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Rowan Williams

July 24, 2002

Believer in Gays and Women as Clerics to Lead Anglicans


LONDON, July 23 — Britain announced today that Rowan Williams, a Welsh churchman outspokenly in favor of gays and women as clerics and opposed to Western militarism, would be the new spiritual leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans.

Dr. Williams, 52, will become the 104th archbishop of Canterbury in October, succeeding Dr. George Carey, 67, who is retiring after 11 years in the post. He will be the first Anglican leader from outside England since the church broke away from Rome in the 16th century.

A formidable intellect, Dr. Williams has written 14 books, including two of poetry, and speaks seven languages, including Welsh. Despite his sometimes provocative opinions, within the church he is thought of as a unifying and inspirational presence because of his mild, scholarly manner, his willingness to listen to opponents and his acceptance of the notion that radical change takes time.

A self-described youthful "peacenik" who was arrested in 1985 for reading Psalms on the runway of an American air base in Britain, he has more recently castigated the United States for withdrawing from environmental treaties, criticized the bombing of Afghanistan as "morally tainted" and said any invasion of Iraq would be "immoral and illegal."

Earlier this year, he signed an open letter to the British government denouncing any military strike on Iraq, arguing that "eradicating the dangers posed by malevolent dictators and terrorists can only be achieved by tackling the root causes of the disputes."

Asked at a news conference today about his habit of speaking out on political issues, he said, "Any Christian, pastor or priest, is going to ask awkward questions in certain circumstances." In the specific instance of Iraq, he said he would support military action only if it were first approved by the United Nations.

He also reiterated his overriding concern for children and fears of their exploitation by rampant consumerism. In his forthcoming book, "Lost Icons," which is being serialized in The Times of London starting today, he attacks what he called the corruption and premature sexualization of children and singled out the Walt Disney Company as one of the worst offenders.

"What can we say about a marketing culture that so openly feeds and colludes with obsession," he writes. "The Disney empire has developed this to an unprecedented degree of professionalism."

At the same time, he finds lessons in popular culture, professing that one of his clerical heroes is Father Ted, the central figure in a British television series about a bumbling Irish priest. He has also cited "The Simpsons" as "one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility and virtue."

He is reported to be interested in severing the links between the state and church in Britain, where members of the clergy must swear allegiance to the crown. His appointment had to be agreed to by Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair, who were choosing from two names forwarded by a 13-member Crown Appointments Commission.

He also supports a move already under way to end the ban on church weddings for divorced people, a prohibition that would block a marriage between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.

Dr. Williams's appointment was hailed by the heads of all British faiths, though some churchmen with particular interests found separate resonances in the choice.

"For the first time lesbian and gay Anglicans can feel they have a real friend at Lambeth," said the Rev. Richard Kirker, general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement. "Under his leadership, homophobia will be challenged and intolerance rooted out." Lambeth Palace in London is the official residence of archbishops of Canterbury.

Frank Naggs, a member of a conservative evangelical group within the church, said there were "fundamental concerns" about Dr. Williams's tolerance of homosexuality and support for women as priests. He said his group would press for an early meeting with him to discuss what he called "his radical agenda."

Dr. Williams was born in Swansea in 1950, the only child of Nancy and Aneurin Williams, Presbyterians who joined the Church of Wales when their son was in his early teens. His father was a mining engineer. Dr. Williams grew up middle class, witnessing the poverty that came to the Welsh valleys with the decline in mining.

He received B.A. and M.A. degrees in theology from Cambridge and doctorates in philosophy and divinity from Oxford. He returned to Cambridge for nine years as a tutor, dean and chaplain. In 1986, he became the youngest professor of theology at Oxford in 1986. He became bishop of Monmouth in Wales in 1992 and archbishop of Wales in 2000.

His wife, Jane, is the daughter of a missionary bishop in India and she teaches doctrine and modern church history at Trinity College in Bristol. The couple have two children, a daughter, Rhiannon, 14, and a son, Pip, 6.

Dr. Williams has said he was "a little bit disappointed" with the Blair government and wished it would show "a little bit more courage and initiative."

Mr. Blair's spokesman today supported the right of the man the prime minister had just approved to speak out on social and political issues and said it posed no problem for 10 Downing Street.

"The government may not always agree with everything that is said," he said, "but people are perfectly at liberty to express their views."

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