Page last updated at 12:27 GMT, Friday, 8 February 2008

Profile: Dr Rowan Williams

Archbishop of Canterbury
Rowan Williams, a Welshman, is a formidable theologian

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams' call for the adoption of some aspects of Sharia law in the UK has been condemned by many, but has also received some support.

He is no stranger to controversy. Under his stewardship, the Church of England has come close to splitting in two over the ordination of gay clergy.

He has also attracted criticism for straying outside of the religious arena. His opposition to the Iraq war, his call for reparations for the slave trade and his stance on the environment have raised eyebrows among the political establishment.

Dr Williams is the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. He was confirmed at St Paul's Cathedral in London on 2 December 2002.

Excelled at school

As Archbishop of Canterbury he is leader of the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion.

He was born in 1950 in Swansea, where his father was a mining engineer.

He excelled at school in every subject except one - he had a permanent note excusing him from sport.

He was keen on drama and starred in many productions at Dynevor grammar school and later at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he studied theology.

He went to Oxford for his doctorate and lectured at Mirfield Theological College in Leeds before returning to Cambridge and Oxford where he was fast gaining a reputation for being a formidable theologian.

In 1979, Dr Williams published his first book. And at the age of 36 he became Oxford University's youngest professor.

'Engage in politics'

From 1991 to 1999, he served as Bishop of Monmouth, before becoming Archbishop of Wales.

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

A clue to his outspoken nature came at his enthronement ceremony in February 2003 when he used his sermon to urge Christians to engage the world of politics.

Since then, he has made clear his views on a range of issues from debt reduction to terrorism, the Iraq war, consumerism, slavery and the environment.

Gene Robinson
The ordination of openly gay bishop Gene Robinson divided Anglicans

But it is within the Anglican Church that his views have stirred the greatest controversy.

Dr Williams has consistently supported the ordination of women, and in 2005 backed moves to allow women to serve as bishops, to the consternation of conservative Anglicans.

But it is, above all, the issue of gay clergy which has caused Archbishop his biggest headache.

June 2003 saw the appointment of an openly gay bishop in Reading, Jeffrey John.

'Devil in our church'

Initially, Dr Williams raised no objections to the appointment, raising hackles among conservative church leaders in the UK and abroad.

As the row escalated, Jeffrey John withdrew from the post.

Two months later, the rank and file of the Anglican Church in America voted to elect an openly gay bishop, Reverend Canon Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

As one African archbishop put it: "The devil has entered our church".

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Rowan Williams says a divide in the Anglican Church is possible

Try as he might, Dr Williams has failed to get traditionalist church leaders - mainly in Africa - to reconcile their differences with the liberal wing of the church in North America.

The issue has threatened to cause a schism in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

While there is currently an undeclared truce between the two factions, the issue may well come back to haunt Dr Williams again.

Last December, Dr Williams walked into another storm when he suggested the nativity could have been 'a legend'.

And despite two meetings with the Pope, he has failed to reach any sort of meaningful rapprochement with the Roman Catholic church.

'Sticky end'

Dr Williams' major problem rests with his unique position.

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.

But unlike the Pope, he has no power to force any of his 38 archbishops to submit to his will.

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

Throughout history, 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.

Dr Williams' outspoken views have ensured there are mixed opinions on him too.


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