When Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury most of the liberal portions of the Anglican Communion were delighted. But, as we’ve heard repeatedly over the past couple of days, they were quickly disappointed. The problem Giles Fraser argues is not that Williams’ changes his thinking, but that most people assumed he was liberal rather than a radical.
In a weekend essay by Fraser on Williams’ ministry as Archbishop, Fraser explains it this way:
“When Williams arrived at Canterbury most people thought he was a theological liberal – gay friendly, in favour of women’s ordination, something of a leftie. After all, he had been arrested on an anti-nuclear demo. But most people read him wrong – radical yes, liberal no. He was the spiritual equivalent, perhaps even the inspiration behind, to what Philip Blond later came to popularise as Red Toryism. He distrusted unfettered market forces, but also, and against the spirit of the age, the emphasis on individual freedom that went with it. His was a nostalgia for an old-fashioned ideal of community – perhaps even the sort of community of the South Wales village – where collective solidarity is always more important than individual choice and social diversity.
When guest editing the Today programme, he was asked to pick his favourite sound. He went for the chatter of the village post office. It was the sort of place where he’s most at home – the world where people keep their back doors open and spend time together in the pub and church. His theology is the poetry of community. But it only works where people share a whole lot in common. Which is why Williams never really felt comfortable in so fast paced and diverse a place as London.
All this communitarianism crucially shaped his understanding of the church. He cared little for ecclesiastical flummery. He once teased me that I had gone native with the dressing up culture of St Paul’s. “Red buttons, Giles. It always starts with red buttons.” Indeed, he was making a point when he wore a black clerical shirt and not a bishop’s purple one. To him, the church is a much more serious business. It is where the individual moral choices of its members have to be subsumed to the will of the whole.”
In other words, it was Williams’ commitment to community that won out over his commitment to the people outside the community. Make sense?