“Take the long view; don’t be bullied by the media; refresh yourself at the grassroots of the Church… hold on to what brings joy in the great work of God; look at Jesus.”
Sage advice from the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to his successor.
Taonga put the following questions to Dr Williams before he left Aotearoa New Zealand – and, immediately in the wake of a tumultuous Church of England synod, he graciously responded.
Brian Thomas devised the questions, Lloyd Ashton chased the interview – and in London, Marie Papworth asked the questions on our behalf.
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TAONGA: You’ve weathered many storms as Archbishop. How do you manage it? What form of prayer works best for you? And how exactly do you refresh yourself physically?
ARCHBISHOP: Weathering storms requires some robust anchorage, and wouldn’t be remotely possible without daily periods of stillness, when I try, first thing in the morning, simply to open up to God.
Patchy results, thanks to the butterfly mind darting around, but nothing else will do.
Physical exercise is something I’ve never been brilliant about! But I walk whenever I can – and sometimes play the piano (badly)…
TAONGA: Who (apart from Jesus) would you rank as your greatest spiritual mentors? Both living and dead?
St Augustine is my hero among the saints, complex and flawed though he was; among more recent figures, I have a deep devotion to Bonhoeffer and to the Dutch/ Jewish martyr of Auschwitz, Etty Hillesum, and in the Church of England to the memory of Archbishop Michael Ramsey.
In my personal experience – my vicar when I was a teenager, and the Benedictine monk who was my spiritual director for years, both now departed.
One of my most important mentors now is a hermit living in West Wales. Another – though he probably doesn’t realise it! – is a former student of mine, a priest and writer who always strikes me as touchstone of absolute integrity.
TAONGA: People are living longer, which poses huge problems for their care. Is this something that the Church should be prioritizing in its mission? In practical ways such as the provision of home care or resthomes?
Yes: the Church has a great role in helping people take the older population seriously and use their gifts. It isn’t good enough just to focus on youth, important as this is; we do need to show that we can cope with the experience and wisdom and sometimes lack of illusion of older folk.
TAONGA: It’s sometimes said that Western society is in the thrall of two gods: Material Gain and Individual Advantage. What’s your Christian response to social competitiveness and the burgeoning power of “the Market”?
‘The market’ doesn’t exist: human agents do. We can’t shift responsibility by pretending that something else is making us do things. We have choices, and to believe otherwise is the real meaning of idolatry in our age.
TAONGA: In your role as Archbishop, you have been strongly critical of government policies that favour the rich and penalize the poor. And you have been criticized for it. Should church leaders everywhere be more vocal on such issues, whatever the cost?
I don’t see any alternative to Church leaders speaking for the poor – and better still, working to make the space for the poor to speak for themselves. The whole of the Bible assumes that God wants to give a voice to those who have no voice; and Jesus is consistently challenging the ways in which exclusion works in his world.
TAONGA: We seem to be seeing, in the West at least, two apparently contradictory trends: A growing interest in spirituality, and a declining interest in institutional religion. Can these two trends be reconciled?
Between individual spirituality (which can be a bit self-indulgent) and institutional religion, there is something else – genuinely corporate religious practice and spiritual discipline, discovered in small groups seeking to bring a tradition alive in new ways, often linked to some centre of renewal like Taize, or Iona in Scotland. I think this is where our energy should be focused.
TAONGA: Religious plurality is giving riseto all sorts of tensions in our daily lives: the wearing of religious dress and symbols, for example, and even personal witness in the workplace. What would you want to say to a devout Christian who fears that Christianity is “under siege” from secularism and other faiths?
We should be ready to defend the freedom of all believers to manifest their religious identity. I’ve sometimes tried to distinguish aggressive secularism, which wants religion to be invisible, from proper public secularity, which allows all faiths to flourish without privileging any; this is fine for believers.
We shouldn’t panic too much about all this, though: what’s important is to defend religious freedoms at every level in the name of a comprehensively fair democratic philosophy, and allow the public square to be inhabited by a real diversity of visible identities and views, learning to work together for everyone’s welfare.
TAONGA: Statistics point to a downturn in mainstream Christianity – in the West, at least. The pews of many parish churches, for example, are thinning and greying. What can the institutional Church do to counteract this?
We’ve tried to respond in the UK with the Fresh Expressions movement – getting out to where people are and helping to generate small new communities for less formal worship and open-ended discussion outside the traditional parish structure.
The latest research suggests 60,000 people have been reached in this way, about half of them with no prior contact at all with church. In the Church of England alone, we reckon that the numerical equivalent of two new dioceses has been added in the last few years by this style of outreach.
And these new groups do want to be part of a baptising and Eucharistic community; they don’t want to be freefloating.
The secret is to go where people are, work with the rhythms that make sense to them, deal with the questions they are actually asking, and see what transforming new patterns emerge.
Often what emerges is very deep and disciplined, and open to the greatest riches of ‘mainstream’ tradition. But we get to that point by close attention to the reality of the people we’re trying to reach.
TAONGA: What have been the highlights of your time as Archbishop?
Some of the travelling – especially to the Solomons, to Zimbabwe, Congo, Pakistan, to the smaller churches which live with profound hardship in faith and hope and love.
And in the UK, although the great state occasions are memorable, what I think of most are the regular visits to schools and parishes. The highlights are the routine!
TAONGA: Finally, what would you want to say to your successor?
Take the long view; don’t be bullied by the media; refresh yourself at the grassroots of the Church; be obstinate in making time for your own human interests and your family so that you don’t get two-dimensional; remember you’re loved; hold on to what brings joy in the great work of God; look at Jesus.