Page last updated at 09:26 GMT, Wednesday, 15 October 2003 10:26 UK

Profile: Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, faces a rupture in the Church of England over the question of homosexual clergy. Can his undoubted talents heal the rift between Anglican evangelicals and liberals?

The job of Archbishop of Canterbury has never been an easy one. Some, like Thomas a Becket, have been murdered. Others, most notably Thomas Cranmer, have met their end courtesy of the executioner.

Archbishops have been used as political pawns by monarchs, ridiculed as meddlesome priests by politicians and scoffed at as wishy-washy liberals by the media.

I don't expect the next few years to be anything other than messy as messy as far as all this is concerned.
Rowan Williams on the gay clergy controversy
Today, the 104th Archbishop, the most Reverend Rowan Williams, is facing his own crisis, this time within the Church itself.

The election of the first openly-gay Anglican bishop, in the United States, came at the same time as another homosexual priest, Canon Jeffrey John, had his nomination as Bishop of Reading withdrawn at the request of the Archbishop.

With more traditionalist Anglicans, in Kenya, Nigeria and Australia, now setting themselves against liberals in the US and the UK, Dr Williams has convened an emergency top-level meeting of bishops in October, to discuss the issue of gay clergy.

Broad Church

A formidable theologian with an outstanding track record, Dr Williams, who published his first book at the age of 29, was only 36 when he was appointed professor of divinity at Oxford - the university's youngest professor.

He is the first Welshman - indeed he is a fluent Welsh speaker - to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury for at least a millennium.

But Dr Williams' major problem rests with his unique position. As Archbishop of Canterbury he is leader of the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion but, unlike the Pope, he has no power to force any of his 38 archbishops to submit to his will.

The broad nature of the Church, which includes anglo-Catholics, evangelicals and liberals, means that it is almost impossible for it to achieve unity on many controversial matters, including the ordination of women, human sexuality and relations with Rome.

The question today is: how can the Church accommodate both those like Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, who has called homosexual conduct "lower than that of beasts" and the newly-elected Bishop of New Hampshire, the openly gay Gene Robinson?

Dr Williams has met this matter head on. In July, delivering a recent speech to the Church's parliament, the General Synod, he spoke frankly:

"There are several different 'Churches of England'... they do not communicate with each other very effectively... they need to learn how to do this better if they are to fulfil their primary task of witnessing to God's transforming power."

Leaked memorandum

More recently, he has warned that the Church might have to break-up. "Unity becomes finally unintelligible and unworthwhile when it itself ceases to be a theological category," he wrote recently.

"Staying together is pointless unless it is staying together because of the Body of Christ."

The Archbishop is seemingly caught between two stools. If he tries to be a hard-man, laying down the law on scriptural matters and forcing an agreement, Dr Williams risks splitting the Church.

If, on the other hand, he labours to reach a compromise, the Archbishop may be labelled ineffectual and turn into a lame duck.

The Church is failing us; it is not truly a Church of the people.
An example of the Archbishop's straight talking.
And in a recent twist, it has been revealed that the Archbishop's secretary for public affairs, the former BBC journalist, Jeremy Harris, has produced a document outlining a strategy to defuse the crisis over gay clergy.

In a leaked three-page memorandum, entitled Notes towards a Handling Strategy on Gay Issues, Mr Harris advises displacing the issue "at least partially from public and media attention.

"This involves, principally, finding attractive alternative stories involving ABC (the Archbishop of Canterbury) and/or the Church."

And he includes the following suggestions: "ABC as poet - do a reading, make a high-profile Lords intervention, announce a theology prize."

Whatever the case, the next few months promise to be turbulent ones for the Archbishop. But if, as in the case of his recent Synod speech, he can impress all parts of the Church with his intellect, common sense and charisma, he might just be able to pull it off.

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