History will judge Rowan Williams to have been a great archbishop of Canterbury in all sorts of ways, many yet unsung. As his biographer, I sometimes wonder whether more fractious members of his flock realise how lucky they have been to have him. Institutionally, though, his decade in office will probably end in honourable defeat.
The deepest issue facing him has not been over gay clergy or women bishops, as many assume, but a question he sees as even more pressing – how the church makes up its mind on disputed questions. To its supporters, Anglicanism has long been renowned for toleration. Like the proverbial Australian farm, it has been a church with few fences but many wells. Elasticity over secondary matters of belief has applied at a structural level. Relations between the communion’s different provinces around the world depended on trust and friendship, not on streamlined procedures or enforceable rules.
But opposition to this style of government intensified as debate on women’s ministry and sexuality grew more heated during the 80s and 90s. “What had once been like a gentlemanly game of tennis that needed no umpire had become more like a scrappy game of football calling out for the restraint of a referee,” as one observer put it.