Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is stepping down at the end of the year, calling an end to a tumultuous decade as leader of a global Anglican Communion that has been sharply divided over sexuality and gender. He was appointed in 2002 as archbishop of Canterbury, the senior official in the Church of England and the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, which represents approximately 85 million people worldwide.
Williams disappointed liberal supporters by not backing the appointment of a gay priest, Jeffrey John, to a bishopric. Conservatives in the church remained suspicious of Williams because, as archbishop of Wales, he had knowingly ordained gay men to the priesthood. As the Church of England moves slowly toward allowing women to become bishops, Williams had sought with limited success to devise a formula to placate both advocates of female bishops and those in the church who refuse to have anything to do with them.
Williams also caused a political storm in 2008 by suggesting that Islamic Sharia law could have a role in Britain in settling some disputes. The ensuing frenzy ignored the fact that Islamic principles were already used to settle some disputes. The archbishop gained the support of Lord Phillips, then the senior judge in England, who felt there was no reason why Sharia principles, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution.
Williams maintained warm relations with Roman Catholics even as Pope Benedict XVI created an ordinariate to receive traditionalist Anglicans who remain opposed to female priests and could not accept female bishops and other changes within the church.
Williams has a deep connection with Cambridge University, where he studied theology at Christ’s College and then served as a tutor at Westcott House, a Church of England theological college in the city. He lectured in the School of Divinity from 1980 to 1986, and was dean and chaplain of Clare College from 1984 to 1986.
Much of Williams’ time as archbishop was devoted to trying to hold the diverse churches within the Anglican Communion together despite an often bitter dispute over homosexuality, which put conservative and growing African churches at odds with liberal churches in the United States and Canada.
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