There was no great surprise when the news about Rowan Williams’ decision to step aside as Archbishop of Canterbury in December was announced on Friday. There have been rumours of his desire to take on an academic role for some time. As usual on matters of faith, there was a lot of poor reporting of the news in the media, including stories clearly designed to give the impression that he had somehow been ‘forced’ out by ‘continuing controversy’ on issues affecting the Church of England. This is, of course, totally untrue.
Rowan Williams’ stature as a Christian theologian, intellectual, writer and poet are well known. When he visited Bennett a couple of years ago, and mingled informally with students before presiding at our Founders’ Day service, we encountered a man of great humility, approachability, kindness and gentle humour. He took time to talk with year 7 students, and showed genuine interest in what they shared with him. He also interacted with students in the sixth form, not shying away from the sometimes challenging issues they wanted to raise with him. As he left, I remember thanking him for committing the time to visit us. His answer was spontaneous: “Not at all, Ian, I have enjoyed it tremendously. I have had a lovely day.”
Last Christmas the Times newspaper published a very touching letter from someone who had written to the Archbishop following some questions from his daughter about God which he felt unable to answer satisfactorily. It can be read on the Archbishop’s website http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2389/the-archbishop-writes-to-lulu-aged-6-about-god here and is well worth a read, because it really captures Rowan Williams’ style and tone when talking to children, which we saw clearly that day when he came to Bennett.
In his address at the Founders’ Day service, he said something about the school which has stayed with me. I paraphrase as follows: When I visit schools around the country, they very often have rather daunting sounding names on the sign at the entrance, referring to specialisms in ‘mathematics and computing’ or ‘technology and business and enterprise’ and so on. Having spent the morning at your school [Bennett], I have a strong impression of being in a Church school, a Christian school. What does a Christian school specialise in? A Christian school is a specialist school in human beings. What specialism could be more important than that?
So I would like to thank Rowan Williams for his public leadership and ministry at this time of challenge to Christianity in our country, and in the face of sometimes barely disguised scorn towards him and what he has had to say from some quarters. And, in particular, I would like to thank him for that simple but powerful insight into our school, which has become embedded firmly in our thinking about what sort of Church school we aspire to be: a school which specialises first and foremost in human beings.