Alchemy comes to Canterbury

In the halls of Anglican power, the leader of the tiny Church of Wales is respected for his skill at blending theology and poetry into sermons that are both impressive and mysterious.

Archbishop Rowan Williams has been called brilliant, charming, "turbulent," mystical, humble, brave and witty -- a true ecclesiastical chameleon. His own website trumpets his "radical views" on sexuality and church-state relations in England.

The 52-year-old Welshman speaks seven languages, has taught at Oxford and Cambridge universities, but has never led a local parish. He has praised "The Simpsons" and blasted the Walt Disney Co. He is a pacifist pro-lifer who has attacked America's war or terrorism. He will soon be inducted into the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards, donning a white robe and headdress while other druids chant prayers at sunrise to the ancient god and goddess of their land.

Oh yes, and Prime Minister Tony Blair has chosen Williams as the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the world's 70 million Anglicans. He follows Archbishop George Carey, a soft-spoken evangelical.

"Recent months and recent weeks have been a very strange time," Williams said, when his long-rumored appointment became official. "It's a curious experience to have your future discussed, your personality, childhood influences and facial hair solemnly examined in the media and opinions you didn't know you held expounded on your behalf."

Williams has lived a charmed life, performing feats of verbal alchemy before legions of clergy and academics. Now his every word will be studied under a microscope as he leads a global communion that is bitterly divided -- primarily between First World liberals and Third World conservatives -- on issues of sex and biblical authority.

For example, consider an essay entitled "The Body's Grace." In it, Williams questioned traditional definitions of "sexual fidelity," sharply criticizing conservatives who would attempt to "legalize" such a term. Sexual bonds can lead to spiritual transformation, even in relationships outside of marriage.

"The realities of our experience in looking for such possibilities suggest pretty clearly that an absolute declaration that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of commitment or else have the nature of sin and nothing else is unreal and silly," he wrote. While many worry about the impact of this viewpoint on Christian morality, "more damage is done ... by the insistence on a fantasy version of heterosexual marriage as the solitary ideal."

Another passage would certainly provoke strong debate at any ecumenical gathering, especially with its sharp attack on traditional Catholic teachings on natural law.

"In a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception," wrote Williams, "the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures."

Thus, Williams voted against a 1998 resolution at the global Lambeth Conference stating that sex outside of marriage is "incompatible with scripture" and urging a ban on same-sex unions and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. The vote was 526 bishops in favor, with 70 opposed and 45 abstentions.

Williams defends same-sex relationships and has ordained a non-celibate gay. This is awkward since there are 45,000 Anglicans in Wales and, by way of contrast, 15 million in Nigeria.

The moral innovations Williams advocates are "not going to resonate with millions of Anglicans in Africa and Asia," said Canon Bill Atwood of the Ekklesia Society, a global network of Anglican conservatives. "It's fascinating to me that people can so easily dismiss what the church has believed throughout the ages. It's pretty arrogant."

Meanwhile, Anglicans on the other side of this doctrinal divide are celebrating and facing the future with new optimism.

"For the first time lesbian and gay Anglicans can feel that they have a real friend at Lambeth. No longer will we need to feel shut out of the heart of the church," said the Rev. Richard Kirker of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

"The new archbishop's intellect is outstanding. He will apply intellectual rigor to the deliberations of the church. There will be no woolly thinking in a church led by Rowan Williams. Homophobia will be challenged and intolerance rooted out."