With the announcement by Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, that he is resigning, the world's 80 million Anglicans are losing a spiritual head who is also a rare human being. Dr. Williams, a brilliant student at Cambridge who then took a doctorate at Oxford and was appointed to the Lady Margaret's chair of divinity there in his thirties, is acting on his stated intention of standing down after a decade as Archbishop. He will be remembered both for his unassuming and accessible personality, which did much to halt the decline in church attendance, and for his intellect. He has, however, had to work very hard within the Church. As an ecumenicist, he holds that disunity would do the gravest harm to that body's mission and he told The Hindu during a visit to India in 2011 that dialogue is for him the recognition of the serious. Nevertheless, the Church has come close to schism, with traditionalists in the United Kingdom and Africa bitterly opposing Dr. Williams's advocacy of women bishops and gay clergy. Indeed the Archbishop backed down when his nomination of a gay priest to the Suffragan See of Reading caused heated controversy. His own position is in keeping with broader attitudinal changes in the global North, including the Church's North American branches; but liberal Anglicans, for their part, are disturbed by what they see as authoritarianism in the covenant Dr. Williams has drafted in response to the Roman Catholic demand for a more structured Anglican church before talks on reunification can proceed.
Those issues stand yet. Much is at stake, not least because the Church of England has strongly countered many of the evils of our time. It opposed apartheid in South Africa, and by appointing Desmond Tutu Archbishop of Cape Town, provided a figure who was crucial to the peaceful change of state and to the subsequent reconciliation process. Individual bishops have also publicly criticised the global arms trade, which now exceeds $400 billion a year. In the U.K., the church's 1985 report Faith in the City infuriated Margaret Thatcher's government by showing how widening inequalities were damaging community life. Dr. Williams himself was against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. More recently, the Bishop of Oxford has implied a continuing Anglican commitment to inclusion by suggesting that the church's schools admit more pupils from other faiths; the Church of England started universal free education in Britain. The new Archbishop, who will be one of two recommended by the Church to Prime Minister David Cameron, is likely to be more of a conservative than Dr. Williams. Whoever is chosen will have a hard act to follow.