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Last Updated: Monday, 11 February 2008, 18:32 GMT
Archbishop guilty of innocence
By Alex Kirby

Has the Archbishop of Canterbury successfully survived the pressure on him and patched things up within his own English church and the wider Anglican Communion? Or is the row over Sharia law the sort of dispute that could flare up again between liberal and traditional Anglicans?

Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Williams has never lacked critics during his time as archbishop

So the Archbishop of Canterbury has explained to the General Synod of the Church of England why he said what he did about a possible role for parts of Sharia law in the UK.

If Rowan Williams ever imagined his explanation could get him off the hook, he is wrong. The damage is done, and it will take more than his elegant mea culpa to undo it.

The archbishop was wrong to accept in his BBC radio interview that there could be anything inevitable about any part of Sharia ever holding sway in the UK.

He was also pretty certainly wrong not to ask someone to rewrite his speech so he would not have to apologise, as he has, for its "unclarity" and his own "clumsiness".

And he should have had some idea of how the very word Sharia is enough to drive reason from many minds.

All that said, though, the damage he has caused is minuscule by comparison both with what his critics are doing and with the good he himself has done.

Terminal split

Rowan Williams has never lacked critics during his time at Canterbury, either in the English church or in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Their chief quarrel with him concerns his handling of the festering dispute over gay and lesbian clergy.

His explanation to the Synod will not have patched things up. It couldn't.

That may well come to a head in July, when the 10-yearly Lambeth Conference of all 800-plus Anglican bishops is due to take place.

Even if they all turn up, the prospects of getting through the conference without a terminal split over human sexuality are slim.

The likelihood of a split in the Communion is so real, in fact, that many people in Dr Williams' shoes might well feel the attempt to keep it united was no longer worth the candle.

In that case, why not say what you think needs saying, and let the critics go hang?

The archbishop is too good a man to think so cynically. But he must have realised long ago that his enemies in England and worldwide would stop at nothing to harry him from office, or at least into irrelevance.

Moral codes

His explanation to the Synod will not have patched things up. It couldn't. Nothing he said could have appeased those who now feel their time has come.

They want a traditional church and a traditional archbishop, which tends very often to mean one intent on upholding the sexual and other codes laid down two millennia ago.

General Synod
Dr Williams addressed the General Synod of the Church of England

And these bitter few days are unlikely to be the last such episode. Dr Williams sees his role not as a custodian, but as an explorer.

As he told the Synod: "I believe quite strongly that it is not inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities and to try and bring them into better public focus."

While he remains at Canterbury he is not going to stop the "attempt to speak for the liberties and consciences of others in this country as well as our own".

So there will be more misunderstandings, and refusals to understand, and repeated calls for the archbishop to stand down and return to university life. He must be sorely tempted to do just that.

'Fools for Christ'

Apart from his personal liberalism over homosexuality (he has always maintained the Church's official teaching on it since he began the job, to the chagrin of many campaigners), two factors in particular work against Rowan Williams.

The first is his inability, or refusal, to say everything in the neatly-packaged soundbite most of the media now demand.

It's hard work understanding an archiepiscopal speech or sermon these days. But it's always worth the effort, which has certainly not been the case with all his recent predecessors.

The second is his refusal to stop exploring the bounds of what it means to be a Christian, or a person of faith.

He made that clear to the Synod, too: " the assumptions of our society become more secular...Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together."

That of course lays him open to a quite proper charge by non-believers, that he is seeking to advance the interests of religion however it is defined. But that is quite separate from the criticism assailing him from within Anglicanism.

There is a tradition in Christianity of holy men and women known as fools for Christ, innocents who often used unconventional or even shocking behaviour to challenge accepted norms. It seems an apt description of Rowan Williams.

His tongue sometimes stumbles, but his brain and his heart are among the church's best, and probably better than it deserves.

Alex Kirby is a former religious affairs correspondent for the BBC.

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