He leads an international fellowship of 77 million Anglicans but doesn’t like to travel first class.
His official residence is a grand palace in London, but he and his family live in small rooms furnished like any other middle-class British home.
He is the successor of Sts. Augustine and Thomas Becket, but counts himself a fan of “The Simpsons.”
With his bushy beard and black berets, Rowan Williams may more closely resemble the headmaster at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft than previous archbishops of Canterbury. But the whipsmart Welshman is considered one of the most important — and powerful — thinkers in Christianity today.
“Without a doubt he is one of the most theologically astute archbishops of Canterbury that there has ever been,” said the Rev. John Peterson, who, as former secretary general of the Anglican Communion, worked closely with Williams.
Williams’ skills and challenges have taken center stage this week at the Lambeth Conference, a closely-watched gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world in Canterbury, England, through Aug. 3.
“We stand in the middle of one of the most severe challenges to have faced the Anglican family in its history,” Williams told fellow bishops on Sunday (July 20).
As archbishop of Canterbury, Williams is spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, charged with holding together the the world’s third-largest body of churches. Amid a divisive debate over homosexuality that threatens to split the communion, Williams has pleaded for patience and unity, at least until Anglicans can draw up a new constitution to settle their differences.
“The task I’ve got is to try and maintain as long as possible the space in which people can have constructive disagreements,” the archbishop told Time magazine last year.
But Williams actually has minimal power over the communion, a family of 38 autonomous national churches that grew out of the Church of England. Unlike a pope, he cannot silence dissenters or excommunicate critics.
However, the archbishop does have a bully pulpit, and Williams has used his homiletic talents to great effect, observers say. During a raucous debate over women bishops in the Church of England earlier this month, Williams brought the assembly to tears with a sermon on inclusion, and at least according to the British media, may have forestalled schism in his church.
David S. Cunningham, a longtime friend who studied under Williams at the University of Cambridge 25 years ago, recalled that even then “the word was on the street, go hear this guy’s lectures.”
“Lectures there are optional,” said Cunningham, a theologian at Hope College in Holland, Mich., “so you had to be good to get anyone to show up.”
The son of a mining engineer in Wales, Williams was known from an early age as a theological wunderkind, earning prominent professorships at England’s most prestigious colleges while still in his 30s. Williams’ wife, Jane, is a well-regarded theologian in her own right.
Despite his powerful position, Williams, now 58, said he appreciates those “on the edges of the church, people in the world of arts, medicine, psychology.”
A published poet who once idolized Welsh bard Dylan Thomas, Williams spent a month last year with the Jesuit community of Georgetown University writing a forthcoming book on how faith is depicted in the novels of Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky.
“He’s good-humored, clever, and witty,” remembers the Rev. John Langan, rector of Georgetown’s Jesuit community.
Langan recalled that Williams, who arrived without any staff or handlers, enjoyed talking with the Jesuits over meals and displayed a touch of Celtic skill at telling stories, one of which stuck with Langan.
“One Sunday he came back to the rectory and said he had gone to an Episcopal Church and sat in the back row during the service,” Langan said. “I don’t think anybody recognized me,” Langan recalls Williams saying with a grin.
Such anonymity would be impossible for Williams in Britain, where he is head of the established Church of England, a position that is appointed by the prime minister and approved by the monarch. He holds a special seat in the House of Lords, serves as patron to hundreds of organizations and, like his predecessors, has his every word parsed by the British press.
He’s also the highest-ranking nonroyal in the U.K.
And yet, Williams lives humbly, said Cunningham, who has visited the archbishop at his London residence, Lambeth Palace. Williams is the first archbishop of Canterbury in some time with two 20-something children — daughter Rhiannon and son, Pip — making Lambeth less a palace than an average middle-class home.
“He lives pretty simply for someone invested with the kind of privilege he is,” Cunningham said.
Though sometimes portrayed as aloof, friends and colleagues say the archbishop is deeply attuned to current affairs, and can speak with equal acumen about Augustine, evolution, and the latest plays in London’s West End.
“It keeps coming back to his breadth of attention to the world,” said Cunningham. “At its best that’s what the church is about: looking at the world and helping people make sense of it.”