Rowan Willams

Rowan Williams on theological education

Call me theologically naïve, or ignorant, or not well enough read, but I simply do not understand some of the criticisms directed at Rowan Williams. Archbishop Williams is a person of deep faith and prayer, of contagious love for Christ, for the Scriptures and tradition which bear witness to him, and for Christ’s church, and who for decade after decade has been among the church’s finest public theologians (and poets!), producing first-rate scholarship with exemplary integrity and gospel-spirited passion, and helping a new generation of Christians to find the words and posture to understand and bear witness to the deepest realties of their faith in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. Moreover, his literary and spoken output alone – books, radio interviews, lectures (his 2011 Holy Week Lectures on Lewis’ Narnia are outstanding), reviews, articles, etc. – not to mention his gracious and steady leadership of the Anglican communion, leads me often to wonder if there are not two equally-brilliant and identical twins that Mr & Mrs Williams named ‘Rowan’ sometime last century.

Put differently, I keep an eye open to read and digest everything he writes. And why not, when it is so edifying and educative, and models a way of doing theology so worthy of emulation, if not entirely uncritically so. But there’s one lecture that I’ve missed, until now – his CEFACS lecture, given some years ago at the Centre for Anglican Communion Studies in Birmingham. So thanks Jim for pointing me to it, not least because the lecture attends to a subject in which I have some serious investment, namely theological education.

In that lecture, Williams invites us to think about theological education by way of the analogy of a musical education: ‘Just as, in relation to musical education, I might be reasonably sure of being able to identify what a musically educated person is like. I would know what sort of skills to look for and listen for in that case. Now I want to suggest that a theologically educated person is somebody who has acquired the skill of reading the world, reading and interpreting the world, in the context and framework of Christian belief and Christian worship … That means that a theologically educated person is not someone who simply knows a great deal about the Bible or history of doctrine but somebody who is able to engage in some quite risky and innovative interpretation, and who is able, if I can put it this way, to recognise holy lives. Because I think that the skill that belongs to being a theologically educated person is a very significant part – the skill of knowing what an exemplary life looks like lived in the context of doctrine and worship’.

Then, drawing upon the work of Thomas Aquinas and the example of God’s revelation to Moses, Williams proceeds to argue that ‘theology is inevitably, consistently to do with human lives, not in any sense that excludes theology having to do with God – far from it: but in recognition of the fact that because God is not an object lying around for examination, God’s impact upon and the difference God makes to human lives is where we are bound to begin. The word of God, the self communication of God is always bound up with the actual and concrete transformation of human situations – corporate and individual … From the vantage point of Christian theology that should not surprise us at all. Christian theology begins from the series of events – events of transformation’.

And later on: ‘Theology begins when something in the human world and human lives has struck at such depth that we need language more than just the conventional language of human agency and historical forces. Theology arises then when the world looks new. One of the saddest things that can be said about theology is that it has become stale; that it no longer speaks of transformation. Because the impulse to do theology arises when the world looks different from what you thought it was. The New Testament is riveting, exasperating, exhausting, inexhaustible because it is the work in progress of the people whose world is in “in the business” of being reformed, reshaped’.

And here is the point – the challenge, if you like – for those engaged in theological education: ‘Theological education is bound … to be regularly a matter of looking at the patterns of human lives. Theology has a great deal to do with biography and with history – the Bible containing many examples of both. It is out of those narratives, out of those stories and transactions that the ideas emerge and I would venture to say that a bad theological education is one which never gets you from the ideas to the narratives; and a good theological education is one that pushes you inexorably from the narratives to the ideas’. One thinks here of James Wm. McClendon Jr’s fine book, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can remake Today’s Theology, or of the work of Ray Anderson whose entire project is an outworking of the conviction that ministry precedes theology.

And that is why, Williams reminds us, contra Nietzsche, ‘theology is inevitably a component in the business of Christian discernment’, and good theology is concerned not to ‘set out to give you a map of another world but a set of instructions for this one’. And that is why, Williams notes, ‘theology is an uncomfortable partner in the academic enterprise … An uncomfortable partner in the enterprise because universities on the whole do not set themselves the task of educating people in the discernment of holiness. Why should they? And yet there is something in the level of critical questioning which theology ought to bring to the intellectual enterprise overall that is essential to intellectual health’.

These introductory points made, Williams then turns to some of the particularities of theological education in light of the definitions he has introduced. And here he wishes to speak about bible study, doctrine and church history.

Regarding the first of these, bible study, Williams is adamant that theological education ‘is designed to produce people who are really literate in the Bible’. Why? Because ‘the Bible is the primary record of the primary difference God makes. It begins, of course, by recording the greatest difference of all – the difference between things being there and things not being there and associates that with God. And in Christian scripture that primordial difference between being and non-being is latched on with an enormously ambitious theological pun at the beginning of St John’s Gospel latched on to the life of Jesus of Nazareth as the one who makes the difference between being and non-being within the world’s history. But the narrative of Hebrew scripture, what Christians call the Old Testament, evolves in a series of upheavals. The uprooting of Abraham from his native land, the release from slavery of the people of Israel, the betrayal and exile that follows the abandonment by God’s people of God’s justice, the restoration of the people around more liturgy. And within its contours we are not allowed at any point, I think, to come too quickly to a generalised version of what all this is about and who this God is. We have to watch the story in its process. We have to attend to and be involved in the drama of the narrative’.

