Williams held the Communion, well, in communion.
In spring, the sun reflects off the Cam, casting gentle ripples of light onto the ceilings of Magdelene College's river-facing rooms. It is as tranquil and timeless a grove of academe as it is possible to imagine. This time next year, Dr Rowan Williams will ease into the peace of those rooms as Master of Magdalene and reflect on his decade as Archbishop of Canterbury.
It's worth remembering that it was asked of his predecessor, George Carey, by one newspaper in 1999, whether he was ‘the worst Archbishop of Canterbury we've ever had'. It concluded that he was ‘without question the worst imaginable for a media age'. Yet now, as Baron Carey of Clifton, he has metamorphosed into a national treasure, a guardian of the nation's Christian cultural heritage.
Lord Carey was also called ‘the most excoriated archbishop since the execution of Charles I's favourite, William Laud'. That mantle must surely have passed, in this media age and almost by custom, to Dr Williams. It will be engaging to see whether the nation's appreciation of our next retired Archbishop of Canterbury follows the same trajectory as Carey's. It seems we never really appreciate what we've got until it's gone.
There are touchstone issues that mark any Archbishop of Canterbury. For Dr Williams, the iconic issue, the albatross that hangs around his neck, mocking him as a parody of a Pectoral cross, has been homosexuality. It has haunted his period of office at national, international and personal levels. It has driven an equatorial schism between the northern and southern hemispheres of the Anglican Communion. At home, he has carried it like Lancelot's wound, having fluffed his gay friend Jeffrey John's appointment as Bishop of Reading at his accession to the See of Canterbury, as he now prepares to leave his seat with that abrasion unhealed.
But stop an English Anglican in the street and ask for one word associated with the Williams decade and it probably wouldn't be ‘gay'. It might very well be ‘Sharia'. Such is the synthetic hysteria of today's media, and such the societal paranoia about a new caliphate into which it played in the early years of this millennium, that Dr Williams' mild-mannered observation that some civil representation for Sharia might be reflected in the British legislature sparked an Islamophobic outrage that is still felt today, four years on from those remarks.
It's common even in educated circles to hear it still alleged that Dr Williams favours a parallel legal system in the UK that allows Wahhabists to cut off the hands of thieves and the tongues of blasphemers. In reality, he pointed to the inequity whereby, if a British Christian, a British Jew and a British Muslim stood together, only two of them could discuss getting married in Britain according to their own customs. Dr Williams could probably never have happily integrated Muslims into British society, but he did much to bring the irrational fear and consequent loathing of them into the open, whether that was his intention or not.
This has turned out to be a recurrent theme of the Williams years at Lambeth Palace - he has tended to say the unsayable and, in doing so, has shone a polemical light into the darker corners of public discourse, making it suddenly respectable to hold opinions that were otherwise anathema. One example was to speak of Sharia in terms of civil rights. Another, off the cuff, was to express his unease at the vigilante-style despatch of Osama bin Laden last year, again an opportunity for journalists sated on the imminent prospect of a clash of civilisations to claim that he was a dhimmi, little more than an apologist for militant Islamism, all too prepared to surrender our Christian culture at the feet of the Prophet.
In fact, expressing the view that shooting an unarmed man, even a mass murderer, rather than bringing him to trial, and implying that this was perhaps playing the terrorists at their own game proved to be a liberation for those on both sides of the Atlantic who had felt constrained from expressing their reservations about the Navy Seals raid in Pakistan amid the unbridled celebrations of the demise of America's Great Satan. It was pleasantly surprising to hear military voices afterwards concurring with Dr Williams.
But those who seek Dr Williams' monument need only have looked around them in Canterbury in 2008. Disgracefully boycotted by those bishops who believed they owned the one, true Anglican identity, by virtue of their views on sexuality, Williams nevertheless held the Communion, well, in communion. It's hard to resist asking where those dissenting primates are now.
But it's unlikely that Dr Williams will take satisfaction from that question. Bruised as he is by the experience, it was genuine humility and holiness that got him through. And I'm sure that all his detractors will be in his prayers as the light from the Cam dances above him in Magdalene College.