Rowan Williams: Turbulent Priest

Dr Rowan Williams

This piece was published in The Big Issue in December 2010. 

Entering the grounds of Lambeth Palace has a Narnia-like sense of swapping one world for another. Step through a small wooden door and London suddenly feels a million miles away. A winding path leads toward an archway, before opening out into the silent courtyard of a large gothic mansion.

Inside, the headquarters of an international ministry remain surprisingly quiet. Large empty rooms and corridors are lined with imposing paintings and plaques commemorating some of the great Christian thinkers: St Augustine, Thomas Newton, William Wilberforce. It is the relatively small first-floor study – warm, bright, full of books and papers – in which Rowan Williams likes to receive visitors.

“Yes, this is where work gets done,” he chuckles by way of welcome to his inner sanctum. Williams is a shy man. Approachable and engaging, keen to ensure the head of the Church of England retains a prominent role in public debate, but shy all the same. All the more intriguing that this reserved theologian has acquired a reputation as a bookish bigmouth, someone who wades too readily into affairs outside his purview.

This is the problem of being Archbishop of Canterbury in the 21st century. We demand the incumbent be relevant but we don’t really want members of the clergy to say anything too challenging.

Although his remarks on trying to understand terrorism, the partial adoption of Sharia law and the sense of mistrust in the Irish Catholic church have been typically nuanced and thoughtful, reaction in the media is often less so. Someone is always “furious” when awkward subjects are addressed.

This explains, perhaps, a slight apprehension at the prospect of another interview. Williams has admitted he is comfortable with a “concrete audience” but “less at ease when there’s a vague sense that anyone and everyone is listening and, therefore, I’m not quite sure…what the response is”.

And yet the subject that has tested his patience beyond any other is an internal dispute, the kind of ecclesiastical problem he has been able to ponder for decades, write about at length and enjoy numerous “concrete” conversations with the relevant parties.

The issue of gay bishops has, nonetheless, threatened to split the worldwide Anglican Communion. Williams has struggled to reconcile US Episcopalian churches happy with same-sex unions and African ministries, which have declared homosexuality a “perversion”.

Although some of his writing suggests liberal views toward committed homosexual relationships, his role as Archbishop of Canterbury has forced Williams to play conciliator, urging all sides to keep talking. The Pope’s offer last year to take in disaffected Anglicans has not made it easier. So far only three of the Church of England’s 114 bishops have announced their desire to join the Pope’s ‘Ordinariate’ (over the issue of female bishops). However, Williams accepts the real possibility of a wider schism and a two-tier Anglican church over homosexuality.

Has the intensity of the quarrel become difficult to manage? “Well, no more difficult than usual. It’s an ongoing set of problems. It’s to do with a Church that tries to span some very different cultures, and which is often rather unwilling to learn across cultures… It’s easier, sometimes, to go to our corners.”

Does he regret having to spend so much time on one particularly divisive issue in recent years? “In a word, yes,” affording himself another slight chuckle. “Yes, of course. I can’t imagine it’s particularly cheering to the founder of the Church to see us stuck quarrelling with each other when there is need for things that seems more important to Him, which is the care of the destitute and the proclamation of other ways of doing things.”

The Archbishop clearly wishes he could concentrate on challenging the status quo in a sinful world, believing the Church still has a radical message to deliver: poverty is an affront to God. “I think everyone has a kind of feeling that there’s something wrong about being destitute at Christmas,” he says.

“It’s bound to be a time when we ask – well, why do we tolerate this? It’s often the vicars and parsonages who get this on the doorstep. It’s often where destitute and very vulnerable people end up. They see things possibly people elsewhere in society often don’t see. It’s one of the main roles of the Church – to keep that reality in front of people’s eyes.”

An academic, poet and linguist (he speaks or reads 11 languages), Williams also has a history of social activism. In 1985 he was arrested for singing psalms as part of a CND protest at an American air base in Suffolk. He campaigned against the invasion of Iraq and wrote letters to Tony Blair warning his government’s apparent double standards on abuse of Iraqi detainees “diminish the credibility of western governments”.

He now wonders whether attitudes to the poor and marginalised are hardening in a time of crisis, and worries where the current government’s programme of cuts might lead.

“When everyone’s feeling the pinch like we are at the moment, there can be a tendency to take it out on those who are even poorer,” he says, brow furrowed.

“I noticed with interest the way in which, when there was a lot of discussion around benefit reforms, the word ‘workshy’ suddenly began to appear in the headlines, as if that were the truth about the majority of people without work. It’s one of those things which almost comes back from the ’80s, in my mind.

“I remember the first round of, well… hard measures. I know the desire behind some of these reforms is to reduce poverty, but unintended effects are still going to be around, and it’s attitudes we’ve still got to watch.”

It is another committed Christian, Iain Duncan Smith, who is pushing to introduce the “hard measures” Williams refers to. The primate of the Anglican church may be reluctant to criticise the motivations of particular politicians or parties, but he urges the coalition government to consider a moral framework for economic decisions.

“You’ve got to think who pays the biggest cost with austerity measures. If this or that measure actually weighs more heavily on those who are already least advantaged, then you’ve got a problem – it’s time to think. As I say, I don’t think that [poverty] is the intention, but I think it could be an unintended consequence.”

He talks about visiting refugee camps in Syria, “part of the colossal overspill of all our little adventures in the Middle East in the last few years”, and campaigning in the House of Lords to end child detention in the UK. “When you’ve seen, as I’ve seen, four or five-year-old children living essentially in prison conditions, then even for a short time that’s a trauma,” he notes.

He is similarly unafraid to tackle matters of the global consumer economy. “It’s intriguing to see that even in the middle of what we regard as an economic crisis, the retail business is still going strong,” he notes.

“Christmas is a time we ought to be thinking of inclusiveness and sharing, rather than consuming and locking the door. People do want to be generous given the chance… but they are seduced by advertising, custom and habit into this consumerist merry-go-round.”

Have we missed the chance, after the financial crisis, to reassess our values; how we might organise our economy along more moral lines?

“I don’t think it’s happened yet – it may be things will need to get worse before we really face up to it. I don’t want that to happen, but it may only be when things are more severe that we come to the basic issues. I think we [the Church] have been a bit slow doing it, because like everyone else we get hypnotised by financial experts and think it’s all too complicated. In the last couple of years it’s been important some church leaders have stepped out and said, ‘This is no way to run an economy and it’s no way to run a human race’.”

Appointed to Canterbury as a figure who might make Christianity credible to the intelligent unbeliever, some have no doubt found Williams a little too interesting for their tastes.

A social radical who loves Dostoevsky (he wrote a well-received biography Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, last year) The Simpsons and The Incredible String Band, he may still find his time in charge defined by how well he manages denominational disputes, largely irrelevant to most people’s lives.

We seem more interested in the fate of institutions than ideas. No doubt a subject the Archbishop would be happy to ponder at greater length.

Alas, interview over, it is time to head along the frosty path, through the wooden door and back into the noisy, fallen world.

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