A biography of Dr Rowan Williams, who became the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in December 2002.
Last updated 2011-07-01
A biography of Dr Rowan Williams, who became the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in December 2002.
Dr Rowan Williams was nominated as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in July 2002 and officially confirmed in the post at a ceremony in St Paul's Cathedral in London on 2nd December 2002.
Dr Williams announced his resignation in March 2012, to step down on 31 December 2012, putting his time in the post at just over ten years.
Rowan Williams was born in 1950 and was brought up in Swansea, where his father was a mining engineer. His academic ability became apparent at an early age, and he went from grammar school to Cambridge, and then to Oxford for his doctorate. He then went to lecture at Mirfield Theological College near Leeds, before returning to Cambridge and Oxford. First he was Dean and Chaplain of Clare College, and then, aged 36, he become the youngest professor at Oxford. Seven years earlier his first book had been published.
In 1992 he surprised colleagues by accepting the post of Bishop of Monmouth, seen as a backwater by the Oxford elite. The post spoke to his pastoral calling, and his Welsh roots. Plus it was a good place for Rowan Williams and his wife, Jane, a lecturer in theology, whom he met while living and working in Cambridge, to bring up their daughter Rhiannon and son Pip.
In 1997, Dr Williams came close to be offered the post of Bishop of Southwark. There were fierce wrangles at the time between anti and pro-gay lobbies in the diocese. When George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, asked Rowan Williams to distance himself from his pro-gay writings on the subject, he declined. In 2000 he was enthroned as Archbishop of Wales.
Rowan Williams is regarded as a liberal, even a radical. But in general, his theology is orthodox. It's been nurtured by Anglo-Catholicism, Russian mysticism, and scores of encounters with other traditions. Many of his ethical positions are orthodox too. For example, he is opposed to abortion and believes consumerism exploits, corrupts and causes a premature sexualisation of children.
Homosexuality has been the cause of recent criticism by fellow priests. Several years ago he employed a priest he knew to be living in a homosexual relationship. It is this, coupled with his conviction that the Church should reassess its approach to faithful gay partnerships, that has alarmed conservative evangelicals. However, many groups think he will modernise, or certainly bring a new face to, the Church of England.
Williams is sympathetic to the proposal that the Church of England should lose its established status and become a church on an equal footing with the Catholics, the free churches and all the other Christian denominations. This is not a view likely to endear him to traditionalists.
Rowan Williams is expected to be a formidable presence on the political stage too. Before very long in office he had already spoken out against war with Iraq, critcised military action in Afghanistan as "morally tainted" and challenged the Government's asylum policy.
He is a fan of the television programme Father Ted and was the first Archbishop for many generations to have children of school age.
The enthronement of the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, took place in Canterbury Cathedral on 27th February 2002 and marked the start of Dr. Williams' public ministry as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Bishops from the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion were joined by representatives of other denominations, senior members of the Royal family, foreign ambassadors, political and civic leaders and staff from Canterbury Cathedral.
Like the guests, the musical influences came from around the world: traditional English church music sung by the choir of Canterbury Cathedral, a Celtic anthem commissioned from the Scottish Roman Catholic composer James Macmillan, music from Africa, a Penillion (duet between a singer and harpist) and an anthem from Newport Cathedral Choir.
The Canterbury Gospels were used during the service as the Archbishop took his oath. Traditionally this book is thought to have been given by Pope Gregory the Great to St Augustine for his mission to England at the end of the 6th century and is one of the oldest manuscripts in the UK. The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury dates back to St. Augustine who was the first Archbishop of Canterbury in AD 597.
The Archbishop was first enthroned by the Archdeacon of Canterbury in the Diocesan throne in the Cathedral Quire - his seat as head of the Diocese. He was then be enthroned by the Dean of Canterbury in St Augustine's Chair - his seat as Primate of All England and Leader of the Anglican Communion with its 70 million members across the globe.
The Archbishop of Canterbury today has six main roles:
Many religious leaders and groups welcomed the appointment of Rowan Williams as Archbishop. Here are some of their comments.
On hearing the news that Archbishop Rowan Williams was to succeed Dr George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the former Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, said:
I warmly welcome the appointment of Rowan Williams to succeed George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury. As a theologian of distinction, a man of deep spirituality and a gifted communicator he will, I have no doubt, prove to be a force for great good in this country and throughout the Christian world.
These are challenging times for Christian leaders. I look forward to working closely with Archbishop Rowan Williams in facing those challenges, just as I do now alongside Archbishop George Carey.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
On hearing the announcement of the appointment of The Most Reverend Rowan Williams as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks said:
Rowan Williams is a quite exceptional thinker and man of God, and I look forward to the same warm friendship that I had with his predecessor, which did so much to improve Jewish-Christian relationships.
