For his last official act before a three-month sabbatical, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams chose a joyous one. He ordained the Reverend Canon Humphrey Southern as a new bishop. The ceremony took place in London's St. Paul's Cathedral, and the crowd smiled to see Williams, the tousle-headed, professorial leader of the Church of England and titular head of its global offshoot, the Anglican Communion, reveling in his mellifluous baritone as he prayed, sang and performed the rite of ordination. "Will you strive for the visible unity of Christ's Church?" asked Williams. Answered Southern, "By the help of God, I will."
By the help of God, indeed. Almost from the day he took over in 2002, Williams, now 56, has been attempting to prevent a schism among the world's 79 million Anglicans. It has been a horrible task. Within months of his taking the job, a simmering debate on homosexuality exploded into a brutal battle, pitting some of the wealthiest and most liberal of the church's 38 provinces, notably those in North America, against a larger, more socially conservative group concentrated in Africa and Asia and known as the Global South. At the 1998 edition of the Communion's once-a-decade Lambeth Conference, the concluding language called homosexual practice "incompatible with Scripture." But in 2003 the Episcopal Church, the Anglican body in the U.S., made Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, bishop of New Hampshire. Unlike Roman Catholicism, the Communion lacks definitive doctrine to aid decisive solutions. Nor does it have a universal leader such as the Pope the Archbishop makes no claims to infallibility and cannot dictate to his flock. The years since have featured a series of angry meetings, threats of secession, half-met demands and unmet deadlines. The next full-scale opportunity to negotiate or fight on will be at the Lambeth meeting in July 2008: that is, if Williams can keep all parties on board long enough to attend it.
Anglicanism matters, and not just because it is one of the largest Protestant denominations. It matters because, like Roman Catholicism, it is global, uniting varied ethnicities, economic levels and social attitudes in an overarching understanding of faith. But Anglicans have foregone Catholicism's useful authoritarianism, staking their unity on a seemingly more attractive continual conversation, based on mutual respect. The sharp debate over homosexuality threatens that unity, and crystallizes a challenge facing everyone in an uneasy, newly wired world: can the North rich and imbued with an ethos of individual rights and the poorer South find a constructive interdependence?
The Archbishop's office is arguably ill-equipped for that challenge. A job sometimes described as "first among equals" now looks more like lion-tamer-minus-whip. Some think Williams should step back and let the rift happen. "No one is up to this, however gifted they may be," says Chris Sugden, executive secretary of the group Anglican Mainstream. Then again, Mainstream is a very conservative group that might prefer an immediate split; and if the Communion disintegrates, it is not Sugden who could be known forever as its last Archbishop of Canterbury. Says Bishop Idris Jones, Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church, "You could say [Williams] is occupying the Christlike position. He is crucified between two extremes and they're pulling him apart."
In the last few weeks, however, Williams has been intriguingly proactive, doling out penalties to a couple of notable thorns on either side of the debate, and possibly finessing a decent attendance for Lambeth 2008. Speaking to Time on a cool May morning, a fire burning in the hearth of his study in Lambeth Palace, his London seat, Williams admitted: "The Communion feels very vulnerable; very vulnerable and very fragile." But he insisted, "I don't think schism is inevitable." He said his task was to "try and maintain as long as possible the space in which people can have constructive disagreements, learn from each other, and try and hold that within an agreed framework of discipline and practice." Yet not everyone will be happy to follow his example. For in his pursuit of unity, Williams effectively banked down his own, rather liberal, views about homosexuality and the church. He may ask no less from the liberal provinces in the Communion.
Back in 2002, Rowan Williams was something of a prodigy. At 52, he became the youngest Archbishop of Canterbury in 200 years. "And," wrote one observer, "perhaps the cleverest," a man who had quickly established himself as one of Anglicanism's most gifted preachers and probably its pre-eminent theologian. He was a self-professed "hairy lefty," a Christian socialist arrested in a 1985 protest at a U.S. air base in England, who now criticizes the Iraq war. And he once also had a controversial stance on the theology of sexuality. In 1989 he delivered a lecture to Britain's Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in which he stated: "If we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm." He continued: "The absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and nonscriptural theory." As Archbishop of Wales he admitted knowingly ordaining at least one noncelibate gay man. When he moved with his wife and two children to Lambeth Palace in 2002, the Herald newspaper of Glasgow enthused, "What will endear him to the people ... is that he has the courage of his convictions, however unpopular they may be."
But his convictions turned out to be complex, and not everybody was endeared. Until July 2003, Williams seemed prepared to make Canon Jeffrey John, an openly gay man in a committed, celibate relationship, a bishop. But after a tremendous outcry on the right, Williams held a six-hour meeting with John, who withdrew his candidacy. Williams had already called an emergency meeting of the Anglican leadership over the U.S. Episcopal Church's election of Gene Robinson, also gay and in a committed relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire. The months that followed set a pattern. The Americans consecrated Robinson. Williams, facing conservative demands that they leave the Communion, endorsed milder requests such as a promise, for now, to make no more gay bishops and bless no more gay marriages. The Episcopalians made ambiguous gestures of compliance, but in 2006 elected as their presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who had supported Robinson's elevation. Today Williams calls Robinson's election absent any prior general decision allowing the ordination of people in same-sex relationships "bizarre and puzzling." "His heart is where it's always been," says Welsh Archbishop Barry Morgan, a good friend. "His natural sympathies and theological understanding are on the side of those who are gay." And yet Williams insists that churches should not outpace the Communion's consensus.