Monday, August 14, 2006

Something About Rowan Williams

When Rowan Williams, then Bishop of Monmouth and Archbishop of Wales, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury I was among those who were profoundly disappointed. I confess that I did not know much about the man, but his arrival in the mother diocese of Anglicanism was about as bad news to me as the election of his American counterpart had been in 1997. I wondered what now stood between our worldwide church and the deluge!

In the years since he ascended Augustine's chair, I have had time to reassess this man, hear him speak, correspond with him, spend time alone with him, read some of the things he has written, and discover that I had badly misjudged him. This is not to say that I would dot ever "i" that Rowan does, nor would I cross every "t," but I find him to be as fascinating and holy a man who bestrides the Christian scene as has been there for a long time.

One of the lessons I have had to relearn as I have begun to get to know the Archbishop of Canterbury is that like so many other evangelicals I am prone to rush to judgment on the basis of what I perceive to be a person's ideology, rather than allowing a person's fruit to mark them out. Rowan Williams is a godly man whose life bears of the traces of the kind of fruit that I would long to see in my own life. He is a humble, faithful, gentle man, whose self-effacing personality belies a gargantuan intellect and a spiritual shrewdness.

The amazing thing about this individual is that, like his friend and colleague, Tom Wright, he has read and digested everything. In his early ministry he taught in a couple of English seminaries, and while still in his twenties one of his senior colleagues pointed out that Rowan could readily have taught every subject on the curriculum -- with the exception of liturgics! He taught theology on the faculty of Cambridge while being unpaid assistant in an unfashionable working-class parish, before becoming Lady Margaret Professor of Theology at Oxford at the ripe old age of 32.

He is married to a bishop's daughter, who is no mean theologian herself, and the joy of his life are his daughter and son, born to the couple after a series of miscarriages. While his writing can often be turgid, to say the least, he has a reputation for preaching wonderful children's sermons. As Rudyard Kipling put it, he can talk with crowds and not lose his virtue, and walk with kings without losing the common touch. The day I saw him at Lambeth Palace in May, our lunch date was slotted between a British cabinet minister and the production of video resources in which he was to "star." Despite such a hectic schedule, as we ate our sandwiches and chatted he seemed able to eliminate from his mind the other concerns that pressed in upon him.

Every contact I have had with Dr. Williams has always been affirming, even when he has been nudging me to rethink an idea, or pressing me to see that there are other viewpoints than my own. One of the problems that those of us who are firmly part of one particular ecclesial tradition have is that we tend to interpret a person through the limited grid of our own presuppositions. While it is clear that the Archbishop comes out of an Anglo-Catholic stable, I would say that he is one of the few people I know who really does stand outside and above the various competing streams of tradition in the church.

The earlier error I made about Archbishop Williams was that my perception was so colored by what I thought was his mind on human sexuality that I was not able to hear anything else. Yet while he continues to maintain an open mind on items which I believe Scripture and the catholic faith to be more clear, he is more a communitarian than a individualist, and is not going to step outside the understanding of the Anglican Communion on maleness, femaleness, marriage, and human sexual relations. However, this does not preventing him like many an academic to give theoretical consideration to notions that are on the periphery.

I first heard Rowan Williams speak in September 2003, when he opened the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in England. There was a touch of bellicose distrust in the crowd of several thousand who greeted him in Blackpool, but far from being intimidated he spoke briefly and to the point, unselfconsciously holy in the message that he brought. He spoke with clarity and a conviction that, in effect, asked evangelicals to share their own particular strengths and giftedness with the church. Williams is enthusiastic about Alpha, for example, and his wife, Jane, teaches in the theology school that has been set up by Holy Trinity, Brompton.

There is in the Archbishop's theology a deep trinitarian instinct, and comprehension of the redemptive and transformatory work of the Cross and Resurrection. Raised in Welsh nonconformity it was as he was entering adolescence that he discovered the local Church in Wales parish, where he was nurtured by a gifted priest whose door seemed always open to him. A brilliant degree in theology at Cambridge was followed by a DPhil from Oxford, but during this time Williams was considering what his life's vocation might be -- and the setting in which he should exercise it.

His trinitarian bias (and straggly beard!) demonstrates how drawn he was to Orthodoxy, a particular Russian theologian being the subject of his doctoral work, before settling back into the tradition in which he had thrived. Yet what has enriched his Anglicanism has been a profound appreciation for the spirituality and theological discipline of Orthodoxy. He has written movingly about the place of icons in the Christian's relationship with God, as well as seeking to understand the nature of our own discipleship and spiritual growth as invitees into the community of the Godhead that is the Holy Trinity.

The reason I think many misunderstand, (some deliberately), Rowan Williams is that as with almost every individual of huge intellect, his approach is more nuanced than most of us properly appreciate. This is not that he deliberately sets out to be fuzzy or inconclusive, but that he sees facets of the panorama that most of us tend to overlook. I, for one, am grateful that this is so for a lesser leader would perhaps have had trouble guiding us through the complexities of this present quagmire.

Rowan Williams is a man not only of significant spirituality, but of genuine sensitivity. He confessed to me that while there are encouraging signs in the life of the Church of England, it is the Communion that weighs heavily upon him, keeping him awake at night. His task is hardly enviable, yet he is determined to keep all the parties talking to one another as long as possible, although as far as he is concerned the content of the Windsor Report can neither be dodged or disposed of. He longs to hold the Communion together, but recognizes that this is an uphill battle.

Just as I misunderstood Rowan Williams because I wanted to read him through my own color of glasses, I would suggest that others at the more liberal end of the spectrum have misunderstood him because they have sought to read him through their own particular set of lenses. The point really is that he cannot be so readily pinned down by anyone whose viewpoint is governed by a particular agenda.

Once in a while you meet someone who you really want to know better, moving beyond acquaintanceship to something more significant. That is how I have come to feel about the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. I know that such a relationship would be challenging, and given our differences of station, as it were, I don't know whether it will ever be possible, but at the very least I can make this man who is in the bullseye of the Anglican Communion and its worldwide mission, the subject of my prayers and the object of my respect and admiration.

6 comments:

Old and grey-headed said...

A lovely note about RW. Thank you.
You write:
"While his writing can often be turgid, to say the least, he has a reputation for preaching wonderful children's sermons."
Yes, I think I would choose 'convoluted', until I read "Silence and Honeycakes" (US title: "Where God Happens". It is chrystilnne (sp?) and very quotable. Also, he is a poet, and a good one!

tooiegoal said...

Thank you, Richard, for your thoughtful and thought provoking article on RW. He, indeed, bespeaks of Orthodoxy and holiness if he can see the totality of Anglicanism and all its various angles and nuances. I thank God for his leadership.
from another old grey-headed American Anglican who tries to have a global perspective.

Fr. Tony Clavier said...

You have the measure of the man, Richard. I fear what we shall all do to him before this era is all over.

hunt said...

I am most happy to read this expression. Coming, as I do, from an area of evangelical enthusiasm and having no first-hand acquaitance with him, my prejudice was the same as the author. But reading this was greatly enlightening and encouraging. Thank you.
I would also echo what fr. tony clavier expressed. To modify and perhaps make more accurate a trite phrase - "We do not tolerate wise men gladly"

Dave said...

I happened upon this page quite by accident after Googling RW (in truth, to find out whether or not his wife really does do some work at HTB). What a splendid, balanced and thoughtful note. My mind has been changed.

Richard Kew said...

Dave, Yes, Jane Williams really does work in the school of theology that is part of HTB. That school gets its accreditation through Ridley Hall, Cambridge, to which I am moving in a few weeks.