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Archbishop of Canterbury – Global internet sensation

Outgoing-Archbishop-of-Canterbury,-Dr-Rowan-WilliamsThe Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the EU, Canon Dr Gary Wilton, looks back at some of Dr Rowan Williams’ international successes, offering an indication of what the new Archbishop, Justin Welby, will have to live up to on a global sphere

Google ‘religion’. The screen fills with a billion results. Google ‘international religious leaders’.  The screen fills with 100 million results. Google ‘How many people have access to the internet?’ Result – two billion – a fifth of the world’s population. Imagine that – every fifth person in the world has direct access to the activities of the world’s most significant spiritual leaders.

This is a revolution beyond the revolutions of the printing press, the radio and television combined. Not surprisingly the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dalai Lama, and high profile Chief Rabbis and Grand Muftis all have dedicated websites, each receiving 1000s of hits every day.

According to a 2005 BBC World Service opinion poll, religious leaders are very popular. Gallup interviewed over 50,000 people in 68 countries, asking them who they trusted; politicians were trusted by 13 per cent, business leaders by 19 per cent, journalists and military/police leaders by 26 per cent, and top of the list came religious leaders at 33 per cent. When asked which people should be given more power, 35 per cent favoured intellectuals, followed by religious leaders at 25 per cent. No wonder their websites receive so many hits.

Today’s international religious leaders are not only followed by their own communities – they are also revered by people of different or no faith. Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was often referred to as ‘our Archbishop’ by Muslim citizens in the UK. His annual Eid, Divali and Rosh Hashana messages were published widely on the web and were warmly appreciated across the faith communities. As Head of the Anglican Communion the former Archbishop was respected by the diversely religious peoples of the Commonwealth and numerous other English speaking nations as well. His influence stretched far beyond those confines; in 2007 he appeared on the front cover of Time magazine while in 2010 the Woolf Institute honoured him with the Building Bridges award in recognition of his contribution to interfaith relations.

Early in 2012, news of the ‘retirement of the Archbishop of Canterbury’ crossed the world within seconds of its announcement. It led to immediate comment and editorials from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. India’s The Hindu newspaper reported extensively on Dr William’s move to become Master of Magdalene College Cambridge.

The office of Archbishop of Canterbury has long had global standing, but this Archbishop gave particular energy to his ministry beyond England’s shores. Much of Dr Williams’ international ministry was conducted in person with numerous high profile and sensitive visits.

A quick glimpse at his website soon reveals the priority that he gave to international development and the 20 most fragile states – most of which he visited – sometimes more than once. In 2005 he established The Archbishop of Canterbury’s International Development Secretariat (IDS), working on his behalf to build relationships between Anglican partners, and Christian and secular organisations to promote community-based development and peace building. IDS helps governments, UN agencies and international NGOs understand how they can work more effectively with Anglican partners and other faith-based organisations. Priorities include a focus on states affected by conflict, education, micro-finance, HIV and gender-based violence.  All alongside energetic support for the Millennium Development Goals.

Peace and Justice in the Middle East have been issues very close to Dr Williams’ heart.  As a regular visitor to Israel/Palestine, including Gaza, he spent time with representatives from every side of the divide, seeking to encourage openness and solidarity between all the peoples of the holy land. Concerned for the plight of Christians in the Middle East, in July 2011, Dr Williams and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster co-hosted a conference entitled ‘Christians in the Holy Land’.  Supported by religious leaders from different traditions, the purpose of the conference was to raise international awareness of the large numbers of Christians migrating from the Holy Land, disturbing the delicate religious/national balance in the region. The conference gained global attention.

In 2005 Dr Williams visited the European institutions in Brussels.  After meeting the President of the European Parliament the Archbishop gave a keynote address on Religion, Culture and Diversity.  Here he touched on the controversial topic of Turkish membership of the European Union.  He reminded attendees that the Christian Church had embedded pluralism, openness and hospitality within European values. He argued that the Christian tradition ‘challenges the global socio-political juggernaut – consumer pluralism combined with insensitive Western promotion of a rootless individualism, disguised as liberal democracy. It affirms the significance of local and international communities, and their role in public life. It is able to welcome the stranger, including the Muslim stranger in its midst, as a partner in the work of proper liberalism…’

In 2006 he visited China, hosted by the Self Patriotic Movement, China Christian Council and the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA). During his two week programme Dr Williams met religious leaders, academics, government officials, NGOs and business leaders. His key concerns were to engage with the challenges posed by accelerated economic activity and to contribute to the debate about the role of religion in the construction of a ‘harmonious society.’ Google ‘Archbishop of Canterbury in China’.  There are 2.5 million results. Two days after his return from Beijing Dr Williams reflected:

 ‘Even in the official context of church life there are real signs that things are changing. To have an official assurance that Sunday School teaching is now not opposed by the State represents a major development – something that church people from the official as well as the unregistered churches were surprised and encouraged to hear. Work with children, which has involved the risk of official disapproval, can now be properly developed. In addition, the fact that senior members of the State government are now using positive language about the potential for religion to play a positive part in the life of the country is a sign that the change is real and, we hope, here to stay.’

Dr Williams’ 2011 visit to Zimbabwe was described as his most controversial international intervention. Yet again the Archbishop demonstrated that he could go places and say things that many others simply cannot.  Accompanied by the Archbishops of Central Africa and Southern Africa, and the President of the All Africa Conference of Churches, the Archbishop of Tanzania, Dr Williams met with President Robert Mugabe. The purpose of the visit was to express solidarity with the Anglican province of Central Africa, which includes the five dioceses of Zimbabwe.  Since 2007, Anglican congregations in Zimbabwe have suffered serious persecution at the hands of the police. Their churches have been closed, and schools and clinics have been seized.

As representatives of the Anglican Communion, and with the support of ecumenical friends worldwide, the four Archbishops unequivocally pressed the case of ordinary Anglicans to be allowed to worship in peace and to minister to the spiritual and material needs of their local communities. The Archbishops presented President Mugabe with a substantial dossier which fully documented the abuse Anglicans and others have suffered. Dr Williams asked, ‘in the clearest possible terms, that the President use his powers as Head of State to put an end to all unacceptable and illegal behaviour.’

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to Zimbabwe and the manner in which he challenged President Mugabe gained substantial international coverage. It was a very difficult visit, but the source of great encouragement and renewed hope to many Anglicans and others across Africa.

This autumn, Dr Williams began to draw his ministry to a close with a collected volume of lectures given throughout his time at Lambeth Palace. Not surprisingly it is called ‘Faith in the Public Square’ and it charts many of his contributions to public debate in the UK and internationally.  It is a thought provoking read – not to be missed by anyone interested in religion and public affairs. And just in case you might be tempted to think that Dr Williams will be slowing down in his last months – his diary reveals that in October he visited the Vatican and in November he visited Papua New Guinea and New Zealand!

The former oil industry worker and Bishop of  Durham, Justin Welby, will be enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury on 21March 2013. Just a little more Googling might reveal the sort of religious leader he is likely to be and the sort of impact he is likely to make in the international sphere.

CANON DR GARY WILTON is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Representative to the EU and Canon of Holy Trinity Brussels. He is the Visiting Programme Director at Wilton Park.


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