‘Wherever he is, he will always be my Archbishop’

Here Bishop Emeritus Rt. Rev. Duleep de Chickera reflects on the contribution made by the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Church

The 104th Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC), Rowan Williams, surprised his admirers and critics alike when he recently announced his retirement for end 2012. There is little doubt that this decision is influenced by his understanding of vocation. Having striven to be faithful in one place he now moves on to be faithful elsewhere. This is vocation at its best, liberating and dynamic. It is liberating because of its detachment from any given office or responsibility and it is dynamic, because it discerns and enables fresh opportunities to serve God.

The office of the ABC goes back to 597 CE with the arrival and recognition of S. Augustine as the first Archbishop. Appointment to the historic Seat of Canterbury thrusts the incumbent into the awesome and arduous position of spiritual head of the world Anglican Communion. As such he becomes the focal point of truth and unity and is expected to guide the world Church through a pastoral presence and prophetic witness. The Office does not confer executive authority over the world Anglican Church.

Archbishop Rowan Williams with Bishop Duleep de Chickera during his pastoral visit to Sri Lanka in 2007

Integrated leadership-As a leader Archbishop Rowan has an ideal combination of gifts. He is an erudite scholar, a caring pastor, a courageous prophet and a humble servant leader. His dealings and encounters with people rarely display pretence or patronage. Whether with the helpless and harassed, academics, world leaders or religious dignitaries, he remains the same. He has a profound ability to recognise the intrinsic value of the other, regardless of the others’ perspective or identity. Where groups in Church and society are polarised he is courageous in taking a stand, but does so without excluding the other or closing the issue.

His tendency to try to absorb the pain of all in a protracted conflict has left its harsh marks on him. In this tendency however he stands in the Biblical tradition of the “Suffering Servant” which culminated in Christ. A rather touching weakness in the man is his reluctance to allow his radical understanding of truth to impact on the visible understanding of unity.

Integrated witness- He occasionally confessed that the media gave him a rough time. This was mostly because of his regular call for hospitality for immigrants and minorities, specially the Muslim community. He was often misquoted but held his position that Britain was called to welcome and respect minorities and facilitate their legitimate aspirations and rights. The ability of a majority community to do so is for him, the test of a civilised culture. Here too he walked tall in the Biblical imperative of extending unconditional loving- kindness to strangers and foreigners.

Integrated theology -Archbishop Rowan has a rare gift for interpreting the Gospel in a secular idiom. He is exceptionally well informed and has led the way in the Church’s response to contemporary intellectual, aesthetic, political and cultural challenges. A reflection on global warming, where he argued that contentment rather than greed makes us more human, remains an outstanding contribution on the issue. In his book on the monastic, desert mothers and fathers “Silence and honey cakes”, he offers a foundational spirituality for all engaged in social transformation; self- scrutiny adds credibility in this task.
Christ is central in his thought; but his is the Christ who refrains from intimidating or ridiculing those with different allegiances.

The interaction between his theology and spirituality stretches the boundaries of belonging to include those who wrestle with questions of belief and personal integrity. His primary theological thrust has remained the discernment and interpretation of truth for the benefit of seekers of the truth.

Faith, for the Archbishop, is the pursuance of holiness understood as the restless quest for integrity, inclusion and integration that essentially reflects the heart and mind of God. It is truth that generates faith; and faith is demonstrated in the defined vision and lived values of those who dare to claim an encounter with the living God.

Integrated behaviour -The inability of the world Communion to affirm these gifts and create the space for Archbishop Rowan to lead at his strength will go down in history as one of the tragedies of contemporary Anglicanism. Different sections of the Communion harassed him with their relentless and categorical positions on the human sexuality issue. His refusal to give up on the work of reconciliation took a great deal of his time and energy and very sadly led to an endless, self -imposed agenda of conflict resolution.
The Ordinariate pronounced by the Current Pope, which invited dissatisfied Anglicans to come under the pastoral oversight of the Roman Catholic Church, tested and proved the Archbishop’s Christian character. He refused to prevent the right of passage for any who wished to transfer and at the same time refused to allow the issue to create a setback in Anglican-Roma Catholic relations. It was this quality of a dogged democratic conscience that sustained ecumenical relationships during his watch. For him the freedom of choice had to be respected and protected even when costly.

Pastoral visit to Sri Lanka-Archbishop Rowan’s visit to Sri Lanka in May 2007 was his first and will probably be his only visit to us as ABC. Plans for a visit to Malaysia had to be suddenly changed and we had just a few days to decide whether we would receive our Archbishop. To the credit of the Sri Lankan Church the opportunity was seized and an integrated agenda with slots for our sister faiths, victims of violence, the political leadership, differently abled children, our schools, the public and members of the Church, was soon in place.

The Archbishop was worked hard and proved impressive the harder he was worked! His sermon in Colombo is still remembered by many. It’s thrust; stay with “the other” till there is a blessing for all, is still the central message for the Church and Nation.

His visit was not without its amusing moments, caused by a hearing impediment. At his meeting with the President, his bad ear was in the wrong place and when this was indicated to the President he graciously changed his seat to assist what turned out to be a most engaging conversation. When we visited the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter, who we knew also has a hearing impediment in one ear, we had to ensure that the good ears of these good men were strategically placed!

Two images of his visit have remained since. These are the spontaneity with which he knelt to talk to a dear friend confined to a wheel chair and the exhaustion that drove him to sleep as soon as he settled into seat, on his return flight. This is the man; so holy, so human.

Moving on-Archbishop Rowan will return to a culture which could claim to have produced him. As Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, he will watch the Church and the world with the wisdom of a sage and the curiosity of a scholar. Wherever he is, he will always be my Archbishop.

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