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.


Anonymous said...

What has the Archbishop of Canterbury got to do with "Augustines chair"---whatever that could possibly be.

The church of England was founded by a man who was a serial killer, a mass murderer, and the "greatest" thief and vandal in English history.

David said...

A Benedictine monk named Augustine was the first Archnishop of Canterbury. Not to be confused with the patriarchal Augustine of Hippo.