There’s an old story about Saint Basil the Great — the Bishop of Caesarea long, long ago and for my money the greatest man the Christian church has ever produced — and his meeting with the Eastern Roman emperor Valens. Valens was an Arian, while Basil was a passionate advocate for what would come to be acknowledged as orthodox Trinitarian theology, and Valens came to Caesarea for the express purpose of bringing the famous bishop into line with imperial policy. Basil flatly refused to budge from his convictions, which caused the Imperial prefect to cry, “No one has ever refused the Emperor before!” To which Basil replied, “Perhaps you’ve never met a real bishop before.”
Please don’t say, “Those were the days!” We remember Basil (and a handful of other bishops, like Augustine and Athanasius) not because he was common for his time but because he was utterly extraordinary — for his time and for any other. Good bishops are not much less rare than Jamaican snowflakes.
But what makes for a good bishop? That depends on time and place. Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, has been thought by many on the theological left and right to have been a poor bishop. To consider only the most controversial issue of his episcopacy, for the left he didn’t go far enough to support the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Church of England and in the worldwide Anglican Communion, and for the right he went far too far in that direction. Both groups thought him insufficiently decisive and commanding.
Both groups were wrong for the simple reason that the Archbishop of Canterbury has very little power to impose his will on the Church of England and no power at all over the rest of the Communion. Williams could have shouted louder, but that would have worn out his voice without accomplishing anything at all. He thought differently about his roles than his critics did — and the Archbishop of Canterbury does have two very distinct roles.
As the head of the Church of England, the Established Church in that country, Williams has sought to advocate for social policies that he believes consistent with historic Christian teaching. (I have sometimes agreed with his preferred policies, sometimes not; that’s neither here nor there.) As primus inter pares in the Anglican world he has primarily tried to set an example of prayerfulness as opposed to politicking, for which he has been roundly despised by many Anglicans, especially my fellow theological conservatives.
My own position, shared by no one that I’m aware of, is that in these broad Communion matters Williams set precisely the example he should have set — the example Anglicans desperately needed — only to find that example pretty much universally rejected. So he was not a good bishop if that means being popular or admired or politically effective; but in my judgment a bishop is in full control of the example he sets, but not of whether it’s followed. Perhaps he could have been more charismatic; but perhaps the world’s Anglicans were in no mood to step back from politics and into contemplativeness, no matter who had recommended it.
Which leads me to the newly chosen Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. I don’t know much about Welby, but he is a friend of some friends of mine, and they think the world of him. It speaks very well of him that he used to work with Canon Andrew White, widely known as the Vicar of Bahgdad and one of the great Christians of our time. Welby worked with White in the extraordinary ministry of reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, and indeed much of his pastoral work has involved helping enemies to be reconciled to one another.
It saddens me to have to say that many of the world’s Anglicans consider other Anglicans their enemies, but it’s true. And for that reason it may well be that Welby is the best possible man for the job. I pray, fervently, that he will be — that, like Basil the Great, though perhaps not in quite so remarkable a way, he will prove to be a real bishop.