Williams then encourages us to adopt a particular posture when we turn to Christian scripture:

‘Be patient, don’t assume the end of the story is come. God is a God who upturns the conventions and the ideas and the images we have and he does it centrally, focally, forever, in the life and death of Jesus. We watch them again as Christian scripture evolves, we watch people in that new landscape trying to find the words for it. To say that is not in the least to say that the Bible does not tell us the truth. The way the bible tells us the truth is by showing us how God’s reality, in its freedom and majesty, impresses itself upon human life. We read the impress, we read the impact, we begin to understand who it is that we are dealing with and that is as true of the New Testament as of the Old. Frequently as I read Paul’s epistles I read the impatient, inarticulacy of someone whose vision is bigger than his language and that is what makes Paul so intensely worth reading, so inspired, so much a vehicle of God’s spirit. Watching him struggle, sometimes very impatiently, with ideas that are getting away from him is precisely to be drawn into what Paul sees and what Paul knows – to meet Paul’s God. There is an extraordinary moment when Paul realises that he has dug himself in far more deeply than he originally intended to in an argument and suddenly breaks away saying “I don’t know where this is going but …” as he does, of course, so memorably at the end of his most agonised excursions – Romans 9–11. How am I going to bring all these ideas together, Paul asks at the end of 11 when he has been wrestling with the fate of Israel and he can say only, “O the depth and mystery of God”. And it is not a short cut because you have watched him getting there. I had a friend years ago who complained about the way in which theologians would revert to talking about mystery when things were getting difficult and it is a good discipline I think for any theologian to save the language of mystery, if you like, until the very last moment. That is to say to follow through argument, definition, refinement of terms as bravely and consistently as you can and not to give up too soon. Only when you have demonstrated that you are at the end of that story can you afford to say with Paul that you don’t know where to go but God does. Now that means, I think, that a person who is educated in reading the Bible is a person who, you can say theologically, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, has been brought into that relationship with the God of the Bible which allows them to recognise in the language of the Bible their own faith and their own narrative. And that is something rather different from quarrying the Bible for little bits that happily remind you of how you feel. That is not biblical theology. It may be a useful form of apologetical psychology but it is not particularly theological. But to find in that language, that narrative, that register of exploration, something of the faith that transforms your own life; that I think is to see what biblical understanding is … The Christian comes into the biblical world – a strange world, a world in which images and ideas and words are not always what you expect. But the education of the Christian in the biblical world is an education in the skills of analogy and connection … That means that being a biblically educated person is a great deal more than knowing the texts’.

Williams turns next to the matter of Christian doctrine, rejecting the kind of doctrine-as-finished-product approach so often associated with theological education, and proposing instead a notion of doctrine as ‘the process of finding the words for a new landscape which like any such process is going to be in many ways vulnerable and rather bumpy’. ‘We can’t tell all the truth’, he says, ‘we can tell the truth consistently, we hope intelligently and then once again … come to the point when we say that is as far as we can go but we have done the work’. A ‘doctrinally educated person therefore is … somebody who can see what sort of human anxieties, aspirations, tensions, prayer, love, sin and grace led people to think it mattered to talk about Jesus in this way, to talk about God in this way, to talk about the Sacraments of the Church in this way. It was not a word game. It wasn’t a way of passing the long winter evenings’. Williams cites Barth and Bonhoeffer as examples of what it looks like to do theology in this way, i.e., in a way that takes the contemporary location seriously, in a way that seeks to profess Christ in a new and different space.

Williams then comes to the matter of education in church history, a subject with he has written very helpfully on before (see, for example, his wonderful book Why Study The Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church), and a subject which, he observes, ‘has tended sometimes to be a little bit of a Cinderella subject in theological education’. He continues:

‘When it has been done people don’t always quite see why it is done, whether there is a theological reason for doing it. It becomes another bundle of anecdotes. Facts about the past which may or may not be interesting, probably not very. Stories about people far away, speaking foreign languages with strange names with very bizarre ideas. Now I don’t think that will do as an approach to Church History because one of the things that comes out of being a biblically educated and doctrinally educated person is some sense of what it means to belong to the body of Christ. That is to be part of a community which has no spatial or temporal boundaries but in which every participant has something to give and something to receive … Those odd people in the text books are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ, and frequently you would much prefer that they weren’t. Almost as much as you would prefer that some of your contemporaries weren’t! But these are people in whom Christ is given to you’.

He argues that the difficulty with teaching church history is that the subject frequently falls apart into two equally unhelpful poles: ‘There is the kind of Church History which looks at the past as answering the questions. That is the story, that is how we got here and it all ends happily because it ended with us. And there is the kind of Church History which says we have to be deeply conscious of the absolute cultural gulf that separates us from everybody before 1550 or 1700 or 1981 or whatever. Both of those are unhelpful simply as historical method but they are totally insupportable as theological method’. And so part of the challenge, he goes on to say, ‘is being able to cope both with the continuity and with the gulf. These are people deciding to be disciples of the same Lord that I try to follow. These are people speaking of that discipleship in categories that are so strange that it will take me a lot of patience to learn what they say and listen to it effectively. Yet both those elements are true and essential in the process’. Not only is the position that nothing important happened between the NT and now (or between the first and the fifteenth centuries) ‘intellectually shabby and indefensible’ but such a view is also ‘spiritually impoverished’, for whether we like it or not, God has graced us with ‘a very, very large number of companions on the journey. Each one of whom will have something distinctive to say however well I hear it, however easily I digest it’. And here Williams returns to the question of reading the Bible, noting that ‘an educated reader of the Bible is also somebody who knows how to read the Bible in company – in company with other Christians now, in company with Christians through the ages’, in the company of the Christian community ‘and to find education and discipleship in that process’.