Chief Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks
The Evangelical Alliance released a pointed statement:
The Evangelical Alliance welcomes what is a significant and imaginative appointment. We also applaud the decision to appoint the new Archbishop from outside the narrow 'English' confines of the Church of England.
Rowan Williams combines outstanding scholarship with an attitude of personal warmth and an appreciation of the validity of views beyond his own theological perspective. We hope we would be able to engage in constructive dialogue with him for many years to come and work together in order to promote both unity within the Church and vibrant Christian witness to our culture.
Dr George Carey served the Church of England during his term well. In particular he kept intact the Church's historic teachings, both on key doctrines such as the Resurrection and the uniqueness of Christ, as well as the moral imperatives of the Christian faith, for example on human sexuality and family life.
We hope and pray the new Archbishop will work hard to sustain these important traditions.
John Smith, UK Director of the Evangelical Alliance
The United Reformed Church welcomed the announcement that Rowan Williams would be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
I am delighted at the news that Archbishop Rowan Williams has been chosen to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. His pastoral leadership and deep spirituality have been appreciated by the United Reformed Churches in the National Synod of Wales and we welcome his appointment to leadership in the Anglican communion as well as in the Church of England.
It would be wrong for anyone in a sister church to comment on the way senior appointments are made in the Church of England, but we applaud the courage of those who have been led not only to make the first choice of an Archbishop from outside England but also of one who has questioned the role of the state in the appointment of bishops and archbishops. In an increasingly global society the church needs leadership which is rooted in the Christian Gospel yet which recognises that all the non-essentials of the church must be open to challenge and change.
We also welcome the way in which Archbishop Rowan has shown himself willing to speak a prophetic word in the political discussion of the day. I want to add my voice to his recent questioning of the ethics of a military attack on Iraq.
Revd John Waller, Moderator of the General Assembly
We are delighted to hear of the appointment of the Right Reverend Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. Here in Wales, our delight is naturally tempered with a tinge of sadness. The Church will gain a deeply spiritual person whose leadership, pastoral care and exceptional ability to speak Christian faith to our contemporary world is well recognised.
His ecumenical zeal and the inclusiveness in his theological thinking is an example to us all. The whole church needs leadership and spirituality of the calibre Rowan will offer.
Revd Peter Noble, Moderator of the National Synod of Wales
The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement [LGCM] warmly welcomed Dr Williams's appointment.
This is extraordinarily good news and we are tremendously excited. We applaud the courage and vision of those who have made this bold and brave decision. Dr Williams' demonstrable commitment to justice and dignity for all people, including lesbians and gay men gives us great heart.
For the first time lesbian and gay Anglicans can feel that they have a real friend at Lambeth. No longer will we need to feel shut out of the heart of the Church. Rowan counts many of us as his friends, his knowledge and understanding of the feelings of exclusion we have experienced can only lead to greater understanding of our lives.
For too long the Church of England has marginalised lesbian and gay people. It has been responsible for legitimising prejudice, discrimination and injustice. Dr Williams' reputation as a man of prayer and reflection gives us great hope that those days are now coming to an end. Dr Williams has had many friends over the years from our community. He understands our stories and has listened to our grievances.
Dr Williams has made it clear time and again during his ministry that human rights and justice for all are non-negotiable. As the new spiritual and pastoral leader of the Anglican Communion it is clear that he will have no truck with discrimination practised in his name. Nothing will change overnight but we are confident that his appointment heralds a new era for the Church.
It is not only lesbians and gay men for whom this is excellent news. It is good for the whole Christian church. A church that excludes is a weaker church. A church that welcomes is a stronger church more able to proclaim the Gospel to all.
The new Archbishop's intellect is outstanding. He will apply intellectual rigour to the deliberations of the Church. There will be no woolly thinking in a church led by Rowan Williams. Homophobia will be challenged and intolerance rooted out.
His gifts as a pastor and teacher are universally admired. Lesbian and gay people, and the whole church can be encouraged at the prospect of being led by a man of his stature.
The Reverend Richard Kirker, LGCM General Secretary
In March 2012 Dr Williams announced his intention to step down on 31 December 2012, return to academic life and become Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University.
Rowan Williams has written more than 16 books and umpteen papers and articles. He has frequently contributed to BBC programmes.
Islam in English Law: lecture by Dr Rowan Williams [PDF document] released by Lambeth Palace on 7 February 2008