Liberal Welsh cleric to lead Anglicans

Outspoken churchman favors gay clergy, opposes Iraq, Afghanistan conflicts

July 24, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LONDON - Britain announced yesterday that Rowan Williams, a Welsh churchman outspokenly in favor of gay clergy and female priests and opposed to Western militarism, would be the new spiritual leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans.

Williams, 52, will become the 104th archbishop of Canterbury in October, succeeding 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.

Armed with a formidable intellect, Williams is the author of 14 books, including two of poetry, and he 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 notion that radical change takes time.

A self-described "peacenik" in youth who was once arrested for reading psalms on the runway of a U.S. air base in Britain, the bearded cleric 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."

He signed an open letter to the British government this year 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 yesterday 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 soon-to-be-published book Lost Icons, which is being serialized in The Times of London starting yesterday, he attacks what he calls the corruption and premature sexualization of children and singles out the Disney Corp. 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 called The Simpsons "one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility and virtue."

Williams' appointment was hailed by the heads of many British faiths, though some churchmen found separate resonance 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, referring to 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 Williams' tolerance of homosexuality and support for women as priests. He said his group would press for a meeting with Williams to discuss what he called "his radical agenda."

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