Uneasy lies the bishop who wears the cloth

Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger interviews Bishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in a fascinating exchange.

Williams is not like our most visible religious spokesmen, for over here the fringes take over the pulpit of mass media — and media, in turn, go to these people as if they represent all our religious views — while mainstream clergy cower from the bright lights, acting for too long as if masses behind media were below them. (Though some people I know at Auburn Seminary are trying to change that with a program to bring more religious voices and viewpoints from the center into media.) In the UK, the mainstream church is the official church. So though Williams is publicity shy — this is a rare interview — he still has no choice but to act as a spokesman. He wears the cloak awkwardly, as he wades from one tempest to the next — the worldwide controversy and threat of schism over gays in Anglican clergy (neither side can decide where Williams will stand), creationism (he says here that he is against teaching it in schools), the war in Iraq — managing to disappoint both the left and the right.

What’s most interesting to me is Williams’ discussion of his role as a moral leader. He wears this cloak awkwardly as well. In fact, he argues that the church should not be, in Rusbridger’s words, “in the business of moral leadership.”

Was he really so averse to the idea that the Archbishop of Canterbury should offer moral leadership? “Leadership is, to me, a very, very murky and complicated concept,” he begins, sitting in an armchair in his Lambeth Palace office, his minder a watchful presence across the room.

“I think the question I always find myself asking of myself is, ‘Will a pronouncement here or a statement there actually move things on, or is it something that makes me feel better and other people feel better, but doesn’t necessarily contribute very much?'” …

“…I think there is a bit of a myth, if you like, that Religious Leaders – ‘capital R capital L’ – are, by their nature, people who make public pronouncements on morals.” Williams parodies this position as, “Why doesn’t the archbishop condemn X, Y, Z? Because that’s what archbishops do, you know, they condemn things. They make statements, usually negative, condemnatory statements.” It’s part of what he terms being “comic vicar to the nation”.

But still, don’t most people look to archbishops for some sort of revelation or guidance on the basis that they are unusually clever or holy or reflective? “I just wonder a bit whether, you know, when an archbishop condemns something, suddenly in, I don’t know, the bedsits of north London, somebody says, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be having premarital sex’, or in the cells of al-Qaida, somebody says, ‘Goodness, terrorism’s wrong, the archbishop says so. I never thought of that.’ I’m not sure that’s how it is.” …

Now isn’t that amazing? Here it’s so easy for anyone — ministers, movie stars, politicians, trumped-up organizations — to use media to claim higher ground. I find it most oxymoronic that politicians believe they are moral leaders — politicians are the last people we think of as moral. Yet there is the Archbishop of Canterbury, of all people, shying away from moral leadership.

Williams talks more like a statesman, a lower-case democrat, than many of our statesmen as he looks for common ground. Or perhaps he sounds like a Congregationalist, talking about the community’s discernment of the truth.

“…I’ve been given a responsibility to try and care for the church as a whole, the health of the church. That health has a lot to do with the proper and free exchange between different cultural and political and theological contexts: the people are actually able to learn from each other. And it’s got a lot to do, therefore, with valuing and nurturing unity, not, as I’ve often said, not as an alternative to truth, but actually as one of the ways we absorb truth.

“That means that, structurally speaking, in the church as I believe it to be, it really is wrong for an archbishop to be the leader of a party; in a polarised and deeply divided church it’s particularly important, I think, not to be someone pursuing an agenda that isn’t the agenda of the whole.” …

… “My conviction, my views, my theological reflections … they are things which I have to bring to that common process of discernment. It’s not as if I can say simply, ‘I know this is right, this is where we’ve got to go, come along, whatever the cost.’…”

It’s not as if he seeks unity above all; Anglicans are preparing to pick their sides in a possible worldwide schism over the gay bishop in their church in our country. And it’s not as if he seeks principle above all; it is not clear where he will stand, in the end, on gay clergy.

He could simply be confused or wishy-washy or scared. Or he could be the kind of moral leader we really do need — the kind who is not sure and leads his people to lead.

: LATER: I just posted an export version of this at Comment is Free.