I’ve long been interested in Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury for the last ten years (though sadly not for much longer). He’s had many critics in both the evangelical and liberal wings of the Anglican church; the liberals predictably feeling that he’s taken too traditionalist a stance on issues like gay marriage, and the conservatives that he’s not taken a firm enough line. He’s been caricatured as a ponderous academic out of touch with, and unable to communicate clearly with, the real world or real people. He’s not always been seen as a tough, strong, clear and decisive leader. He’s even had shrill voices accusing him of being a druid and a pagan (misunderstanding his membership of the non-religious Welsh Gorsedd of Bards).
I have to say that all of these things have rather drawn me to him than the opposite. He has always struck me as a deep, wise, thoughtful, humble, gracious, godly and profoundly spiritual man, doing his utmost to do the near-impossible in holding together a deeply and bitterly divided church.
Then this Sunday (18 March, Mothering Sunday) he came to preside and preach at our church’s 20th birthday celebrations. This was a service I’m unlikely to forget in a hurry.
Some of my friends stayed away from church on Sunday, fearing with some justification that the whole occasion might merely descend into an exercise in Christian celebrity-worship. I’m sure Rowan would have understood and even agreed with their concerns; he showed no sign of wishing anyone to make a fuss about him – quite the contrary. He was very clear – and with genuine rather than false humility – that he was just a servant of God and of God’s people, here to worship, celebrate and thank Jesus with us and not to distract us from that in any way.
In person, Rowan Williams is physically imposing and yet simultaneously self-effacing. With his natural tonsure, his white beard and white hooded robe he looks like a cross between Gandalf, a kindly grandfather, a monk, and the popular white-haired depiction of God. He exudes something of the character or atmosphere of all these as well. Watching and listening to him I felt tremendously drawn to him, even to the extent of thinking that I’d like him to be a member of my family (or I’d like to be a member of his).
In speech, he had nothing of the pontifical ponderousness or academic abstruseness that he’s sometimes been accused of. He was clear, simple and direct and held the attention. And what he said hit straight to the mark as far as I was concerned. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube via the clip at the end of this post, but here’s an excerpt:
‘God is looking down at a world of people that will not have mercy on themselves; who will not do what their life, their health, requires; running around with their eyes screwed shut, banging into the walls, banging into each other; and the one thing they will not do is open their eyes. That’s what it means when St Paul says we are naturally objects of wrath, “children of wrath” in the old translation, that we are experiencing in our lives the effect of our untruthfulness… not God feeling cross with us; it’s what we do to ourselves. And God who so loved the world that he gave his only son, God looks down on this miserable spectacle of all of us making ourselves injured… God looks at all that with an unimaginable depth of pity and compassion, a depth of pity and compassion that brings him right into the middle of that world: the light has come into our midst, it is now possible, truly possible for the first time perhaps, for us to open our eyes and see who we are, who God is… If after all that we keep our eyes screwed shut, well, says Jesus in the gospel of John, that’s the judgement, that’s the judgement we have passed on ourselves, the damage we do to ourselves by our unwillingness to see ourselves truthfully and to see God truthfully.
And what is it that persuades us to open our eyes?… Perhaps it’s that as we rush around the room with our eyes screwed shut a hand takes our hand, a hand is laid over our shoulder, a voice speaks in our ear, saying “hold on, be quiet, trust, it’s all right to know the truth, the light won’t kill you, truth is grace”…’
Some of course will see this as a typical woolly liberal interpretation of scripture, trying to make difficult biblical passages about wrath and judgement fit into a nice and fluffy view of God. Needless to say, I would disagree quite strongly; I believe that Rowan Williams’s interpretation comes close to the true heart and character of the God that countless people (including me, and clearly including Rowan himself) have experienced in Christ.
Rowan Williams made a profound impression on me, and at the risk of proving my celebrity-avoiding friends right I’ve become a shameless fan. I’d like to leave you with a rather lengthy quote about another, slightly more dramatic service that Rowan attended, as reported by former Bishop Tom Wright in his excellent Virtue Reborn:
I was at a huge service in an enormous church, with wonderful music, flowing robes, and a crowd of thousands that only just fit into the large building. Suddenly, about ten minutes into the service, some men pushed their way roughly past the ushers at the doors, injuring one of them, and ran into the church shouting slogans. The disruption was caused by a protest group that had recently acquired a national reputation for behaving outrageously in pursuit of their cause (which, by the way, had nothing directly to do with the church or any of the people there).
The protesters reached the front of the church, shouted some more slogans, waved their placards, and then simply stopped. Clearly they hadn’t decided what they would do next… But nobody in the church had any idea what to do next, either. The ushers were clearly frightened and unsure how to proceed… Scuffles, and the violence necessary in restraint, would have soured the atmosphere even more. As all of us wondered what would happen next, one of the senior clergy walked quietly across toward the leading protester and had a short, quiet conversation with him. He then walked over to the presiding cleric for another brief conversation. A moment later the presiding cleric spoke to the congregation, informing them that ‘our unexpected guests’ had agreed to state their case for three minutes and then leave the building quietly.
How was it done? I was in awe of the man who had stepped forward and spoken with the protester. I wouldn’t have known what on earth to say. I would have been frightened what the group of protesters might do if I approached, and worried that I would make matters worse… Apparently, as I discovered later, he pointed out that they had made their protest and that if they continued much longer they would alienate more people than they influenced. But how had he been able to do that so calmly?
Then I remembered, many years before, watching the same cleric walk down a street in one of our busy cities. Dressed as a priest, he stopped quietly and sat down on the pavement to chat with a group of men who were drinking meth[s]. He made his approach look natural, and they received it that way. He was on his way to preach at a service, but he didn’t appear to be in a hurry. Such meetings were obviously already a habit. He knew, from long experience, how to speak calmly and wisely with people of whom most others would be afraid. By the time it came to that great service, fifteen or more years later, the habit of faith, love, and courage had long been fully formed. And when the moment came, he didn’t have to think about it… He knew, authentically, what to do and how to do it. I have learned many things from that man, but this one stands out. His name is Rowan Williams.
I’m sad that Rowan is stepping down as Archbishop; I think he has truly – and quietly – been one of the greats and that his contribution has been profound and far-reaching. He is a wise, good and godly man and his resignation is a great loss for the church and for the wider society. For what it’s worth, I wish him all peace, joy and blessing, and I’m very glad to have been able to share worship with him.