Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is an intellectual in a political role. His politics are traditional left wing but his intellectual development and pronouncements have been far wider than that associated with political or philosophical debate. This has led to the charge that his theological thinking is woolly at best, a charge which is reinforced by his view that Anglicanism represents a "Christian identity that is dependent neither on a pyramidal view of authority nor on highly specific confessional statements".
Such woolliness suits Williams's capacity to be sympathetic towards those who hold traditional views on the ordination of women priests and the issue of homosexuality within the Church. His argument that faithful gay relationships could be accepted by all Christians who accept contraception is a powerful one. In political terms, however, it hardly provides clear leadership on two of the most devisive issues facing the Church of England as his personal sympathies are representative of one wing of the arguments rather than both sides.
Such woolliness too means that Williams can develop theological and philosophical speculations which, when analysed, have little substance. For example, the Christian faith is dependant on the historical fact of the resurrection. This is agreed by Christians and non-Christians alike, the former declaiming and the latter denying it. Williams sees it as "the existence of a fellowship marked by restoring grace". Correct but without affirming it as fact it can be used to undermine faith.
Evangelicals would suggest this is an example of a liberal desertion of the gospel message. In fairness to Williams he does not follow the intellectual route of amending doctrine to suit the prevailing culture. His theological writings are based on the Bible as it is - and as it was written - not on biblical interpretation for contemporary society. In effect he is saying the relationship between the Christian and Jesus is based on practicising Christianity and participating the Eucharist not on doctrinal purity.
In that respect Williams suggests fundamentalism and secularism feed off each other by adopting controlled or fixed positions which appear to conflict with his own highly civilised approach to thinking. He opposes theological absolutism, which "imprisons the gospel and blocks its communication." His scholarly writings draw on a variety of sources and he is familiar with the Christian Hegelian philosophical tradition that there is a clear and acceptable path from logic to theology.
The problem for Williams lies in the political role of the Church of England. As the Primate of an Establishment Church (although he is not opposed to disestablishment in principle) he is expected to comment on social issues. However, the gospel of Jesus is concerned with spirituality, not social action. The application of Christian principles to society inevitably leads to disagreements because that is not the purpose behind the gospel.
Williams's social pronouncements tend to be abstruse if not absurd as the furore over his comments on Sharia Law showed. Analysis of what he says indicates a degree of abstraction which contradicts social reality. In some ways he is so heavenly minded he is no earthly use but it would be a disservice to his sincerity to dismiss him as an absent minded professor in a public role beyond his political skills.
The book serves as a survey of the various intellectual conflicts that have bedevilled Christian theology in the latter part of the twentieth century. Williams appears to reject the more radical theological positions of However, one is left wondering whether Williams would have been selected as Archbishop had he had more conservative views. Not an easy read but essential to anyone interested in theology or Rowan Williams.