Does Rowan have a plan?

Making the transition from academia to the real world is never easy. Moving to a high profile public office only makes matters worse. With the glare of the media spotlight upon you, even minor peccadilloes can be magnified a hundred times and one wonders whether the media heard what was said or whether they heard what they hoped to hear.

In recent times, sex abuse scandals have done great damage to Roman Catholicism. Worshippers in Ireland, appalled at the revelations there, have deserted the church in droves. Victims in Boston are threatening to sue the Roman Catholic hierarchy for millions of dollars and the hierarchy are understood to be considering bankruptcy as a possible way to protect their assets and escape from the litigants.

Nearer to home Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor has come under the spotlight and was accused in one national newspaper of ‘turning a blind eye to paedophile priests’ while he was in charge of Roman Catholics in Sussex. His attempt at public contrition seemed to backfire and only inflamed passions.

Taking a bashing

The Times commented in a leader, ‘The charges against Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor are serious and touch not just on his judgement, but the capacity of his Church to pronounce with authority on matters of sexual morality. The scale of the Cardinal’s moral blindness is potentially devastating.’

On the same day, The Times reported that the Roman Catholic Church ‘has secretly paid thousands of pounds in “hush money” to dozens of Britons who were sexually abused by priests.’

Despite a natural disinclination to believe that everything we read in newspapers must be true, it has to be said that such reports are hardly helpful to the spread of the gospel in our land. The man on the Clapham omnibus, or these days more probably in his car on the M25, is unlikely to distinguish between Anglican and Roman Catholic priests. He will bracket them together and we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, tarred with the same brush. Anglican vicars, curates and youth workers may well find that the parents of their charges are less trusting than they were heretofore. Our youth leaders may no longer be above suspicion.

Risky strategy

It was all the more surprising therefore to find that just a few days later that Rowan Williams was reported in The Sunday Times as wanting the Church to consider ordaining gays. ‘Just nine days before his confirmation as archbishop (of Canterbury),’ Christopher Morgan wrote, ‘Williams has said the Church should reconsider its ban on the ordination of active homosexuals. His comments to colleagues will re-ignite the row between church liberals and conservatives over homosexuality.’

The line of argument employed was somewhat similar to the approach the serpent took with Eve in the Garden of Eden. ‘He believes Christian morality does not necessarily lay down that same-sex relationships are sinful for priests,’ explained The Sunday Times. ‘Asked if he feared that his primacy might be dogged by a row over gay sex, he said, “It is possible, isn’t it?”’

Now there are two schools of thoughts about making pronouncements in public life. The first is that every cause you espouse wins you friends from amongst the supporters of that cause, so the more causes you champion, the merrier. The second is that every high profile statement you make loses you support from amongst those who disagree with the line you take.

Rowan Williams is clearly of the first school of thought. He will not take up his duties as Archbishop of Canterbury until February, but already he has opened up a number of fronts on contentious issues. On the one hand he has railed against Walt Disney, someone who has obviously incurred Williams’ displeasure by bringing pleasure to millions of children and their parents. On the other hand he has declared himself willing to nurture the debate about whether active homosexuals should be office holders in the Church of England. It is hard to see how either of these courses of action will advance the cause of the gospel.


He has also shown little regard for the views of orthodox Christians who make up a growing proportion of Church of England members. He recently took a swipe at Freemasons, alienating a further swathe of the Church, though perhaps he calculated he might win some friends amongst the orthodox by so doing. The General Synod did after all, some years ago, declare Freemasonry to be incompatible with Christianity.

He has weighed into the question of disestablishment, which may win him the support of his New Labour friends, who reputedly lobbied hard with the Crown Appointments Commission to secure his nomination, and of course, the Bishop of Wonderland (sorry, Woolwich), However such a stance is hardly likely to go down well in the House of Bishops – or the rest of the General Synod, for that matter.

No sooner had the House of Bishops heavily defeated moves for flexibility in clerical dress at the November Synod than the Archbishop designate went public with strictures about unnecessary pomp and ceremony.

Is there a plan?

One wonders what is His Grace’s game plan. He is clearly a man of high intellectual calibre. One must also assume that he is intelligent and has learnt the ways of the world during his tenure of office as Archbishop of Wales. It would be implausible to regard him as naïve, being unaware of how his theological pronouncements may be perceived by the media. One is therefore forced to the conclusion that the unfolding events which we are witnessing are all part of a carefully constructed strategy.

He is clearly a risk taker and seems prepared to play for high stakes and gamble with the future of the Church of England. On 10th December, page three of The Times was almost entirely devoted to a lengthy piece by Ruth Gledhill under the title ‘Evangelicals ready to challenge Williams for the Church’s soul.’

It does seem an amazing achievement that even before his episcopate has been inaugurated, Rowan Williams has succeeded in bringing together a broad range of evangelicals including Reform, the Church Society, the Church of England Evangelical Council, the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a number of Primates from around the world in an open challenge to his manifesto. As Ruth Gledhill points out, this umbrella group comprises most of the parts of the Anglican Church that are growing and so far as the Church of England is concerned, the financial engine of the whole organization.

It is hard to believe that His Grace’s agenda is to establish a third province and split the Church of England. That would be to create a degree of disunity unparalleled since the Reformation. So what are his real objectives? For the sake of the Gospel, he must surely take heed of the embarrassing press that the Roman Catholics have been receiving, and engage in some open and frank talking before the press hordes mete out to him the kind of mauling they recently dispensed to Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Cherie Blair.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.