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Rowan Williams : an Abiding Attention to Christianity

This profile of Rowan Williams was written by Philip Harvey for the ‘Heroes of the Faith’ page of The Melbourne Anglican, April 2017.

Rowan Williams, as a child, grew up in a Welsh Calvinist village. We encounter this formative world of Wales throughout his writing, for example in his translation of the Nonconformist poet Ann Griffiths:

Under the dark trees, there he stands,
there he stands; shall he not draw my eyes?
I thought I knew a little
how he compels, beyond all things, but now
he stands there in the shadows. It will be
Oh, such a daybreak, such bright morning,
when I shall wake to see him
as he is.

It’s only when the family moved to another village that Rowan first encountered High Church Anglicanism, with its strong emphasis on social action and a sacramental worship that engaged all the senses.

As a young man Rowan almost became a Benedictine, a decision that his biographer Rupert Shortt avers would have disappointed some of his female friends.  Benedictinism, nevertheless, remains a strong influence in his life, perhaps most consistently in his keeping a daily prayer life.

At university Rowan became immersed in Russian Orthodoxy. He wrote his thesis on the mystical theologian Vladimir Lossky. Two of his most popular works are readings of icons and one of his more impenetrable also explores Orthodoxy, the book about Dostoevsky he wrote one holiday while Archbishop of Canterbury.
Possibly his most popular book is a wry and sympathetic reading of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (‘Silence and Honey Cakes’ (2003)) where Rowan makes the Egyptian monks of the 3rd century seem peculiarly contemporary to our own needs and experience. 

“Arsenius was famous not for physical self-denial but for silence; and if there is one virtue pretty universally recommended in the desert, it is this. Silence somehow reaches to the root of our human problem, it seems. You can lead a life of heroic labour and self-denial at the external level, refusing the comforts of food and sleep; but if you have not silence – to paraphrase St Paul, it will profit you nothing. There is a saying around in the literature describing Satan or the devils in general as the greatest of ascetics: the devil does not sleep or eat – but this does not make him holy. He is still imprisoned in that fundamental lie which is evil. And our normal habits of speech so readily reinforce that imprisonment.”

Of another monk he writes:  “Abba Pambo is represented as refusing to speak to the visiting Archbishop of Alexandria. ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech,’ says the old man, unanswerably; archbishops are regarded with healthy suspicion in most of this literature. Our words help to strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves; without silence, we shan’t get any closer to knowing who we are before God.”

That an archbishop would think suspicion of an archbishop “healthy” tells us a lot about Rowan’s own self-awareness, self-deprecation and sense of the awkwardness that exists between the role of church authority and true holiness. The question of how a truly holy person can at the same time exercise influence and control as a leader is one we encounter frequently in his writing.

I list these different attractions in Rowan’s spiritual growth to emphasise his abiding attention to Christianity in its many complex forms; hence his ability to talk authoritatively across traditions. Also, to argue that this free access to Christian traditions is a mark of Anglicanism. Rowan’s range, and comfort within that range, is partly explained by the kind of Church he chose to stay in. He has talked of Anglicanism at the Reformation being capable of accommodating “a mixture of opposite extremes”, what could be called a way of accepting very different forms of Christianity together. This connection with Christian traditions and freedom to read, hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest them is, I believe, a typical gift of Anglicanism.

Rowan shows how the via media is not just some narrow road through valleys of death but a highway where many useful and illuminating detours are available and welcome. Risk-takers and P-platers share the lanes with sightseers and Sunday drivers. It’s why I keep returning to this writing. Rowan affirms the possibilities for a questioning church; he represents the kind of church I grew up in and identify with. He is a trusted guide. Indeed, guidance as an episcopal responsibility inspires and drives his writing, whether lucid and inviting, as in his recent apologetic work, through to the most gnarly areas of the Groves of Academe. 

He talks of the Anglican imagination that “seeks to discern God in unexpected places, and to see the world itself as a kind of sacrament of God.” Notice here his connection to place: he regularly starts from a particularised place, even when that place is the whole world. 

Much of his work involves finding out things about the whole Christian experience, admiring their sheer existence, and using them to expand our awareness and thinking in new ways. The Gospel revelation is the source and foundation of his thinking in every field – ethics, social justice, philosophy, psychology, politic, science and understandably, theology, spirituality, and homiletics.

Only one person has ever read everything written by Rowan Williams, but if you want to know where to start try ‘Tokens of Trust’ (2007). This book on the Creed treats the statements as the inspiration for creative ways of trusting our experience with God, rather than primarily as a set of statements with examples following. What to make, for example, of his opening response to ‘I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth’?

“It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn’t make us approach the world and other people with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will.”

It is impossible, I think, to read this passage and not notice how quickly Rowan moves from basic theological premises to a poet’s way of illustrating how creation works when God is the mover, to expressions that pronounce a mystic’s awareness of creation, the ultimate spiritual implications of the argument. He goes from theologian to poet to mystic in the space of a page. But he still keeps in mind his broader audience:

“The scientist, of course, will tell us that at the heart of every apparently solid thing is the dance of the subatomic particles. The theologian ought to be delighted that this sort of talk puts movement and energy at the centre, but will want to add that at the heart of the subatomic particles is an action and motion still more basic, beyond measure and observation – the outpouring of life from God.”

