Rowan Williams

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious figures and leaders

Rowan Williams
Denomination   Anglican
Senior posting
See   Canterbury
Title   Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England
Period in office   2002 — present
Predecessor   George Carey
Successor   Incumbent
Religious career
Priestly ordination   1977
Previous bishoprics   Bishop of Monmouth,
Archbishop of Wales
Previous post   Bishop
Date of birth   14 June 1950
Place of birth   Swansea

Rowan Douglas Williams, DPhil, DD, FBA, (born 14 June 1950) is the 104th and current Archbishop of Canterbury, metropolitan of the province of Canterbury, Primate of All England and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Williams is a distinguished theologian as well as being a poet.


Rowan 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, Yorkshire for two years. In 1977, he returned to Cambridge to teach theology, first at Westcott House, having been ordained ordained deacon in Ely cathedral that year. He was priested in 1978. Unusually, he undertook no formal curacy until 1980 when he served at St. George's Chesterton until 1983, having been appointed as 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 Oxford University which meant that he became also a residentiary canon of Christ Church. He was awarded the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1989. In 1997, Dr Williams was proposed as 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. Then in 1991 he was consecrated Bishop of Monmouth, and in 1999 he was made Archbishop of Wales. In 2002 he was announced as the successor to George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual leader of the Church of England and primus inter pares of the Anglican Communion. Williams was the first Archbishop of Canterbury since the English Reformation to be appointed from a position outside the state Church of England, being at the time a member of the disestablished Anglican Church in Wales. He was enthroned on 27 February 2003 as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

Since he become 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 is in addition to his role as Visitor at the University of Kent.

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 which is not religious in nature. He married Jane Paul, a lecturer in theology, in 1981. They 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.

Appointment as Archbishop

His appointment was widely predicted. He was held to be, as he is, a man of considerable intellectual powers, who had demonstrated a huge range of interests in social and political matters and was regarded by a number of people, including academics, 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. However, the issue had begun to divide the communion, 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 his 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 highly respected scholar of the Church Fathers, as well as a historian of Christian spirituality, and his deep engagement with the classical sources of the Church is quite clear throughout his books and sermons. Nevertheless, his style is often dense and his statements and actions are sometimes misunderstood. In 1983, he wrote describing orthodoxy '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 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. (Risk is a word which he uses often.) 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. Hence his concerns with political and social issues. In his view 'orthodoxy is inseparable from sacramental practice' which he takes to be an expression of the same concern.'The eucharist is the paradigm of that dialogue which is 'orthodoxy'.'he wrote. 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.

Consistent with his engaged and searching views, 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." ( full transcript)

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 Involvements

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 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". (BBC) (The Scotsman)

He was asked to deliver the 2002 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.

His attempts at reconciliation have extended to inter-faith matters. He was in New York at the time of 9/11 only yards from Ground Zero delivering a lecture; he subsequently wrote a short book, 'Writing in the Dust',offering some reflections on the event. He has subsequently worked closely 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, of all subjects, the Trinity.His carefully courteous attempt to build bridges between the two monotheisms, was well received as was his statement 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.


Williams' contribution to Anglican views of homosexuality were perceived as markedly liberal before his ordination as Archbishop. These views are evident in a paper written by Williams called 'The Body’s Grace', originally delivered as the 10th Michael Harding Memorial Address in 1989 to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, and 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 - whilst Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, a fact that had characterised him amongst liberal Anglicans as a significant figure in the effort to make the Anglican Church's moral stance on homosexuality more inclusive.

When he became Archbishop, questions of whether and how Williams would apply his views as Archbishop, specifically as regarded homosexual relationships among the clergy, were put squarely in the spotlight in 2003, through the issue of the proposed consecration of gay priest Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading. Following protest from Anglican bishops in the developing world, 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 compromise to maintain the latitudinarian unity of the Anglican Communion.

In a September 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. Denying that the Church had to accept active homosexual relationships, 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". Moreover, the Archbishop seemed 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."


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; about which Williams expressed his reservations 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.

Recent Events

Prior to a planned visit to the Vatican on November 21st. 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 which, in a subsequent statement, he refuted 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.


  • 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)
  • Teresa of Avila (2003) ISBN 0-225-66579-4
  • 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)
  • 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)
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