Finally, Williams makes the point that as alarming, pre-modern and unattractive as it sounds, one indispensable, if not largely forgotten, theological virtue is obedience. Naming Barth as ‘the greatest theologian of obedience in the 20th century’, Williams defines obedience in theology as ‘that absolutely faithful attention to the otherness of what you are dealing with, that springs you from the trap of your own preoccupations and preferences. Somewhere in all of this business of theological education we have to come to terms with that sense of an otherness, an elsewhere – not another place, another realm, another world but that which is not simply on the map of our concerns, our security, our ideas. An obedient theology is one which seeks to be formed by what is there and a holy life is one which lets itself be impacted, be impressed by the will of God. For Karl Barth, that meant of course, that an obedient theologian was someone who was free to be the most dramatic possible nuisance in church and world. Obedience to the otherness of God, such a person would be obedient to no other constraints and no tyranny that could be concocted on the face of the earth’.

‘What obedience means for us’, he continues, ‘is a far tougher, far more complex matter to work out. And yet’, he says, ‘a theology that does not somehow tackle that issue of obedience somewhere along the line as part of the education we are talking about, will fail to be theology. And that is an obedience, of course, which challenges great deal of what we often mean by the term’. Williams then provides some examples of what he is talking about, examples which underscore his claim that obedience is far from what we often associate with terms like passivity or docility: ‘Whatever obedience means there, it does not mean docility. Obedience can mean again Paul throwing down his pen with exasperation and say “I don’t know what more to say; it is too big for me to speak of” – that’s obedience. It’s St Thomas Aquinas saying at the end of his life saying, ‘all I’ve written seems like so much straw compared with what has been shown to me’. It is Luther throwing his inkpot at the devil. It is Barth wonderfully, at the end of a deeply boring and conventional parish mission, designed to make everybody feel a great deal worse, decided as he tells us to preach a sermon on little angels with harps and sheets of music. Because he felt he had been listening for a week to a mission all about how ‘I’ ought to feel and not about how God was, therefore he wanted to turn the whole thing back to praise, and that’s obedience’.

Linking this back to the subject of theological education, Williams concludes by noting that obedience properly belongs in the very DNA of any theological education worthy of its subject, for such education is about ‘passionate intention to what is there, to the extent that I am changed by that attention, and set free by it from other pressures to conformity’. And he then offers some specific words to his own Anglican Communion, words which I venture to say are pertinent to the entire body of Christ: ‘We have a very long way to go in making our Anglican church a coherent, communal, obedient, renewed family of congregations. And yet we share the reality given in Christ by our baptism, the reality of Christ’s body. The theological education we need, I believe, in the Communion is something which will make that come alive for us, which will make us literate in reading scripture and doctrine and church history, which will deepen in us those skills of discernment that we need in respect of our own calling and the calling of others, which will set us free from being simply an ecclesiastical organisation preoccupied with policing itself in various ways which will perhaps make us a more effective servant of the world into which God calls us. The world in which God invites us to recognise him, respond to him, praise, be glad in him, a world which is on the way to becoming that new creation which is really the context, the locus of any theology worth the name’.

Rowan Williams: Fighting the good fight

A week or so ago, the Guardian published a delightful interview between David Hare and Rowan Williams in which they discuss politics, education, economics, localism, prisons, the church, faith, self-absorption, and Welsh poets.

The entire interview is worth reading, but here are a few snippets to whet appetites: When asked by Hare whether Williams is paying too high a price for keeping together people who believe different things about gender, priesthood and sexuality, Williams responds: ‘I’ve no sympathy for that view. I don’t want to see the church so balkanised that we talk only to people we like and agree with. Thirty years ago, little knowing what fate had in store, I wrote an article about the role of a bishop, saying a bishop is a person who has to make each side of a debate audible to the other. The words “irony” and “prescience” come to mind. And of course you attract the reproach that you lack the courage of leadership and so on. But to me it’s a question of what only the archbishop of Canterbury can do’.

And on Welsh poet(-priests):

‘I always get annoyed when people call RS Thomas a poet-priest. He’s a poet, dammit. And a very good one. The implication is that somehow a poet-priest can get away with things a real poet can’t, or a real priest can’t. I’m very huffy about that. But I do accept there’s something in the pastoral office that does express itself appropriately in poetry. And the curious kind of invitation to the most vulnerable places in people that is part of priesthood does come up somewhere in poetic terms. Herbert’s very important to me. Herbert’s the man. Partly because of the absolute candour when he says, I’m going to let rip, I’m feeling I can’t stand God, I’ve had more than enough of Him. OK, let it run, get it out there. And then, just as the vehicle is careering towards the cliff edge, there’s a squeal of brakes. “Methought I heard one calling Child!/And I replied My Lord.” I love that ending, because it means, “Sorry, yes, OK, I’m not feeling any happier, but there’s nowhere else to go.” Herbert is not sweet.’

Rowan Williams on the oddness of the open Table

‘[The Church’s] complete sharing of baptismal and eucharistic life does not happen rapidly or easily, and the problem remains of how the Church is to show its openness without simply abandoning its explicit commitment to the one focal interpretative story of Jesus. To share eucharistic communion with someone unbaptized, or committed to another story or system, is odd – not because the sacrament is “profaned”, or because grace cannot be given to those outside the household, but because the symbolic integrity of the Eucharist depends upon its being celebrated by those who both commit themselves to the paradigm of Jesus’ death and resurrection and acknowledge that their violence is violence offered to Jesus. All their betrayals are to be understood as betrayals of him; and through that understanding comes forgiveness and hope. Those who do not so understand themselves and their sin or their loss will not make the same identification of their victims with Jesus, nor will they necessarily understand their hope or their vocation in relation to him and his community. Their participation is thus anomalous: it is hard to see the meaning of what is being done’.

– Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), 68.