Rowan Williams happened to be lecturing in Lower Manhattan on the morning of that decisive date for our own age, 11th September 2001. He was an eye witness to those events and could have died. Reports reveal he spent that and subsequent days ministering to those around him, preaching consolation to the traumatised in New York, and witnessing to reactions, his own and others. Some of these are recorded in his dispassionate book ‘Writing in the Dust’ (2002), where he argues calmly to stand back and consider our judgements, words that go to the heart of his question, well how do we respond? Typically, language use is of telling interest for Rowan, also where is God in all of this? 

“Last words. We have had the chance to read the messages sent by passengers on the planes to their spouses and families in the desperate last minutes; and we have seen the spiritual advice apparently given to the terrorists by one of their number, the thoughts that should have been in their minds as they approached the death they had chosen (for themselves and for others). Something of the chill of 11 September 2001 lies in the contrast. The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime. The non-religious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.”

Not long after, he became 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, a spectacular achievement that has to be placed beside the holy living of the man himself. The divisive politics of that time, both church and state, have not gone away and Rowan has written about them at length. But when I consider his approach to an issue, my mind keeps coming back to other words of his, words that better explain his temperament.

He demonstrates how our tradition gives license to all the people (clergy and laity) ways of speaking of God and our life in God through new words and new metaphors. He talks of ‘contemplative pragmatism’, “an attitude of time-taking, patient, absorbing awareness of the particular situation you are in.” While of course not unique to Anglicanism, this virtue influences much of the literature of the church. He speaks of looking “long enough and hard enough for God to come to light.” We find this ‘contemplative pragmatism’ in the way he sizes up a situation, not using hasty religious language and not exaggerating or getting enthusiastic, in the 18th century meaning of that word. 

‘Contemplative pragmatism’ is “that sense that in all things God waits, and if we wait, then somehow the two waitings become attuned.” Even his self-trained use of conditional terms, like ‘somehow’ in that last sentence, is a manoeuvre, an avoidance of dogmatic propositions, that keeps open the possibility for further discovery. This is an observable Williams’ manner in all his work.

Rowan talks about how the 17th century mystical poet Thomas Traherne. exemplifies “Platonism through autobiography, reflection on childhood, and poetry, and emphasized there very particularly, not just the sense of God pouring through the ordinary perceptions of the child and of the adult, but … that wonderful remark, ‘the Nature of the Thing confirms the Doctrine’: language is true when the nature of the thing confirms the doctrine. You simply point to the beauties of the world and don’t map it out as a system of things owned by some people and not by others.” Living that is outward directed, not possessive of its own findings, shares the world in kind. 

In ‘Anglican Identities’ (2004) Rowan Williams talks of the Anglicans discussed being “in their different ways … apologists for a theologically informed and spiritually sustained patience.” This position resonates strongly with my own experience growing up and living within a diverse complement of believing communities. It means even more now, in “an age dramatically impatient and intolerant of many sorts of learning.” Learning is itself fundamental to Anglican life, a position from which to engage securely and sensibly with the problematic mess of contemporary dialogue, rife with enforcing argument, chauvinist self-righteousness, and mindless trolling. He continues:  

“They [Anglicans] do not expect human words to solve their problems rapidly, they do not expect the Bible to yield up its treasures overnight, they do not look for the triumphant march of an ecclesiastical institution. They know that as Christians they live among immensities of meaning, live in the wake of a divine action which defies summary explanation. They take it for granted that the believer is always learning, moving in and out of speech and silence in a continuous wonder and a continuous turning inside-out of mind and feeling.” 

This abiding recourse to tradition, to Word and Sacrament, as first principle for our understanding of and progress with all presenting issues makes for exhilarating and challenging reading. 

Speaking myself as a permanent writer and reader of poetry, I connect very directly to Rowan’s own poetic vocation. He has talked of poetry as ‘The text that maps our losses and longings’, and this lifeline in his own writing has matured and strengthened. In ‘The Edge of Words’ he states, “The poet is under the discipline of routinely trying to see one thing through another; the language is marked as poetic by such obliqueness.” 

Everything Rowan Williams says and writes reveals a person with a highly developed sensitivity to language, its force, directness, instantaneousness, its subtlety, indirectness, longevity. A person though may speak three languages fluently and read at least nine languages with ease, as he does, and still not engage with language in the way we are looking at here. Because Rowan is unquestionably someone with a poetic gift.
Let me quote without comment his poem ‘Oystermouth Cemetery’:

Grass lap; the stone keels jar,

scratch quietly in the rippling soil.

The little lettered masts dip slowly

in a little breeze, the anchors here

are very deep among the shells.

Not till the gusty day

when a last angel tramples down

into the mud his dry foot hissing,

down to the clogged forgotten shingle,

till the bay boils and shakes,

Not till that day shall the cords snap

and all the little craft float stray

on unfamiliar tides, to lay their freight

on new warm shores, on those strange islands

where their tropic Easter landfall is.

Rowan writes of the Welsh poet Waldo Williams as one of those ‘inner landscape shapers’,  who “imagined his own work as a form of quiet but unyielding resistance to a hectic inarticulate violence in the mind, the feverishness that overflows in personal aggression as in wars and pogroms of all kinds.” Close readers notice the same tendency to resistance in Waldo’s namesake. Listen to Rowan’s English translation of Waldo’s refreshing catechism that becomes the poem ‘What is Man?’ :

What is believing? Watching at home

till the time arrives for welcome.

What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns

to stand alongside your old enemy.


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