Archbishops of Canterbury, for all their essential powerlessness in worldly terms, are never as inconsequential as might be supposed.  How about those great English accents, for instance?  How elegantly the archbishop of the hour undertakes to speak for and to an Anglican Communion increasingly disunited in theological outlook, joined by habit and custom as much as anything else: not fully Protestant; not popish enough to become Roman (especially in the sex-scandal era); tolerant; tasteful; influential out of proportion to actual numbers.  And how assiduously an archbishop’s words get reported, not least in an almost-faithless England.  It matters—up to a point, at least—who holds the job.

The man who will hold the job for possibly the next 18 years (until age 70) is Rowan Douglas Williams, shaggy, white-bearded archbishop of Wales, scholar, author, left-wing commentator on public affairs.  Williams received the nod from Prime Minister Tony Blair in July.  A tide of speculation instantly engulfed the event.  Might Williams split the communion?  Would he, please, finally split the rotten thing in order that serious Anglicans could get on to serious religion?

There is, naturally, no knowing in matters touching the divine.  It would be silly to project the outcome of a Williams archbishopric, though, Heaven help us, many are projecting it now.  All one knows is what one knows.  And what is that in Williams’ case?

His left-wing politics stand out most flagrantly.  Let’s just say that Williams would never have been Maggie Thatcher’s choice.  (As it happened, Thatcher’s pick for archbishop, a braw ex-tank commander named Robert Runcie, disappointed her when he proved less keen on capitalism and the Falklands war than she had hoped.)  Williams, a brainy man, has made a number of, frankly, brainless remarks suggesting that the United States should counter terror with measures short of military force.  Lately, he has been ululating about the prospective evil of attacking Saddam Hussein without first obtaining the concurrence, God save the mark, of the United Nations.

It is true that opposition to military “adventurism” wins him some admirers  on the right—including, I venture, readers of this magazine.  Even so, look at it this way: At a time of moral disintegration, and with Christianity shrinking in England almost to the vanishing point (England—the home of Wesley, Cranmer, Chesterton, and Lewis!), it seems precarious for a spiritual leader to expend precious breath critiquing military policy.

Oh, yes, ummm-hmmm—Christianity equals peace.  The peace of the grave, maybe.  Christians who sit waiting for Williams-like moral inspiration to seize the leadership of Al Qaeda and Hamas, and of the Baghdad Baathists, are waiting for their own mass funerals.

There is a bit more to the matter.  Williams’ published views on theology—he has, to date, written or edited 14 learned tomes—bespeak a mind fond of nuance.  There is nothing inherently wrong with nuance.  Maybe the world needs more of it.  On the other hand, what the world truly appears to need more of is clarity: more, not less, of the stark encounters with secularity in which, as we say in Texas, Christians tell others how the cow ate the cabbage.

Williams seems not quite the man for this task.  Love of scholarship gets in the way.  Oh, look—another distinction!  Let us hold it to the light, watch its colors change!  Look, world!

The Williams Weltanschauung (if we truly know enough to call it that) works thus with respect to sexuality and feminism—which are sometimes the same topic, examined from different angles.  If, as Williams says, he is pro-life, what would be wrong with making some headlines by summoning Anglicans to a full theological view of life?  Is not saving unborn life a mission on the same level as saving the lives of soldiers and civilians caught in a war zone?

Williams is a warm friend to the priesting of women—another acutely feminist issue.  He would even be, he says, “entirely happy with women bishops.”  As it happens, the issue of women priests continues to divide Anglicans the world over.  The new archbishop has served notice now of which side he is on.

On the broader topic of sexuality, Williams amiably acknowledges ordaining a candidate for the priesthood who “had a [homosexual] background but wasn’t going to push it or make a scandal of it.”  Will that candidate be the last one?  Unlikely.  “I truly cannot imagine a better choice for the job from our point of view,” says the leader of homosexual Episcopalians, the Rev. Michael Hopkins.

These are some of the things we know about Rowan Douglas Williams.  There is much we have still to learn.  It would be unfair to pronounce sentence on him too early in the process.  Some who call themselves conservatives speak well of him; they say he will show his mettle in due course.  He may.  That is the possibility always to be held out.  Omniscience before the fact degrades the Omniscient.

But to back away from prediction is not to ignore storm warnings, starting with the public record.  The Anglican Communion is frailer in spirit than it has been in a long time.  The priesting of women and the abolition of the old liturgical unity that flowed from essentially similar Books of Common Prayer saps feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood.  The churches of Africa are burgeoning at the same time that the churches of white Anglicanism—England, Scotland, Wales, the United States, Canada, New Zealand—give off a sound like Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” tide: a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”  Racial and cultural styles fail to account for all the difference.  African Anglicans are poor and exuberant.  White Anglicans are rich and bored.  Nor are the Communion’s tribulations peculiar to the Communion.

The conditions for recovery, given God’s omnipotence, are ever heartening, ever fruitful.  I just can’t tell how much longer the varied voices of recovery will include those cultivated, oh-so-English accents the Anglican world has loved so long.  Loved too long and too well, it may prove.