The Risen Truth

‘The resurrection of Jesus, then, is not simply the raising and the restoration to the world of his past identity (though that is a vital component in the situation … ). Equally importantly, it is the ‘raising’ of the past identity of those who have been with him. The risen truth shows us the self-deceptions which have drawn us into the vortex of destructiveness. “Look”, says the risen Christ, “and see that, whatever your hopes and your longings, you were still trapped in fantasy, in blindness to yourselves and to the reality confronting you. Look how you trapped me and handed me over to death. Learn the depth of your resistance to the truth.” And yet the whole of that past that is shared with Jesus is now to be transformed: as we learn the truth of its tragic character, we learn also that the tragedy is interwoven with hope. The truth incarnate, present in the human world, is instantly, inevitably, entangled with the luxuriant tendrils of human fantasy and self-deceit. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, we are reminded of the longing of disciples and “multitude” alike for a saviour congruent with their projections and aspirations. There is no breaking-free from this web, because entanglement in it is inseparable from human being – the conditions of imperfect knowledge and imperfect communication, combined with the urge to structure and subdue the world and tame its contingency. And thus truth in this world is a stranger, essentially and profoundly vulnerable (so the Fourth Gospel reiterates again and again): its connection with or participation in the world involves rejection, crucifixion outside the city gates. Yet it has entered the world, it has allowed itself to be linked with the sphere of destructive untruth; and even if rejected, it cannot be annihilated. If Calvary shows the links between truth and untruth pulling the former down towards extinction, Easter shows us those same links, the same interconnectedness of the human world, reversed, so that truth draws untruth up towards the light. Our connection with truth, with Jesus, has led to the cross; his connection with us remains, indestructibly, to assure us that our betrayal is not the ultimate fact in the world. We may betray, but the world characterized by betrayal is now interwoven with a reality incapable of betrayal. God’s faithfulness has worn a human face, through Calvary and beyond. The incarnate truth, “risen from the dead”, establishes that faithfulness as the ground of inexhaustible hope in the world, even in the midst of our self-deceits’.

– Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), 41–2.

Around the traps: To the memory of ulcers scraped with a tin spoon

Advent III: ‘Advent Calendar’, by Rowan Williams

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

– Rowan Williams, The Poems of Rowan Williams (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 31.

Rowan Williams on forgiveness (and some other stuff)

Rowan Williams is in Stuttgart where he has just has delivered the keynote address at the 11th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation. The theme of the Assembly is ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Part of Archbishop Williams’ address addressed the topic of forgiveness:

‘The person who asks forgiveness is a person who has renounced the privilege of being right or safe; he has acknowledged that he is hungry for healing, for the bread of acceptance and restoration to relationship.  But equally the person who forgives has renounced the safety of being locked into the position of the offended victim; he has decided to take the risk of creating afresh a relationship known to be dangerous, known to be capable of causing hurt.  Both the giver and the receiver of forgiveness have moved out of the safety zone; they have begun to ask how to receive their humanity as a gift.

Forgiveness is one of the most radical ways in which we are able to nourish one another’s humanity.  When offence is given and hurt is done, the customary human response is withdrawal, the reinforcing of the walls of the private self, with all that this implies about asserting one’s own humanity as a possession rather than receiving it as gift.  The unforgiven and the unforgiving cannot see the other as someone who is part of God’s work of bestowing humanity on them.  To forgive and to be forgiven is to allow yourself to be humanised by those whom you may least want to receive as signs of God’s gift; but this process is intrinsically connected with the prayer for daily bread.  To deny the possibilities of forgiveness would be to say that there are those I have no need of because they have offended me or because they have refused to extend a hand to me.

To forgive is clearly the mark of a humanity touched by God – free from anxiety about identity and safety, free to reach out into what is other, as God does in Jesus Christ.  But it may be that willingness to be forgiven is no less the mark of a humanity touched by God.  It is a matter of being prepared to acknowledge that I cannot grow or flourish without restored relationship, even when this means admitting the ways I have tried to avoid it.  When I am forgiven by the one I have injured, I both accept that I have damaged a relationship, and accept that change is possible.  And if the logic of the Lord’s Prayer is correct, that acceptance arises from and is strengthened by our own freedom to bring about the change that forgiveness entails.

Forgiveness is the exchange of the bread of life and the bread of truth; it is the way in which those who have damaged each other’s humanity and denied its dignity are brought back into a relation where each feeds the other and nurtures their dignity.  It is a gross distortion of forgiveness that sees it as a sort of claim to power over the other – being a patron or a benefactor towards someone less secure.  We should rather think of those extraordinary words in the prophecy of Hosea (11.8-90) about the mercy of God: ‘How can I give you up, O Ephraim? For I am God and not a mortal’.  To forgive is to share in the helplessness of God, who cannot turn from God’s own nature: not to forgive would be for God a wound in the divine life itself.  Not power but the powerlessness of the God whose nature is love is what is shown in the act of forgiving.  The believer rooted in Christ shares that powerlessness, and the deeper the roots go the less possible it is not to forgive.  And to be forgiven is another kind of powerlessness – recognising that I cannot live without the word of mercy, that I cannot complete the task of being myself without the healing of what I have wounded.  Neither the forgiver nor the forgiven acquires the power that simply cuts off the past and leaves us alone to face the future: both have discovered that their past, with all its shadows and injuries, is now what makes it imperative to be reconciled so that they may live more fully from and with each other …

But to speak in these terms of bread and forgiveness and the future presses us towards thinking more about the act in which Christians most clearly set forth these realities as the governing marks of Christian existence: the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  We celebrate this Supper until Christ comes, invoking the Spirit of the coming age to transform the matter of this world into the sheer gift of Christ to us and so invoking the promise of a whole world renewed, perceived and received as gift.  This is, supremely, tomorrow’s bread.

