had done enough to oppose the war.

On the 5th 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.

"When people talk about further destabilization of the region and you read some American political advisers speaking of action against Syria and Iran, I can only say that I regard that as criminal, ignorant and potentially murderous folly."-- Rowan Williams, 5th October 2007

The free market

In 2002 he delivered the Richard Dimbleby lecture and chose to talk about the problematic nature of the nation-state but also of its successors. He cited the so-called 'market state' as offering an inadequate vision of the way a state should operate, partly because it was liable to short-term and narrowed concerns (thus rendering it incapable of dealing with, for instance, issues relating to the degradation of the natural environment) and partly because a public arena which had become value-free was liable to disappear amidst the multitude of competing private interests. (He noted the same moral vacuum in British society after this visit to China in 2006.) He is not uncritical of communitarianism, but his reservations about consumerism have been a constant theme. These views have often been expressed in quite strong terms; for example, he once commented 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.”


His response to a controversy about the teaching of creationism in privately sponsored academies was that it should not be taught in schools as an alternative to evolution. When asked if he was comfortable with teaching creationism, he said "I think creationism is, in a sense, a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories ... so if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories, I think there's - there's just been a jar of categories, it's not what it's about." When the interviewer said "So it shouldn't be taught?" he responded "I don't think it should, actually. No, no. And that's different from saying – different from discussing, teaching about what creation means. For that matter, it's not even the same as saying that Darwinism is – is the only thing that ought to be taught. My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it."


Williams' contribution to Anglican views of homosexuality was perceived as quite liberal before he was enthroned as Archbishop. These views are evident in a paper written by Williams called 'The Body’s Grace', which he originally delivered as the 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address in 1989 to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, and which is now part of a series of essays collected in the book "Theology and Sexuality" (ed. Eugene Rogers, Blackwells 2002). In the conclusion of this address, he asserted:

"In a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts, or on a problematic and nonscriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures."

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') – a group meant to combat homophobia. 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 August 19, 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 January 24, 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 increasing reticence 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: " 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."

Ordination of women

Prior to a planned visit to the Vatican on November 21, 2006, he was interviewed by the Catholic Herald and pressed on the issue of the ordination of women. He was reported as having said, 'I don't think it has transformed or renewed the Church of England in spectacular ways. Equally, I don't think that it has corrupted or ruined the Church of England. It has somehow got into the bloodstream and I don't give it a second thought these days'. He did not discount the possibility that the issue might be revisited. His remarks were interpreted as a revision of his former support for the ordination of women. In a subsequent statement, he refuted this view, saying, 'I feel nothing less than full support for the decision the Church made in 1992 and appreciation of the priesthood exercised'. There was a certain amount of critical press coverage of his comments in the interview.


He has indicated support for a pro-life viewpoint; writing that, for himself, 'it is impossible to view abortion as anything other than the deliberate termination of a human life.' He is a lifetime member of the pro-life group SPUC


He did his doctoral work on Vladimir Lossky, the famous Russian Orthodox theologian of the early-mid 20th century, and is currently patron of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, an ecumenical forum for Orthodox and Western - primarily Anglican - theologians. He has expressed his continuing sympathies with Orthodoxy in lectures and writings since that time. He has written on the Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila. On the death of Pope John Paul II he accepted an invitation to attend his funeral, the first Archbishop of Canterbury to attend a funeral of a Pope since the break under King Henry VIII. He also attended the installation of Pope Benedict XVI.

The Anglican Communion

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.

Interview with Emel

In November 2007, the Archbishop received a great deal of criticism for an interview he did in Emel, which bills itself as a "Muslim lifestyle magazine". The article was perceived by many as attacking the United States and certain Christian groups, while being sympathetic to Islam. As reported by Times Online, he was greatly critical of the United States, the Iraq war, and "Christian Zionists" who support the return of Jews to Israel, yet made "only mild criticisms of the Islamic world". He claimed “the United States wields its power in a way that is worse than Britain during its imperial heyday”. He compared Muslims in Britain to the good Samaritans, praised daily muslim ritual of 5 prayers a day, but said in Muslim nations, the “present political solutions aren’t always very impressive".


  • The Reasons for Christ's Crucifixion: Stricken by God? (2007) ISBN 978-0-9780174-7-7
  • Tokens of Trust. An introduction to Christian belief. (2007 Canterbury Press)
  • Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (2005)
  • Why Study the Past? (2005)
  • Anglican Identities (2004) ISBN 1-56101-254-8
  • Darkness Yielding (2004) ISBN 1-870652-36-3
  • The Dwelling of the Light — Praying with Icons of Christ (2003 Canterbury Press)
  • Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11th September and Its Aftermath (Hodder and Stoughton, 2002)
  • Lost Icons: Essays on Cultural Bereavement (2003 T & T Clark)
  • Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert (2003) ISBN 0-7459-5170-8
  • Faith and Experience in Early Monasticism (2002)
  • Ponder These Things: Praying With Icons of the Virgin (Canterbury Press, 2002)
  • Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11th September and Its Aftermath (Hodder and Stoughton, 2002)
  • The Poems of Rowan Williams (2002)
  • Arius: Heresy and Tradition (2nd ed. 2001) ISBN 0-334-02850-7
  • Christ on Trial (2000) ISBN 0-00-710791-9
  • On Christian Theology (2000)
  • Faith in the University (1989)
  • After Silent Centuries (1994)
  • Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994)
  • Teresa of Avila (1991) ISBN 0-225-66579-4
  • Christianity and the Ideal of Detachment (1989)
  • Politics and Theological Identity (with David Nicholls) (Jubilee 1984)
  • Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (1984)
  • Peacemaking Theology (1984)
  • The Truce of God (London: Fount, 1983)
  • Essays Catholic and Radical (Bowerdean 1983) (ed. with K. Leech)
  • Eucharistic Sacrifice: The Roots of a Metaphor (1982 Grove Books)
  • Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (1982 Darton, Longman and Todd)
  • The Wound of Knowledge (1979 Darton, Longman and Todd)

Honours and Awards

  • Fellow of the British Academy ( FBA), 1990.
  • Honorary Doctorates: Univ of Kent at Canterbury, DD, 2003; Univ of Wales, DD, 2003; Evangelisch-Theologische Fakultät, University of Bonn, Dr. theol. honoris causa, 2004; Univ of Oxford DCL, 2005; Univ of Cambridge DD, 2006; Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, DD, 2007; Trinity College, University of Toronto, DD, 2007; University of Durham, DD, 2007.
  • Honorary Student of Christ Church, Oxford.
  • Honorary Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford.
  • Honorary Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge.
  • Honorary Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge.
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