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Farewell Speech for Archbishop Rowan Williams

Archbishops of York and Canterbury

Wednesday 21st November 2012

The Archbishop of York to move Item 12 at General Synod. "That this Synod record its deep gratitude for the Archbishop of Canterbury‟s outstanding ministry to Church and Nation, and offer him and Mrs Williams its very best wishes for the future.‟ His speech follows in full.

Your Grace, Archbishop Rowan, I thank God for you. In the thick of recession, and of conflicts near and far, we have come to rely on you for the voice of reason, faith, and deeply rooted Christian hope.

You are also an Archbishop with wide intellectual interests and a prodigious memory.

Most Synod members will be aware of your renowned knowledge of and writings on the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky – but not so many will be aware that at an early age you memorised pages of Ronald Knox’s ‘Essays in Satire’ ( -  and also, I gather, complete episodes of Fawlty Towers). But it is to Ronald Knox, Anglican priest and broadcaster of the 1920s, that I turn first. I am sure, if we asked, you could repeat one of Knox’s most famous BBC broadcasts.

In January 1926, Knox broadcast a pretended live report of revolution sweeping across London entitled ‘Broadcasting from the Barricades’.

In this broadcast, in addition to live reports of persons, including a government minister, being lynched, Knox cleverly mixed band music from the Savoy Hotel with the hotel's purported destruction by mortar fire. The Houses of Parliament and the clock tower were also said to have taken a direct hit.

I leave Synod members to decide for themselves the influence of Ronald Knox upon the Archbishop’s ministry.  

No, you have not fought shy of conflict, but you have been courageous and outspoken, especially on matters of our humanity and justice.

We have seen you stand firm whether in dialogue with ministers of the crown or in supporting Zimbabwean bishops in their struggles. You have been a friend of the weak, and from you they have derived strength.

In your role as Archbishop you have attended particularly to the concerns of the other religious communities in England – holding before the church always the challenge of working together with all our friends and fellow travellers - for the common good.

And you have carried a particular burden of prayer and concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Holy Land, and for the peace of that region, for which we are praying so much at this time.

But you have far more friends than you know, across the Anglican Communion.

A priest friend was in Sri Lanka the year after the Tsunami, visiting parishes in Batticloa along the east coast. The local vicar, Fr. Chandran Crispus, took him to where his people had lost their lives. He told of his friends, and how they had died as the great wave swept through. Afterwards he took him to the Vicarage. There on the bookcase my friend spotted a picture postcard of Archbishop Rowan. ‘Chandran, the Archbishop of Canterbury sends you his greetings’, he said.

Chandran paused, looked him in the eye, and said: ‘You will never know what it means to us to belong to this great family.’

You have borne this symbolic role with tremendous courage and commitment. It may be symbolic – the first among equals - but it has been costly.  

You have gently shown us at times how ludicrous our business can be. Sometimes, to spot the subtleties of your sense of humour, we have to look for the twinkle in your eye, or to the raising of your fantabulous eyebrows!

Of course, like me, by a few you have been criticised for not being true-blood English. I have appreciated the solidarity this has given us as missionary Archbishops in this land of hope and glory!

You are a Celt.  Celts, like God’s ancient people, the Jews, tell stories and recite poetry to express their deepest truths and explore their deepest longings. Your poet’s intellect is restless, not satisfied with part truths, or with one side of the story. You understand the views of those with whom you differ, and will not allow those insights to be dismissed which arise from their particular perspective. It is a particularly generous form of gracious respect.

As you wrote in The Wound of Knowledge, Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross -
“It is the intractable strangeness of the ground of belief that must constantly be allowed to challenge the fixed assumptions of religiosity: it is a given, whose question to each age is fundamentally one and the same. And the greatness of the great Christian saints lies in their readiness to be questioned, judged, stripped naked, and left speechless by that which lies at the centre of their faith.”

When asked about the role of a bishop you have said that it is ‘to interpret the Church to itself’.  For you the Church is “what happens when the impact of Jesus draws people together … when Jesus is encountered, when the meeting of believers with one another is grasped as a meeting with him”.

You once said, “The Church could be a lot worse.  I tell myself that every day.  It cheers me up a bit.”

At your heart there is a passion for the gospel, for you have always had in your life and heart the words of St Paul to the Corinthian Church, “Woe to me, if I preach not the gospel”. For you this starts and finishes with ‘the God who achieves his purpose by reckless gift, by the cradle and the cross.”

We will miss that reckless grace and most of all in a cynical world we will miss your willingness to see the good in everyone, to attribute positive motives even to those who have opposed and maligned you.  That is a treasure of the kingdom in you that we all covet.

I’m sure you know the writings of Dorothy Day – of the Catholic Workers Movement, a lady renowned for her tireless service to the poor and her courageous witness for peace - a wonderful example of the gospel in action.

The grace you show in your life is the embodiment of her words, “Our love for God is only as great as our love for the person we love least.”

We would also like to thank Jane for her strong contribution to the Church here and throughout the Anglican Communion; For masterminding the Spouses’ programme at the Lambeth Conference 2008 - rumour has it that it was much better than the bishops’ programme.  

Also Jane’s on-going support for the spouses in the Global South by helping to set up a fund to help equip and up-skill bishops’ wives; and above all for her teaching and pastoral ministry exercised here and abroad, which has been greatly appreciated.

It is said that behind every strong man there is an even stronger woman.  Jane, you’ve been strong and supportive of Rowan and have borne the heat of the day, quietly, gently and unassumingly for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  And for that we want to thank you.  

It is now nearly 40 years since we were at Cambridge, and Jane and Rowan might not remember, but I have a clear recollection of our attending Donald Mackinnon’s Seminar, the ‘D’ Society, together. It was truly illuminating.

As I said, when I received the news that the Archbishop of Canterbury will be stepping down at the end of this year,
'Our partnership in the gospel over the past seven years has been the most creative period of my ministry. It has been life-giving to have led missions together, gone on retreats and prayed together. In his company I have drunk deeply from the wells of God’s mercy and love and it has all been joyful. He is a real brother to me in Christ.'

The last decade has been a challenging time for the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Thankfully, Archbishop Rowan is a remarkable and gifted leader who has strengthened the bonds of affection. Despite his courageous, tireless and holy endeavour, he has been much maligned by people who should have known better. For my part he has been God’s apostle for our time.
His stepping down to pursue something he dearly loves – teaching and writing - is received with gratitude, as this will continue to be a blessing to the Church.

I am delighted that he is not going far away and will continue to offer service to the Church of England and the wider Church in its witness to our society. May God’s blessing continue to be showered upon him.’

I beg to move that this Synod record its deep gratitude for the Archbishop of Canterbury’s outstanding ministry to Church and Nation, and offer him and Mrs Jane Williams its very best wishes for the future.’

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