But it is so, of course, not as an object fallen from heaven, but precisely as the bread that is actively shared by Christ’s friends; and it is eaten both as an anticipation of the communion of the world to come and as a memorial of the betrayal and death of Jesus.  That is to say, it is also a sacrament of forgiveness; it is the risen Jesus returning to his unfaithful disciples to create afresh in them this communion of the new world.  The bread that comes down from heaven is bread that is being handled, broken and distributed by a certain kind of community, the community where people recognise their need of absolution and reconciliation with each other.  The community that eats this bread and drinks this cup is one where human beings are learning to accept their vulnerability and need as well as their vocation to feed one another.

So we can connect the prayer for daily bread directly to what goes before it as well as after it in the Lord’s Prayer.  We ask for the Kingdom to come and for God’s purpose to be realised as it is in the liturgy of heaven, in the heavenly Temple, where our basic calling to love and praise is fulfilled.  And in the light of that, we pray for today’s and tomorrow’s bread, for the signs among us of the future of justice and reconciliation, above all as this is shown in mutual forgiveness.

The Lord’s Supper is bread for the world – not simply in virtue of the sacramental bread that is literally shared and consumed, but because it is the sign of a humanity set free for mutual gift and service.  The Church’s mission in God’s world is inseparably bound up with the reality of the common life around Christ’s table, the life of what a great Anglican scholar called homo eucharisticus, the new ‘species’ of humanity that is created and sustained by the Eucharistic gathering and its food and drink.  Here is proclaimed the possibility of reconciled life and the imperative of living so as to nourish the humanity of others.  There is no transforming Eucharistic life if it is not fleshed out in justice and generosity, no proper veneration for the sacramental Body and Blood that is not correspondingly fleshed out in veneration for the neighbour.

If, then, we are called to feed the world – recalling Jesus’ brisk instruction to his disciples to give the multitudes something to eat (Mark 6.37) – the challenge is to become a community that nourishes humanity, a humanity on the one hand open and undefended, on the other creatively engaged with making the neighbour more human.  ‘Give us our daily bread’ must also be a prayer that we may be transformed into homo eucharisticus, that we may become a nourishing Body.  Our internal church debates might look a little different if in each case we asked how this or that issue relates to two fundamental things – our recognition that we need one another for our own nourishment and our readiness to offer all we have and are for the feeding, material and spiritual, of a hungry world’.

One can read the whole address here.

Need more Rowan? The New Statesman this week ran two other pieces on him: this one on citizenship, and this interview in which Williams talks about religious longing, the Church of England, society and the economy.

‘Piping songs of peasant glee’: Around the aether

Stringfellow on patriotism and nationalism

A question arising from the previous post is whether Stringfellow makes any distinction between ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’. I am yet to read all of Stringfellow’s writings, but my sense thus far is that any distinction made between the two typically is equally concerned to hold the two together. So he understands patriotism as one of the clearest expressions of the idolatry of nationhood. Patriotism, according to Stringfellow, is just one of the ‘legion’ of principalities, alongside which he names the Pentagon, the Ford Motor Company, Harvard University, the Diners Club, the Olympics, the Methodist Church (I’m yet to discover what he has against the Methodist Church), capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, and the family. (See An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 78).

He also avers, in Imposters of God, that ‘… no nation enjoys exemption from idolatry; no subjects of any nation can escape the claims of idolatrous patriotism, whatever aesthetic or temperamental distinctions may lodge in this or that particular scene’ (pp. 100–1). And so, in another place, he cautions the ‘biblical person’ to always be ‘wary of claims which the State makes for allegiance, obedience, and service under the rubric called patriotism’ (An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, 113)

Nationalism, therefore, is nothing short of blasphemous, making promises that only God can deliver on, and proclaiming a bastard Gospel which announces a pagan form of (political, economic and, in some cases religious) salvation. Nationalism is, to borrow from Luther, God’s ape (!), never having an original idea in its life but only setting itself in God’s place. Nationalism is simply idol worship sanctioned and demanded by the local god, the state claiming worship that belongs to Christ alone, and a level of commitment that belongs to the body of Christ alone. Rowan Williams’ essay, ‘Being a People: Reflections on the Concept of the “Laity”’ (Religion, State & Society 27/1, 1999), is very helpful here. Reflecting on Stringfellow’s statement that ‘the church is the exemplary nation juxtaposed to all the other nations’, Williams writes:

‘In the face of the demonic presence in national social and political life of the trend towards idolatry, towards absolutising the local and tangible, and of the incapacity of worldly nations effectively to repent and be converted, the Church – a visible, institutional ground of identity, a historically tangible `people’ – represents the calling of all human beings to belong together in justice. In this sense, the Church is also, for Stringfellow, ‘the priest of nations’: while it is visibly a polity and structure among others, it has the task not only of showing to others what the true ground of human belonging is, but also of undertaking what he calls ‘advocacy’ on behalf of every victim in such a way that it becomes worship. This is a complex idea, expressed (as usual with Stringfellow) in painfully compressed form. What it seems to mean is this. The Church’s willingness to stand with the victims of the nations of this world arises out of its own experience of God’s victory over death, its own experience of the possibility of resisting the power of idolatry and so discovering what cannot be destroyed. So when it stands with the powerless and the victims, it does so in conscious and articulate gratitude for God’s ability to take us beyond death. Advocacy becomes praise; and praise itself, properly understood, is a political matter because it witnesses to a God who brings us where no power or principality of this earth can intimidate or confine us’. (p. 12)

Holy Spirit in the World Today Conference talks

Most of the talks from the recent Holy Spirit in the World Today Conference, a two day conference jointly sponsored by St Paul’s Theological College and St Mellitus College, are now available for download:

Where is Jesus?

