Eminentoes

Brilliant Blunderer

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has a mercifully few words of advice for his successor.

By 2.17.08

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Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is floundering over his suggestion early this month in Britain that a "constructive relationship between Islamic law and the statutory law of the United Kingdom" not only merits consideration but is perhaps "unavoidable." Even his predecessor as chief prelate of the Church of England has criticized Williams.

"His erudite and nuanced acceptance of some Muslim laws within British law would be disastrous for the nation and, to some degree, a direct challenge to the values of the Christian/ Jewish ethic on which our laws have been constructed," pronounced Lord George Carey. The former archbishop may not be the towering intellect that Williams is reputed to be. But Carey's low-church simplicity helped him to avoid his successor's proclivity for intellectual and verbal diarrhea.

Vividly contrasting with Williams' ponderous speeches and interviews, Carey penned a succinct op-ed for the British newspaper News of the World. "The Archbishop of Canterbury may have done Britain a great favor by raising issues concerning Islam," Carey wrote. "But I believe he has overstated the case for accommodating Islamic legal codes, not the importance of the topic."

Carey said he could not subscribe to Williams' suggestion that Britain "concede some place in law for aspects of Sharia." Emphatically, he declared, "There can be no exceptions to the laws of our land which have been so painfully honed by the struggle for democracy and human rights."

Carey's point about the primacy of British law is refreshingly simple compared to Williams' various strained explanations of his remarks. His original February 7 speech to the British Courts of Justice, titled "Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective," was over 6,200 words.

His subsequent February explanatory interview with the BBC was an unhelpful 2,200 words (including the questions) and only compounded the controversy while adding no clarity. Does the archbishop not recognize the virtue of brevity?

Apparently not. As the uproar expanded in Britain and around the world, especially within the 80 million member Anglican communion over which the archbishop spiritually presides, Williams tried to explain himself further in a 3,000 word speech to his church's February 11 General Synod. Over a third of it was devoted specifically to the Islamic law controversy.

"Some of what has been heard is a very long way indeed from what was actually said," Williams complained. Nobly, he admitted that he "must of course take responsibility for any unclarity" and for any "misleading choice of words." He called his original 6,000 word speech only an "opening contribution" to the dialogue.

"I tried to make clear that there could be no 'blank checks' in this regard, in particular as regards some of the sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women," Williams tried to explain. "The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity."

BY MOST ACCOUNTS, the Archbishop of Canterbury is intellectually brilliant. Perhaps too brilliant. He does not seem to have any media savvy or appreciate that a few ill considered words from so senior a churchman can easily inflame his British and international constituency.

Shortly before Christmas, Williams told a BBC radio interviewer that he rejected non-biblical myths about the Nativity Story. He meant that the Gospels do not specifically mention that the Wise Men were three in number, or that they were kings, or that donkeys were present at the stable, or that snow was present, or that the whole affair occurred in December. The Daily Telegraph unhelpfully headlined its description of the interview; "Archbishop Says Nativity a Legend."

Williams' supposed rejection of the Bible's description of the first Christmas was reported internationally. Pat Robertson denounced the supposed apostasy as "disgraceful." Rush Limbaugh, in mentioning Williams's recent remarks about Sharia, referenced the Archbishop's supposed rejection of the Christmas star.

In the actual interview, Williams was in fact fairly orthodox and described his belief in a literal Virgin Birth. But his attempt at sophisticated analysis will forever be remembered as the Archbishop's denial of the Nativity Story just in time for Christmas.

He should have known better. Sometimes he seems more determined to show just how smart he is than to perform what is for bishops the supreme task: encouraging the faith of their flock, most of whom are not professors at Oxford.

Most of Williams' career before becoming a bishop was spent in academia, and perhaps that is where he really belongs. That he should preside over the global Anglican Communion during its greatest modern crisis is a greater irony. The same year that he was elevated by Prime Minister Tony Blair to Anglicanism's most senior prelacy was also the year of U.S. Episcopal Church's election of its first openly homosexual bishop.

Orthodox Episcopalians in the U.S., supported by far more numerous Orthodox Anglicans throughout the Global South, have pressed Williams to chasten the U.S. branch of his communion.

Williams has mostly abandoned his formerly liberal views on homosexuality, views that had prevented his appointment as a bishop by former Archbishop Carey. But he has also been reluctant to openly criticize the dwindling U.S. Episcopal Church, whose 2 million membership is but speck in the global Anglican Communion, increasingly dominated by fast growing, and conservative, African churches.

Williams' professorial manner has not been especially helpful in guiding the communion through the now almost 5 year old controversy. The possibilities for open schism within the communion seem greater, not less, because of Williams's inability to lead.

Although they rarely give 6,000 word lectures about post-modernism or the history of British jurisprudence, Williams' predecessor far more skillfully navigated the rapids of Anglican's theological and political disputes. When the U.S. Episcopal Church had seemed on the verge of openly accepting homosexual clergy, Archbishop Carey reputedly had quietly warned the U.S. presiding bishop that he (Carey) would then recognize the authority of departed conservative Episcopalians as a response. The U.S. Episcopal Church postponed its march into open schism.

"He is a man with many brilliant gifts. He must now focus on keeping the community together," Carey succinctly wrote in his 260 word recent newspaper op-ed about Williams. "I don't believe he saw the implication of the speech he made. I understand he is horrified by what has happened."

Carey promised Williams his prayers. But what Williams really needs is Carey's guidance on when to be quiet.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.