Jason Byassee: Rowan Williams’ reckless generosity

God gave Rowan Williams so many gifts, and then punished him by making him Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rupert Shortt begins “Rowan’s Rule,” his very fine biography of Rowan Williams, with a joke a friend and supporter once made to Williams: “God gave you all these gifts, and then punished you by making you Archbishop of Canterbury.” The comment is an almost perfect way for Shortt to begin the book -- but only “almost” because it lacks any reference to the archbishop’s dominant trait: humility.

Of course, Williams doesn’t see it that way, as the genuinely humble never do. Shortt reports that Williams considers pride to be one of his chief sins. How could you not to be proud when you’re a polyglot, a mystic, a world-renowned Oxford theologian at age 30 and holder of one of the chief sees in Christendom? Williams has to be one of the only people on planet earth who could hold his own theologically with Benedict XVI, the Metropolitans of the Orthodox churches, British novelist and atheist Phillip Pullman and former Prime Minister Tony Blair (whom he reports as being good on God, bad on irony!). Yet humble he is. Shortt tells a story about a poor family who showed up at their parish church to have their baby baptized after the service on a Sunday when Williams was visiting. The archbishop proceeded to baptize the child, the parents never knowing who he was -- he was just another man in a collar.

When I was a grad student at Duke in the mid-1990s, I met Williams -- and in fact got to drive him and his family around Durham for four days while he was lecturing here. When I picked him up, he helped his family clamber into my student-mobile, turned and gazed at me intently and said, “Tell me about your work.” I could have said, “No, see, I don’t have work. You have work. You’re Rowan freaking Williams.” I didn’t. He’d made me feel important. I told him about me. Years later, when I met him as a journalist covering a World Council of Churches meeting, he interrupted as I reintroduced myself: “Jason, Jane and the children would want me to pass on their greetings.”

I could blog for months out of “Rowan’s Rule.” I’m struck in particular by Oliver O’Donovan’s keen eye for sizing up his former colleague’s strengths and weaknesses. O’Donovan, a Christian ethicist who taught with Williams at Oxford, has observed that he views theology and leadership as a sort of graduate seminar, with never-ending banter, but no point at which someone comes to a steady conclusion. Williams’ theology holds that Jesus interrupts our easy consensuses -- this is handy against fundamentalisms of all kinds (like Jack Spong’s and Pullman’s), but less helpful in situations of, say, church discipline. All the same, to have a spectacular theologian as head of a church is somewhat novel today. One would think those liberals and conservatives in the Anglican Communion who are frustrated with Williams for not disciplining their opponents might have read his “Truce of God” or his “Resurrection.” They would realize that the Archbishop sees the risen Christ as one who meets us in the enemy with whom we cannot leave fellowship. For him to kick the bad guys out of the church would, unfortunately, be to kick out Jesus himself.

For now, I’ll limit myself to one episode from Shortt: Willams’ actions as Archbishop of Wales on who should be ordained a priest.

He had a soft spot for would-be ordinands who were down on their luck, Shortt writes: “He took gospel precepts on forgiveness of sins very seriously indeed.” This resulted in people being put forth for ordination who were not entirely suitable. This can turn out brilliantly -- as Shortt notes, Jesus himself was a radical practitioner of forgiveness of sins, given his way of attracting miscreants. In Williams’ case, Shortt calls it “holy naivete.” Williams and others have termed it a sort of “reckless generosity.” Whatever it was, it resulted in mistakes that harmed others. As Archbishop of Wales, he bore with one priest who later ran up debt, drank, and hurt his parish. He almost ordained another who’d been run off from several other churches and managed to escape his past. Williams has a defense in each individual case, but collectively it appears his arms were open a bit too wide. This is a good posture for those holding the door open for the kingdom via the church. But not for ordination. As one commentator says, “Ordination is not a right.” And sprinkling it around too “non-carefully” can harm those parishes on which such borderline priests are foisted.

I’m inclined to say this tendency toward leniency is merely a venial sin from a church leader. We’re at our worst when we’re drumming people out, even of leadership. Perhaps most of our greatest weaknesses are merely the obverse of our greatest strengths. And it gives me hope that the leader of one of the world’s great churches is a good and holy and brilliant man with a penchant for charity, even at the risk of excess.