‘Jesus is in the neighbourhood of God the Father and so when we stand where Jesus is we too are in that neighbourhood and we learn his language of his relation to God the Father.  But the incarnate Jesus is also in the neighbourhood of the chaos and the suffering of the world – a world he has entered to transform.  It’s a dimension of baptism vividly captured in the visual and verbal imagery of the Orthodox Church which sees the descent of Jesus into the baptismal water of Jordan as a descent into the chaos, into the unformed reality which swills around just below the surface of the ordinary world.  To speak in those terms is really to paraphrase the epigram which I think originates with the great Irish Benedictine, Columba Marmion.  He spoke about Christ being simultaneously in sinu Patris and in sinu peccatoris: in the bosom of the Father and in the bosom of the sinner.  Christ is simultaneously in the neighbourhood of the Father and in the neighbourhood of the sinner, the formlessness, the shapelessness and dissolution, the dis-integrity of creation.  He is in the heart of both realities, simultaneously.  And that, of course, suggests that when we as baptized persons come to be in the neighbourhood of Jesus, that same dual proximity is what we have to get used to.  We are in the neighbourhood of God the Father indeed, and pray the prayer that the Spirit enables: Abba, Father.  But we are also in proximity to the world into which Jesus descended; in proximity to the chaos and the formlessness of fallen creation.

And it is of course that two-sided dimension of baptism which stops the baptismal identity simply being static or exclusive, ‘religious’ in all the worst possible senses.  It means that we can only be confident of our proximity to God the Father in Jesus if we’re also alert and awake to the proximity of chaos.  Our baptismal solidarity with Jesus Christ means that we are in solidarity with all the fellow Christians we never chose to be in fellowship with (always one of the most difficult bits of Christian identity) but it also means that we’re in solidarity with an unlimited variety of human experience that relates to the darkness and the chaos into which Jesus descends in his incarnation.  We are in the neighbourhood of a darkness inside and outside the Church, inside and outside our own hearts.  In sinu peccatoris: in the bosom—the heart—of what sin means.

So the identity of the baptized is not first and foremost a matter of some exclusive relationship to God that keeps us safe, as opposed to the rest of the vulnerable and unlucky world.  It is at one and the same time living both in the neighbourhood of the Father and in the neighbourhood of darkness.  That is why we speak of being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, not simply baptized as a mark of our affinity or alignment with Jesus in a general way, not baptized as an external sign that we more or less agree with what Jesus says.  Our baptism is a stepping-into Jesus’ place with all that that entails.  And it means that Christian baptismal identity is—again at one and the same time—both a depth of human experience that brings us into at least the potential of intense, transfiguring love, the Trinitarian love in which Jesus himself lives, and a continuing experience of expectation, humility, penitence and hope.  The experience of the baptized is not the experience of endings, but of repeated new beginnings.  We don’t simply acquire a relationship with God the Father which then requires us to do nothing more.  On the contrary, to be baptized is to be constantly re-awakening our expectation, our penitence, our protest, our awareness that the chaos and darkness of the world is not what God wills; our awareness that we are colluding with that state of chaos which God does not will.  So as baptized persons we look constantly into ourselves, rediscovering over and over again the hope that comes out of true repentance.

That, I suggest, is somewhere near the heart of what the identity of the baptized is.  And lest you should think that’s just a twenty-first-century perspective, I refer you to (among many other texts) what St Augustine had to say about baptism in some of his great treatises and letters on the subject.  St Augustine, confronted with people who seemed to be inclined to regard baptism as a badge of having ‘arrived’, would refer back to the fact that baptized people say the Lord’s Prayer.  That is in fact one of the most distinctive things that baptized people do, because they call God ‘Father’.  And in that baptismal prayer that Jesus gave us, we say, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’.  Why do we bother to say this (says Augustine) if baptism is simply the badge of having arrived?  When we meet a Christian who is inclined to treat baptism in that way, just remind them of the Lord’s Prayer.  In slightly different terms you can say baptism is the beginning of a ‘baptismal narrative’, a story of discovering and rediscovering through failure and restoration, just what it is to live in the place where Jesus lives.’ — Rowan Williams, ‘”The Fellowship of the Baptized”- The John Coventry Memorial Address’.

The finality of Christ in a pluralist world

During a recent visit to the Diocese of Guildford, Archbishop Rowan Williams gave a lecture (based on John 14:5-6 and Acts 4:8-13) on the finality of Christ in a pluralist world. The whole piece is well worth reading, but here’s how he concludes:

‘[B]elief in the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ — for all the assaults made upon it in the modern age — remains for the Christian a way of speaking about hope for the entire human family. And because it’s that, we are bound to say something about it. We are very rightly suspicious of proselytism, of manipulative, bullying, insensitive approaches to people of other faith which treat them as if they knew nothing, as if we had nothing to learn and as if the tradition of their reflection and imagination were of no interest to us or God. God save us from that kind of approach. But God save us also from the nervousness about our own conviction which doesn’t allow us to say that we speak about Jesus because we believe he matters. We believe he matters because we believe that in him human beings find their peace. Their destinies converge and their dignities are fully honoured. And all the work that we as Christians want to do for the sake of convergent human destiny and fullness of human dignity has its root in that conviction that there is no boundary around Jesus — that what he is and does and says and suffers is in principle liberatingly relevant to every human being; past, present and future.

The challenge is partly re-connecting our christology (what we say about Jesus and the Trinity) with our anthropology (our sense of what belongs properly to human beings); and rightly understood, I think that the belief in Jesus’ uniqueness and finality allows us to do this. And, rightly understood, I believe it also allows us to encounter both the religious and the non-religious other with the generous desire to share, and the humble desire to learn, and the patience to let God work out his purpose as is best in his eyes’.

Rowan Williams on new forms of church

There’s a very helpful – and wonderfully encouraging – interview here with Rowan Williams talking about new forms of church, Fresh Expressions and other. One of the best I’ve heard on this topic.

There’s also a wee follow-up response here from the interviewer – Tim.

