In March, Archbishop Rowan Williams announced his decision to leave the most senior non-royal office in the land, that of our country’s principal religious leader, to return to the groves of academy. Immediately, The Times denounced his archiepiscopate as a pragmatic and political failure, absorbed in a “futile quest for unity” among the Church of England’s and the Anglican Communion’s factions. Obviously the writer had never read John 17. It was all so different in 2002 and 2003, when people on all sides were hoping and calling for the Archbishop of Wales to come to Canterbury. Since then many of those same voices have, by turns, criticised, undermined and blatantly disobeyed the leadership they asked of him. At least twice his carefully framed and widely consulted on plans, for enabling people and provinces to be full stakeholders in the Anglican Communion or in the Church of England as a national Church, have been rejected. Presiding with a profound sense of love and duty over a Church which, increasingly, cannot realise its historic purpose as comprehensive of all, as it becomes factional and confessional over two now live issues that were never at stake at the Reformation - nor occurred to the founders and drivers of the twentieth century ecumenical movement, and which several different worldviews now render insoluble, as the present phase of Catholic-Anglican dialogue seems to bear witness - it is hardly surprising that he feels his position is untenable. The great Anglican tradition has come to something, when its two greatest orthodox intellects and teachers in contemporary Britain have given up the chief pastorship of the Church, to revert to academic standing. The loss of Bishop Tom Wright of Durham and now Archbishop Williams from their leadership constitutes a grave loss to the whole body of Christians in this country.
The quest for unity can never be futile, however difficult and even painful it is, because it is the will and prayer of Christ. We greet Archbishop Rowan as he draws to the end of his distinguished service as Archbishop of Canterbury. His deep understanding of Catholic and Orthodox theology have profited us all and, whatever side of the Anglican debates people have stood, his efforts to be true to people’s principles and what Hooker calls their “participation” in the Church, and the wider work of the “unity of all humanity in the charity and truth of Christ” (as Paul Couturier put it), of which the unity among Christians is the sign, have been heroic.
We wish him well; and we thank him for his friendship, even a critical friendship, to the Catholic Church and not least the person of the Holy Father; but most of all for his service to the unity of Christians, not just towards other Churches but within his own too, “so that the world may believe”.