Monday, December 29, 2008

What can we learn from all this?

The year that came from hell
It is no exaggeration to say that 2008 was a hell of a year and there are few of us who walk away from it without some kind of wound or, at least, a heightened sense of anxiety. At a meeting the other day a colleague leaned over during one of those dead-time moments and whispered that a friend who last Christmas had been the epitome of success had that very morning filed for bankruptcy as a result of a real estate deal gone badly wrong.

Each day the news from either side of the Atlantic (and Pacific) seems to bring another sad story of a business or chain of stores seeking protection or closing down. In the USA the auto makers teeter on the brink of ruin, while in the UK we have watched that venerable institution, Woolworths, close its doors for the last time. Japan reports a whopping drop in export production, in China there are fears of unrest because of lost jobs, and in some countries there is denial that things are that bad at all. Meanwhile, those at the bottom of the pile of world prosperity are being hit the hardest.

For years now we have crowed about the arrival of globalization, and while we have focused on the positives of this movement within planetary culture, we have forgotten that if we internationalize the economy then when it tanks it will tank globally. Among the earlier victims of this new kind of world emerging a generation ago was world socialism and the Communist bloc, could it be now that the capitalism of the 'free world' as we have known it is being weighed in the balance (and found wanting)? It is because we have no answer to that question that our fears are magnified.

And the news has gone on being either bad or worse. I have in the last few months found myself praying as one appalling thing after another comes up on the media, "O Lord, please give us some good news, please, please, please..." I had often wondered how it must have been for my parents' generation in England to live through the first three years of World War Two when the news each day was one of backs against the wall, retreat, and one defeat after another as Britain sought to hold tyranny at bay. While this is nothing like as bad, I think I now have an idea.

Back last summer people were keeping their worst fears to themselves, but I have discovered there are now people of influence who are prepared, in private at least, to express them. There was a particularly grim face on a very successful man I met with several months ago who not only declared that he thought things would get worse for quite a while before starting to improve, but also that he feared massive civil unrest on the streets of Britain and the USA -- now there's a comforting thought!

Add to this the black humor of friends who have now decided to postpone retirement because, as they put it, their 401k had been reduced to a 201k, or to see well-endowed universities scrambling because their endowments have suddenly plummeted and something grips us inside. Even though I knew there would always be ups and downs, for the first time in my life I have come to realize just how fragile the economic gods we have worshipped really are. The whole financial system upon which we have depended all our lives has demonstrated that it has feet of clay, and with that realization comes fear and lack of confidence.

However, the other day when we went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's latest take on Hamlet in the West End of London, the streets were crammed with shoppers, and the same was true in Cambridge yesterday when I slipped into town to buy socks to replace the increasing number of holey ones among my aging collection. Yet on the streets there wasn't the lightheartedness that normally goes with after-Christmas sales and coming off the holiday season, rather the mood was a somber one of let's get the things we need and want while we can and while the prices are low, or put another way, "Eat, drink, and be merry..."

Silver Linings?
An array of black thoughts has been churning in my mind for so long that some days ago as a spiritual exercise I began trying to see if there are any silver linings in these glowering economic clouds that have put down the mighty from their seats. The Boomer materialist in me doesn't like the idea of hardship and discomfort, and I truly hope that things will not be as bad as the Cassandras suggest. Yet I also realize that there are a lot of us who have lived so long with seemingly endless prosperity that a little sabbatical from plenty might be healthy.

My sense is that this is not just a rather deep pothole which is rattling the undercarriage of our world, more a significant turning of the page. We have come to a major intersection, and this is reality check -- a reminder to us that the world's idols have feet of clay. For a long time we have been coddled and now that the tide has been going out we have to dig deep and ask some really fundamental questions about the sort of people we are, the lives we should live, and the values that will shape them. Society as a whole is being asked to do the sort of inner hard work that the bereaved have to do when they lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, and to build a new life for themselves in the wake of it.

A lot of us have been used to paying lip service to the idea that life is about more than things and their accumulation, and then having placated our consciences with our words have got on with the business of getting more. Now the opportunity of living more simply is before us and once again we are being asked how we are going to handle our patterns of consumption. Are we ready to ask ourselves whether having lots of things has actually been good of us, and what we might be able to do to begin cutting our cloth somewhat differently?

Living more simply and frugally
I have entertained private thoughts for a long time that it is the height of madness to build a national or a global economy on a throwaway materialism that uses every instrument in its toolbox to urge us to consume more percentage points of stuff every year. I am not an economist, but I think we should consider whether the affluent consumerist way isn't one huge Ponzi scheme as we borrow from the future to fuel our present. And I mean all of us, because whether we like it or not we are all implicated.