‘Who shall unseal the years, the years!’: Around the traps

Rowan Williams on mission

Rowan WilliamsThe good Archbishop Williams recently gave an address titled ‘God’s Mission and Ours in the 21st century’. [You can also listen to/download it here]. He unpacked Matthew 10 in order to answer 5 commonly-asked questions about mission: Where do we start? What do we say? What do we do? Why are we doing it? How do we plan it? He then turned to Matthew 28. Unsurprisingly, the whole thing is well worth reading, but here are some snippets that got me all fuzzy inside:

‘It’s of course a salutary reminder of the very general principle that mission is never a matter of taking God where he hasn’t been before, and introducing him to a lot of kind strangers. In every act of mission, God is there ahead of us. But by saying, ‘Go first to the lost sheep of Israel,’ Jesus is telling us that we need always to be alert to that prior history. We need to be reminded that mission is God’s before it is ours … So as we engage in mission, communicating the good news – the really new message of Jesus Christ and who he is and what he’s done – we will always be attending to the pattern of God’s presence and action, already there’. [I was immediately reminded here of Vincent Donovan].

‘Mission is not about introducing a distant and rather shy God to people that he’s never met before. It’s much more a question of saying to people that God is more interested in you than you are in God. And the good news is that if you show signs of interest of response, trust and love, then that interest turns into profound intimacy and relationship. God is nearer than you think. God is already on the way. So that what we say about God in mission is actually very closely connected with the question of where and how do we start? We start recognizing God who is there before us, and we say to the people with whom we’re speaking, ‘God is already at work in you and the challenge is for you to recognize this and give your heart and your will to cooperating with what God wants to do with and in you. Our assumption must always be that God has started’.

‘Mission is release from sickness, from death, literally, from isolation (leprosy), from the demonic and the destructive forces that suck human beings down into darkness both inside and outside. Mission is crucially about tangible change, visible release, a release that at the individual level is the release from guilt and fear in respect of God which at the public and corporate level is a release from despair and oppression, from poverty and inhumanity. But whether we’re talking about the individual or corporate, we are talking about change and a change in the life that you see around’.

‘Gratitude is why we do it, because we can’t help it. Why are we seeking to share the good news of Jesus Christ? It is because we have received without payment an inestimable gift, which will not stay still in our hands’.

In addressing the fifth question – ‘How do we plan mission?’ – Williams says, ‘we have to be very careful not to close doors by the way we plan: that is, we need to be lead by the sense of where God is actively opening doors and put the initiative and energy there in the trust that somehow that action will generate the resources we need – “For the labourers deserve their food”. Mission travels light. Mission is probably not best advanced by the spectacle of someone embarking on it encumbered with a massive weight of cultural or financial baggage’.

Turning to Matthew 28, and to Jesus’ command to ‘make disciples’, Williams reminds that ‘Making disciples is a matter of shaping people who are willing to go on learning from God. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t seem to talk about making members, recruiting people to sign up: he wants disciples. He wants members of his body, not members of an organization. And the members of the body are those who share in the action of the body – a disciple is a learner, somebody who puts themselves to school under God and God’s Messiah. So go and make learners; encourage people to embark on the journey of discovering what the gift of God is. In mission when people see the new creation, the transformed reality that is set before them, they will need time to learn what it’s about. Don’t look for short cuts. Draw people in to the newness and mystery and excitement, and then let them know that it’s a lifetime’s work to find your way into it. Take the time that is needed for people to learn and to grow to be disciples. Of course Christ asks from his disciples service, obedience, sacrifice, but all the time Christ asks us to continue learning, day by day taking up the cross, walking this path and discovering as we go’.

Williams spoke encouragingly of the Fresh Expressions initiatives, and pressed that when it comes to mission the Church needs to take a ‘long-term view’. ‘Mission’, he says, ‘always requires an almost superhuman level of patience. When I look at the history of Christian mission, I find that the stories that move me most are not always the ones of rapid and widespread success, but the stories of those who, through a whole generation of apparent frustration have stayed with the particular situation, confident that God really is opening a door even if you can’t yet see it. There are many such stories. There are sad stories too, of successes that have proved short-lived where the enemies of the gospel have more or less extinguished what seemed to be great early promise. The long view is the most important, but because we live in a culture that is not at all in love with long views and likes short-term solutions whether in religion or politics, the Christian committed to patience is a very counter-cultural person and all the more important because of it. But even in local and prosaic settings, how very tempting it is to say that we want our results now, before the end of the year. We have justify what we’re doing in the shortest of short terms and that is a curse for churches, universities, charities, community regeneration projects, all sort of things in our society. And we need deep breaths and long views again’.

He also highlighted that one of the practical implications of mission is what he termed a ‘solid, three-dimensional liturgical life’. He said: ‘we need to find ourselves in a Church that has a deep rhythm of teaching and symbolizing of our faith. I don’t mean elaborate ceremonial and I don’t mean complicated externals. I mean a nourishing diet of sacramental worship with baptism and the Lord’s Supper at the heart of it, taking us again and again through the Christian year in ways that make the rhythm of the life of Christ second nature to us. Because that’s how the new creation is fleshed out in the life of the Church. And that’s what we’re asking people ultimately to become part of. It certainly doesn’t mean that when you’re engaged in mission or evangelism, the first thing you do with people is present them with the annual lectionary! But I do mean that in the long term, what we hope will happen in mission is that people come into that flow of Christ’s love that the Christian year and Christian worship represents. Each year Christians go through the story of waiting and expectation and fulfillment of Christmas, of baptism, temptation, passion and resurrection, ascension, the giving of the Spirit, and the great climax, the celebration of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that we’ve just experienced on Trinity Sunday. And that annual rhythm, that taking time and going through the story, is so important in anchoring us to something other than what we happen to be thinking or feeling on any one day. None of what I’ve said is going to have its full effect on us unless we are aware of the need for our worship and community life as Christians to have that depth and solidity, that three-dimensional quality to it’.

