Dr Williams is special (I think)

When I heard the news of the resignation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, my thoughts went back to the beginning, to that day at the end of February 2003 when Dr Rowan Williams was enthroned.

I had wandered through to the features department at The Times to ask their advice about a tricky problem I had encountered, only to find that everyone was glued to the television. They were watching the new archbishop and were enthralled. Something about him - his goodness, his spirituality - captured the imagination.

Which made me feel slightly embarrassed. Because what I had come to discuss was my difficulty editing a series of lectures made by Dr Williams. We intended to put abridged versions in the paper and it had been given to me to do the cutting. Now, in order to edit something properly you have to be able to see the essence of the argument and that was where I was struggling. Try as I might, I couldn't work out what the new archbishop was going on about. But seeing everyone watching in awe, I kept my difficulties to myself and returned to my desk.

But I thought I might as well come clean now. Two things have been said about Dr Williams at the end of his term. The first is that he is a great intellectual, the second that he struggled with the practicalities of his office and must therefore be counted a bit of a disappointment. I don't agree with either.

I was hurt by his support for Israeli investment boycotts

Let's get the intellectual thing out of the way first. I am not suggesting that Dr Williams is anything less than a great mind. I can't suggest this, because I don't know. I can listen to him for hours (and I have) without ever quite grasping his point. His language is often so opaque that it is impossible to follow. I once remarked to a friend sitting at a lecture with me, that I had only understood a single paragraph in a lecture lasting an hour, but feared that I did not agree with that paragraph. My friend laughed, but I wasn't joking.

What I did understand seemed to me quite disappointing, such as his aversion to shopping, with his (I, erm, think he was saying this) suggestion that consumerism is one of the scourges of modern life. And, like many Jews, I was very hurt by his support for Israeli investment boycotts.

At the same time, however, I don't share the view that he was too weak as archbishop. As a Jew I often reflect what a remarkable institution the Church of England has become in modern times, what a remarkable institution people like Rowan Williams have created. It is a national religion able to live alongside other faiths. Judaism is respected and accommodated by the people that run Britain's established church. This has become such a routine part of national life that we rarely stop to consider it, or how special it is.

The mildness, doubt, and lack of assertiveness of the Church of England is often attacked as "wet", but its moderation is one of the things that makes Britain a great place to live in if you do not belong the Church of England. The very attributes that are scorned and satirised are those that make it possible for the Church to be truly national. Rowan Williams strove to keep the Church together and that seemed weak, but was, in fact, of a piece with his generosity as a person.

The people who watched Rowan Williams on the television that day were right. There was something, is something, special about his spirituality. I may not be able to comprehend much except his niceness but that niceness is not a small thing.

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of The Times

    Last updated: 7:22pm, March 22 2012