If I ever made New Year resolutions this year one would be for the rest of my life that I will try not to consume just for the sake of consuming, or to purchase things that can only be discarded when they go wrong rather than being repairable -- these would be a start down a different pathway. The trouble is that right now that is almost impossible.

Now is the time for renewed economic responsibility, and perhaps we Christians should be working on removing whole trees lodged in our own eyes before encouraging our fellow-citizens to work on the logs in their own. Several bishops in Britain have been castigated by the press for making pronouncement about economic things in which they have no expertize. Actually, they are asking ethical questions, and while they may not understand all the macro-economic implications of their words they have asked us to consider whether the emperor has clothes.

A time of hope
If this is a time to question the pattern of our lifestyle, then it is also a time for hope which comes with a fresh beginning. That may sound a weird thing to say as we consider that throughout the world before this whole crisis winds down millions will have lost their means of livelihood, so I write advisedly. Yes, this has been a huge hiccup in the way our culture organizes itself and governments have been doing their best to find a way through, and they deserve the fervent encouragement of our prayers. But perhaps we should see this time as an opportunity.

Here is the opportunity to launche into a major overhaul of the world we inherited from our forebears and have made a bit of a mess of. Here is a massive and exciting challenge for the rising generation of late cohort GenXers and the Millennials -- to reconstruct a different kind of world that is governed by a fresh vision and set of values, and we might say that it wouldbe helpful if it had a smaller carbon footprint. The task for those of us who are older is to be there for them, prepared to roll up our sleeves and work alongside them on this truly massive project. The is a 'Marshall Plan' of huge proportions. As Christians play their part in this, they are the church seeking to be the leaven, for there are facets of this that have a truly Kingdom flavor.

In a way, if global reconfiguration for the 21st Century began with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, could it be that 2009 is the year when the great 21st Century task facing the US, UK, and all the nations together actually comes into focus in the wake of this great economic bruhaha?

I have been rereading John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address which he delivered on January 20, 1961. I was a high schooler in England when it was delivered but despite the fact tha America was a long way away and I never thought I would be part of it, Kennedy's words challenged me to an idealism that has never fully gone away. It is fifty years since those words we await the arrival on the scene of another visionary president -- and coincidentally, his Inaugural Address will be delivered on January 20. Whatever our varied political biases, we are obliged by Scripture to wish him well and pray for him as he takes on leadership with expectations laid upon him that no man nor woman could fulfill. It is within this environment that we are called to be the Church of God for a different kind of culture.

Perhaps we should bring into the present Kennedy's words from the steps of the Capitol a half century ago: "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world." If this signalled a turning point in 1961, how much more in 2009? While Kennedy spoke to the fifty States of the Union, this year Obama will speak to (and perhaps f0r) a listening world.

Meanwhile, while Presidents are important we are the followers and the family of the Prince of Peace, called to live as part of this generation at a most difficult time. What sort of fire are we going to light so that its glow might be seen around the world?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Rowan's Rule"

Rowan's Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop, by Rupert Shortt.
(London: Hodder and Stoughton. 2008)

Rowan's Rule is a fascinating book, not only tracing the life and ministry of the present incumbent of Augustine's Chair, but also seeking to introduce us afresh to one of the most complex individuals. The book confirms what I have been saying about Williams for a number of years: that he cannot be pigeon-holed by simplistic labels and shallow formulas, especially those that might be polarized and polarizing.

Rupert Shortt reckons that Williams is probably the most brilliant Archbishop of Canterbury since Anselm, while at the same time being one who wears his intellectual capacity humbly. This is a huge claim to make when there have been incumbents such as Michael Ramsey of recent memory, and Thomas Cranmer of the Reformation years. The reader will have to judge whether Shortt has succeeded in backing up his assertion, but he certainly makes a strong case.

The Archbishop is a man who in conversation with those who lack his ability treats them as equals and listens to them with great care and an open mind, always willing to modify his own views if a case is made to justify it. Many who are as gifted take great delight putting interlocutors in their place, but not Rowan Williams; indeed, it could be that he is prone to take a little too seriously some of the input that he receives. This is a mark of Archbishop Williams' genuine godliness, and a humility that is, perhaps, his greatest strength. It is probably that humility is one of his qualities that is least understood either in or beyond the church.

