The reluctant archbishop

The retiring leader of the Anglican communion leaves an ambiguous legacy.

So last autumn's rumours were mainly true. Rowan Williams is to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year, though not it seems to take up a full-time academic job as a professor of theology. Rather, he will occupy a comfortable sinecure as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge; a post that brings little in the way of responsibility but does afford some lovely views over the river Cam. At sixty-two, he will still be younger than many of his predecessors were when they were appointed, to say nothing of Pope Benedict XVI -- shortly to celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday and old enough to be, in some bizarre parallel universe, Dr Williams' father.

Attention will no doubt soon turn to the matter of the succession. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, is the clear favourite, which probably means that he will not get the job. There are signs of an advanced "stop Sentamu" campaign already. It's difficult to say more at this point, not least because of the opaque system of appointment by the Crown Nominations Committee, which I have criticised before. I think it's safe to say, though, that it won't be Giles Fraser.

During his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has pulled off the rare feat of being controversial without being particularly outspoken. His most memorable interventions -- such as his notorious 2008 speech which appeared to suggest that the recognition of Sharia law in Britain was both inevitable and right -- have been couched in abstruse and often equivocal language. He has perfected the art of sitting on barbed-wire fences, seeming almost to find the resulting discomfort a source of intellectual and moral inspiration.

At best, Williams' contributions to the national debate have been insightful and even pointed. I would single out, for example, an article he wrote for the Times at the height of the Parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, warning of the dangers that "systematic humiliation of politicians" posed for the health of democracy and pointing out that regulation was no substitute for integrity.

But a man whose theology has always been characterised by nuance and ambiguity, who tends to see eleven sides to every question, has never looked comfortable in a public arena that prioritises confrontation. And it's notable that he has tended to be more forthright, even impassioned, in his political pronouncements (see for example the leading article he wrote as guest editor of the New Statesman last year) than when talking about purely religious matters. Perhaps he just feels more ambiguity in his own area of professional expertise, where he has thought longer and more deeply.

He leaves a Church of England, and an Anglican Communion, at least as riven on questions of sexuality and gender as when he was appointed a decade ago. This isn't his fault, although critics complain that he has tended to put unity above principle and failed to give strong leadership. The position taken by most Anglican churches in Africa, which see homosexuality as inherently sinful (at best) is in the end irreconcilable with the liberal views which predominate in North America and increasingly (though far from uniformly) in the Church of England itself. The latest scheme for papering over the cracks -- the so-called Anglican Covenant, on which Williams has staked much of his personal authority -- is in deep trouble; seventeen C of E dioceses have already rejected it.

By announcing his resignation now, rather than (as had been expected) after this summer's Jubilee celebrations, Williams will at least avoid being seen to have quit in response to a humiliating failure. But he may well still be in post when the General Synod gives its final approval for the consecration of women as bishops. This would be a proud legacy to take his leave on. Yet the instinctively Anglo-Catholic Williams will also be acutely conscious of the implications of the move for the Church of England (facing yet more splits and Romeward defections) and for wider efforts towards Christian unity. The question is another of the many circles that his immensely subtle theological mind has never quite managed to square.

He will, though, be relieved to escape the constant criticism and scrutiny to which he has been subjected in the past decade. There's nothing unusual in an Archbishop of Canterbury attracting dismissive press coverage, of course. Indeed it's a great British tradition. Both of his immediate predecessors, in their different ways, were at times figures of ridicule. And it might be said that Lord Carey's subsequent career as a moral and ecclesiastical pundit in the News of the World and more recently the Daily Mail has proved no more helpful to Dr Williams than was Lady Thatcher to John Major. I'd be very surprised if his successor, whoever he is, faced similar discomforting interventions from the Master of Magdalene.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.