Penning the Archbishop

398px Rowan Williams   by Brian In my last post, I referred to the notion that many denominations or groups feel that press coverage of them is biased -- or that they are particularly singled out for unflattering notice.

As an Episcopal priest, I am susceptible to a creeping sense of dread every time I boot up my computer and read the news -- but then I put in my contacts, have a strong cup of tea and the feeling goes away -- for a few minutes, anyway.

You can imagine how thrilled I was to stumble across this article in the Telegraph.

BUT that's not the topic of this post.

Whatever my skepticism, I was struck this week by the very different tone and lens of articles this past week discussing the publication of a biography of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Let's start by positing that headlines across the Atlantic are sometimes written by sensation-seeking copy editors-- or else why would they so often be out of synch with the story?

So "Archbishop of Canterbury admitted God was 'pretty useless' on 9/11" (gotcha, Archbishop!) on the Telegraph website should not surprise us.

But the detailed and theologically sensitive story by Religious Affairs Correspondent Martin Beckford, is a nice piece of reporting.

The writer's lede gets to the heart of his theme -- the Archbishop's response and reaction to the World Trade Center bombings.

Dr Rowan Williams, who was just streets away from the World Trade Center when it was destroyed by Islamic terrorists in hijacked passenger planes, is said to have told an airline pilot in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity that God had not prevented it because He has given humans free will.

The Archbishop and his companions feared they would suffocate in a smoke-filled room as the Twin Towers collapsed, it is claimed, with one of his friends putting a hand on his shoulder and declaring: "I can't think of anyone I'd rather die with."

A few paragraphs later, Beckford gives the reader background on the story of the encounter Williams is said to have had with an airline pilot.

The following day Dr Williams delivered a sermon at Manhattan's Cathedral of St John the Divine, bringing tears to the eyes of the congregation after recalling a chance encounter he had with an airline pilot on the street early that morning.

According to Rupert Shortt's new biography, the pilot asked him: "Where the hell was God?"

The book states: "Rowan's answer was that God is useless at times like this.

"Now that's pretty shocking, but actually what he then went on to unpack is that God didn't cause this and God [was not] going to stop it, because God has granted us free will, and therefore God has to suffer the consequences of this like we do. So in a sense he exonerated God."

The way Beckford sets up the narrative allows readers to appreciate the nuance in this position, whether they agree or don't agree with the Archbishop.

Another part of the biography getting press attention is Shortt's account the tragic counseling relationship Williams had, as a young doctoral student, with a woman who committed suicide.

That's the focus of a story by David Brown and Ruth Gledhill on the Times website --a moving account of the 9/11 story is also excerpted on the Times website.

The suicide of a fellow student at Oxford 33 years ago has been revealed as one of the defining moments in the life of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

A new biography describes how Hilary Watson fell secretly in love with the charismatic and deeply spiritual 24-year-old doctoral student while he was counselling her in the 1970s.

According to the book (serialised in times2 today), the young theologian was unaware of how his well-intentioned support had resulted in emotional turmoil for a woman four years his senior. He was the last person to see Miss Watson before she took an overdose of sleeping pills. She then called a mutual friend and asked her to "tell Rowan that it's not his fault".

At Miss Watson's inquest Dr Williams was exonerated of any responsibility but the coroner asked why he had set himself up as a source of 'spiritual counsel" without formal training, the biography discloses.

While this story examines how the tragic incident shaped the young Rowan Williams, it also raises pastoral issues.

As a minister, when do you counsel someone? When do you refer them to a therapist? What is the boundary between friendship, spiritual direction and therapy?

Brown and Gledhill quote a university friend of Watson's and a forensic child psychologist in examining this topic, providing background on a topic which could so easily have been exploited. Of course, the fact that they chose to write a whole story about the horrible incident suggests that they thought readers would find Watson's suicide and William's reaction more compelling than what Shortt wrote about his scholarship.

Gledhill's review of Shortt's biography is well worth a look. She displays an appreciation both for William's idiosyncrasies and for his humanity -- a welcome relief from media coverage of Anglicans in the trenches.

The picture was originally posted to Flickr by Brian

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