That’s a lot of fuzzies …

Rowan Williams on the Ascension

Giotto - The Ascension

Giotto, 'The Ascension'. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

‘The ascension of Jesus … becomes a celebration of the extraordinary fact that our humanity in all its variety, in all its vulnerability, has been taken by Jesus into the heart of the divine life …. [The] Ascension is a celebration of the glory of humanity, the unlikely possibilities of people like you and me, the eternal potential locked up in our muddled struggling lives. And a celebration too of God’s capacity, through his Holy Spirit, to reach into those parts of humanity that are so far from glorious, that are rebellious and troubled and broken, to breathe through them, to take them home, to drop them into that fire and melt them and recast them. The promise of the Father is that we as Christians will receive that level and dimension of divine life that we call ‘Holy Spirit’, so that, like Jesus, we will find that nothing human is alien to us. And the promise of the Father is that by the love of Christ spreading through us and in us, the world may be brought home to Christ, who brings it home to his Father’. – Rowan Williams, ‘A sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the Ascension Day Sung Eucharist’.

Archbishop’s Lectures in Holy Week



Rowan Williams is in the midst of a series of Holy Week Lectures on the theme, ‘Growing in Prayer: what the saints tell us about the spiritual journey’:

6 April        Lecture 1: ‘The Early Church’

7 April        Lecture 2: ‘Reformers, Catholic & Protestant’

8 April        Lecture 3: ‘The Quest for God in the Modern Age’

Rowan Williams on cynicism and scepticism

rowan-williams‘… I think cynicism is one of the worst things that can afflict a society. Scepticism, the capacity to ask tough questions and not allow people to get away with things is healthy in a society. Cynicism, which simply assumes the worst and assumes that there’s nothing you can do about it except throw blame around in an endless kind of ‘paint-balling riot’ – that’s no use to anybody’. – Rowan Williams, ‘Interview with Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme ahead of G20 summit’, Tuesday 31 March 2009.

Rowan Williams on entering the world of revealed religion

rembrant-jacob-wrestling-angelArchbishop Rowan Williams is a brilliant theologian and preacher. Yesterday, Williams was at Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, to deliver the Hulsean Sermon. Its title? ‘Seeing the Question: Revelation and Self-Knowledge’. He drew upon work by Barth, Augustine and TF Torrance; and here’s what he had to say about revelation:

Revelation is the discovery that you are already, before you knew it, in relation to a vision that is both utterly compassionate and utterly truthful: to discover this in the face, in the presence of another human being within history, not even in the presence of an archaic statue, starts the long, draining and exhilarating trail of recasting what has been taken for granted about God and the world, the created and the uncreated, and sketches what might have to be said about a God who is free not only to engage with the human world but to do so from within. I am shown to myself as a person already in relation: God is shown to me as the agency that is eternally prepared for relation. And the creeds begin to cast their shadow before them; because of that single human presence about which we can only say, ‘he told me everything I ever did’.

Revealed religion can so easily be presented as the enemy of many things that our culture holds precious: intellectual humility and intellectual adventure; the sense of ultimate otherness or strangeness within our relations with one another; the fascination with our own inner elusiveness, our otherness to ourselves. Yet all these themes seem themselves to arise out of the gradual apprehension of what revelation actually entails. If theology – the theology of revealed religion – has a place in the academy, it is because of the way in which it underscores the strength of the goading to know that drives all serious mental enterprise and at the same time the unfinished character of that enterprise. It does so not by appealing to a vague belief that all verbal forms are provisional or that the spiritual nature of human beings is worth taking seriously, but as a discipline that wrestles with intractable history and particular narrative, with the ways in which human beings think within time and relationship and create language together.

In a cultural context where – so we are repeatedly told – ‘spirituality’ is more popular than ‘religion’, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of what the claim to revelation and the focus on historical particulars involves for the life of faith and the exploration of that life in art or theology. Here at least we are in a world in which the characteristic pressure of intellectual activity makes sense – the conviction of an obligation to persistence and novak-jacob-wrestling-the-angelhonesty, the cautions against imagining that issues have been resolved when they have only been named; here the life of the mind and of a properly demanding imagination are recognisably involved. Grace and struggle both belong inseparably in the process of receiving and responding to a revealing God. What the preference for a generic spirituality may lose hold of is just this partnership of the awareness of gift and the pressure to speak as truthfully as can be in the light of the steady weight of that gift as received by generations.

To enter the world of revealed religion, to make one’s own the vocabulary of a free self-disclosure on the part of the transcendent, is not to abandon discovery or darkness: because it is grounded in the simultaneous new awareness of who God is and who I and my neighbour are, it cannot be simply the delivery of the last pieces in a puzzle. To become conscious that you are seen is potentially frightening; to become conscious that you are seen by a presence that has no selfish interest, no advantage to be exploited, no will to manipulate, but one that gratuitously shares the secret of itself, its reality and ‘density’, is perhaps not
less frightening (you hate it because it hurts’) but is also to find yourself just beginning in the way of fearlessness. My story is told to me afresh; and I find that it is embraced, graced, opened. ‘You must change your life’; but in fact my life is changed, not by me, if I can bear the gaze.

The full sermon manuscript is available here.

Around blogdom …

  1. “The Center of the Whole Bible” (Romans 3:21-26): audio | video
  2. “The Strange Triumph of a Slaughtered Lamb” (Revelation 12): audio | video
  3. “A Miracle Full of Surprises” (John 11): audio | video
  4. “Why Doubt the Resurrection of Jesus” (John 20:24-31)
  5. “The Ironies of the Cross” (Matthew 27:27-51)