An inclusive mission

As a scholar at Cambridge, Rowan Williams will continue pursuing a communal search for truth, says Benjamin Myers

March 22, 2012

Rowan Williams' belief in the Church and his view of academic life are closely related. His decision to leave Canterbury and take up the position of master of Magdalene College at Cambridge should not be seen as a retreat from the difficulties of Church life. Instead, for Williams, this will be a transition from one kind of priestly ministry to another.

It is often said that Williams is an unusual churchman - too scholarly, too ponderous, too sensitive to complexity - but it should equally be said that he is an unusual scholar. Although he has made important contributions to several academic disciplines - not only theology but also history, political philosophy and literary criticism - his deepest commitment has always been to the cultivation of community rather than to any particular intellectual project. If his critics complained that he was an unusually academic archbishop, Cambridge will also find him to be an unusually priestly scholar.

Williams' decade as Archbishop of Canterbury has been marked above all by a commitment to dialogue. At a time when our public institutions have surrendered to a culture of managerialism, when human relationships are instrumentalised and "outcomes" are given more weight than tradition, Williams has remained committed to a culture of dialogue, debate and negotiation. His belief in the Christian virtue of patience shapes his whole style of leadership and public engagement.

This is why, at Canterbury, Williams has consistently refused to wield political power or to dabble in the dark arts of managerial manipulation. He believes that leadership is not about winning but about fostering a community that knows how to listen and argue and learn from one another - a community that practises patience.

Simply put, Williams believes in the Church more than he believes in his own opinions. All his troubles as Archbishop of Canterbury have stemmed from this fact. He believes in processes of communal negotiation more than he believes in the enforcement of any fixed viewpoint. It is this mindset, this belief in the Church, that has drawn so much criticism, even from within the Church of England. Giles Fraser, the former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, reports hearing a bishop say: "The problem with Rowan Williams is that he is too bloody Christian."

It will be clear at once that this approach to Christian leadership is particularly suited to the traditional values of academic culture. What Williams will bring to Cambridge is a commitment to cultivating a community of scholars engaged together in a patient struggle for truth.

Not that Williams promotes a fashionable academic relativism, according to which all perspectives are equally valid and the task of higher education consists merely in hearing someone else's view. Williams is an incisive critic of relativism, and he remains committed to the old-fashioned belief that education is about truth. But his belief in the Church shapes the way he understands academic life: it is the community, not the autonomous individual, that has access to truth. If this belief is the heart of Williams' distinctive style of Church leadership, it is equally the whole basis of his approach to higher education. What he will really bring to Cambridge, in other words, is the same thing he brought to Canterbury: a belief in the Church.

What is unique about Rowan Williams is simply the fact that he is a priest. If anything will come to define his new position at Cambridge, it will be that he approaches academic life just as he approaches Church leadership: as a Christian and as a priest.

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