Well, I guess all good things must come to an end. And what drove me to put these few words together was that very fact: Rowan Williams was indeed good for the country, the Anglican Church and most certainly in my opinion the Muslim community here in the UK.
I feel somewhat qualified to be able to make that assertion. Having spent time travelling, being in meetings as well as lecturing with William’s predecessor Lord George Carey, as well as one of the favoured successors in Bishop Richard Chartres, I have developed a far clearer idea of exactly the man Rowan Williams is. No-one doubted his immense intellectual prowess and his supreme academic skill that he brought to almost every discussion, whether that be on internal Anglican matters, to tackling the high priests of Atheism (and/or Agnosticism depending on what side of bed they get out of) head-on all the way, to the terrors of actually sitting down with Muslims, humanising them and sincerely exploring commonalities without selling his own principles. Gentle, thoughtful and magnanimous, it was always a pleasure to converse with him and observe him in action.
One might think it surprising to hear that a Muslim like myself is so impressed by an individual who ultimately preaches a theology that is anathema to us; yet living in charged and tense times as we do forces one to recalibrate one’s principles slightly as we look for those sane and unifying voices that bring wider benefit to all. And that was exactly what Rowan Williams always tried to do. In a Daily-Mail poisoned construct that we wake up to every day where Muslims might as well grow two horns and a tail and paint themselves red and then eat everyone else’s children under the obvious obligation to do so in “Sharia” law, or indeed a time where rampant secularism has been able to pull off a spectacular (unexpected?) achievement in actually stealing the word “militant” off the Jihadi lot and now owning it with their own brand of “militant secularism”, we always needed key public figures to rise above the din (and their deen perhaps?) to give support and backing to our weak and nervous community.
Williams will be best remembered for his comments on Shari’ah and a potential role for it within English Common Law which of course set the Islamophobes on fire whilst delighting the Muslims. But we should also remember his contribution to our country in the wider sense, with his regular campaigning for social justice, his stance against the banking industry, his concern for human rights, his campaigning for those suffering in conflicts all over the world, and indeed his leadership in interfaith initiatives particularly with the Muslim community. When I sit down and compare Williams to our old friend Lord Carey (forgive me your honour!) then perhaps it will be sooner rather than later that he will be missed by many in the UK regardless of their race or creed.
Ultimately, he had such a difficult job. Even though British Muslims would naturally move towards a more conservative theological standpoint from a figure such as the Archbishop of Canterbury (especially on the matter of homosexuality etc), ultimately he was far too liberal at heart to keep up the constant battle with the rest of the Churches waiting to pounce on him. He put it best himself when he said that the successor would need “the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros”! In any case, I was really quite sad today to hear of his news and our loss, and what is ultimately Magdalene College’s huge gain.
So what then of his successor? Well I doubt whoever is chosen from the frontrunners like Sentamu, Chartres, Bains et al will be able to match William’s quality, vision and depth. Sentamu who garners quite significant populist support due largely to his penchant for the trash-tabloid industry, potentially presents the worst case scenario for British Muslims with intentionally incendiary statements quite common from him – there is no reason such rhetoric would desist indeed we’d expect quite the opposite perhaps when he gains a louder voice upon obtaining office.
Personally I hope the Bishop of London Richard Chartres gets the position. I like him. I participated in meetings with him in depth both in London and in Cairo and found him to be an intellectual who has the desire to work hard for not just his own Church but “our Church” as well – certainly more so than what would be expected from Sentamu, forget about the relics of the past such as Lord Carey et al (forgive me again your honour, I couldn’t resist!). I think there is a actually a good chance that a lot of the good work that Rowan Williams has started will actually be taken to the next level with Chartres. And that can’t be a bad thing. Also, interestingly, even though Chartres is slightly older than Williams, he does have quite a level of nous and “down-to-earthness” that younger Britons would appreciate more than perhaps the slightly high-brow Williams. In any case, we will all be waiting with baited breath how this most important of offices is fulfilled and we can only hope and pray for the best for all.
I ask that God most High protects the British Muslim community as well as the wider community, and blesses us all with an Archbishop that brings light and mercy wherever he goes. Ameen.
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