John Horder on

Rowan Williams

Rowan's Rule: the biography of a perfectionist archbishop

by Rupert Shortt (Hodder & Stoughton, £20)

Two of the most insightful quotes that sum up Rowan Williams in this 466 page doorstopper come from Richard Harries, former Bishop of Oxford: "His mind is such that he can't think a sentence without at the same time thinking every possible qualification and nuance". He has a mind that surpasses even the minds of William Temple and Michael Ramsey, the two most perfectist Archbishops before him.

Rowan and Richard have always clashed, (Rupert Shortt is not good writing about clashes), although Richard said it was hard to clash with him over the phone when he infuriatingly agreed with everything he said. There speaks the son of a Brigadier who went to Sandhurst before he was ordained.

They are both extremely ambitious and of Welsh extraction. Richard was one of his main rivals to what what has rightly been called "the poisoned chalice of Canterbury".

Richard, the more media streetwise of the two, later affirmed that considering how gifted Rowan is (as a published poet and Dostoevsky-loving academic), God must have punished him by making him Archbishop of Canterbury. This is a considerable understatement. Rowan has brought much agonising self-punishment upon himself so far, notably the fiasco of not consecrating the openly gay Dr. Jeffrey John Bishop of Reading at Richard and the Oxford diocese's strongest recommendations.

Up to the time of his moving from the Bishopric of Monmouth to be Head of the Anglican Communion, Rowan had lived in an unworldly academic Ivory Tower so greatly loved by many of those about to attain high office in a C of E entirely without relevance to the twenty-first century.  He was I00% unprepared for Canterbury, the greatest challenge of his life.

The ever polite and judicious Rowan has had an unashamedly rough ride in the top job so far, with the whole of the Anglican Communion collapsing in ruins at last year's Lambeth Conference, and his not being able to do anything about it in his much loved role as "a Knight in Shining Armour".

In this premature tome, Rupert Shortt doesn't begin to do justice to Rowan as a published poet. It is where the humanity of this shy and vulnerable man mostly lies. He is going to regret bitterly having rushed into print when he has to re-write Rowan's Reign.

Rowan's story is by no manner of means over baring acts of God the Father. Watch this dis-grace.

John Horder was Assistant Press Officer to two Archbishops of Canterbury from 1961-2: Dr Geoffrey Fisher, notable for his sadism beating boys' bottoms when Head Master of Repton, and the more compassionate Dr Michael Ramsey, from 1961-2. (Anthony Chevenix-Trench when Head Master of Eton was well known for the same vice as Dr Fisher's).

John Horder and Piers Plowright are hard at work researching into Stevie's poem 'To Carry The Child' for the second Stevie Smith Roadshow at Belsize Park Library, Antrim Grove, on Tues. 8th Sept. at 7.30 p.m. with the help of the audience who have been asked to perform their favourite poems by Stevie, Alan Morrison, the poet, and Frances Spalding, Stevie's authorised biographer. After first publication by Faber, it has been re-published to great acclaim by Sutton Publishing in Stroud.

John Horder © world copyright 2009