There is little doubt that the Archbishop occasionally misspeaks, and in recent years he has occasionally handled things flat-footedly, but these shortcomings should be seen in light of the onslaughts that have been launched against him -- often way out of all proportion to the 'offence' that he might be accused of committing. A lesser man would have fired back withering broadsides in response, but not Dr. Williams. Instead, he has worked to listen to all points of view, taken on board what he can, and whatever difficulties he has been dealing with to keep as many people at the table as possible. It has been a kind of crucifixion, but he has borne it with great grace.

Being in the presence of Rowan Williams is like being with a transparently holy Orthodox monk or patriarch. This is hardly very surprising given the amount that he has drawn upon Orthodox spirituality and wisdom in his own thinking and personal Christian discipleship. The fruit of a recently sabbatical was a substantial book dealing with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and it stands as evidence of his significant grasp of Russian culture and spirituality, into which he began to dig when he was undertaking his doctoral work -- to the extent that he taught himself Russian.

Yet having been immersed in the treasures of Orthodoxy, Williams has then mediates them to others with a distinctly Anglican appreciation and focused by an Anglican lens. But in a way it is much more than Anglican because his earliest perceptions were shaped by the noncomformist Chapel culture of his native Wales in which he was reared until his teens. In the Williams family tree are several minor leaders of Welsh noncomformity, as well as the likelihood of poets and hymnwriters. Poetry, it seems, is well imbedded in the Williams DNA!

One of the points that Rupert Shortt seems determined to make is that despite his willingness to undertake academic exploration and theological surmise, Rowan Williams not only owes a lot to Orthodoxy (with a capital 'O'), but is also theologically intensely orthodox in terms of his trinitarian faith that is focused on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and mediated to us through Scripture. While he will rhuminate in an exploratory manner over issues and doctrinal challenges, his faith is catholic, and he is not prone to press his intellectual inquiry upon then church, or to go off on wild goose chases after theological notions that curry favor with the present age but lack roots and foundations in that which the church has received.

It seems there was a time when Rowan considered the possibility of celibacy and the religious life, but he always seemed to enjoy the company of women, they enjoyed his, and eventually he settled down to marriage with a woman whose theological acumen is an excellent match and foil for him. Jane Williams is the daughter of an evangelical bishop, and her own teaching ministry now takes place as part of the theological training college that is within the nexus of Holy Trinity, Brompton. However, Jane Williams, it seems, is not without her worries for her mate. She believes that she lost her own father to the stresses placed upon him by the church, and is fearful that she could lose her husband in much the same way.

Her fears are easy to understand because Rowan Williams has the heart of a poet, and composes sensitive and perceptive verse in both English and Welsh. While I am sure he has had to develop a certain thickness of skin to deal with the things that get thrown at him, he has not grown the hide of a rhinoseros that can protect his inner being from the darts and arrows that get aimed in his direction. Being Archbishop of Canterbury is the most onerous of offices, especially in our time, and maybe the question this raises is whether he will step down from the task before he reaches normal retirement age. I suspect that if he did Oxford, Cambridge, or maybe an American university would create a chair for him so that he might finish out his ministry within the context of academia, a setting in which he is very much at home.

Meanwhile, he toils away seeking to hold the Anglican Communion together in some kind of way. Several years ago he admitted to me that it was the Communion that kept him awake at night, and since then the ongoing riot that is international Anglican life has intensified rather than subsiding. As I read Shortt's latest book on Rowan, again and again I found myself thanking God that he had called such a man to this challenge in our era.

In 2002 I was deeply disappointed by Rowan Williams' appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, but as the years have passed my assessment of him has altered. His tenacious grace has done an enormous amount to keep this fractious family of Christian churches at least on speaking terms despite the pressures of those at either end of the theological and ecclesial spectrum, as well as the actions of the occasional bomb-thrower. Maybe the best that can be done at a time like this is to keep people talking wherever possible -- and there is no better person than Rowan Williams to keep the conversation going. The final outcome of these wrenching years will probably not emerge on Rowan's watch, I suspect, but the trajectory that Anglican life will take for generations is now being set.

I find that the example of Rowan Williams calls forth from me a generosity of Spirit, and a desire in my own small way to try to emmulate his humility and gentle kindness. Although Rowan is prepared to think outside the box in ways that I consider to be tempting providence, in many respects there is not so large a gulf between his brand of catholic Anglicanism and the charitable evangelicalism which I hope occasionally characterizes my faith.

Historians are likely to spend generations picking over the archiepiscopate of Dr. Rowan Douglas Williams, but there can be little doubt that this intellectual giant and gracious pilgrim is one whose whole heart is in the business of seeking to enable the church to maintain the unity of the Spirit within the bonds of peace.