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Faith in the Future

Friday 22nd February 2008

Reflections and answers to questions given by the Archbishop of Canterbury on 22 February 2008, in Great St Mary's Cambridge, at the end of a pastoral visit to the town and university of Cambridge under the title 'Faith in the Future'.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York at Great St Mary's CambridgeOn the final evening of their joint pastoral visit to Cambridge the Archbishops of Canterbury and York appeared together in a session chaired by Dr Anna Rowlands, a lecturer in the Cambridge Theological Federation.

Each Archbishop first gave a summary of his lecture on the previous evenings, and then briefly offered personal reflections on the visit. The evening ended with a series of questions submitted after each of the archbishops' main lectures. The texts here are the comments of the Archbishop of Canterbury during the course of the evening.


The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a summary of his lecture 'What Difference Does it Make?' - The Gospel in Contemporary Culture.

Click download on the right to listen to the Archbishop's summary [4Mb]


The Archbishop of Canterbury's reflected on his joint visit with the Archbishop of York to Cambridge.

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's reflections below, or click download on the right to listen [8Mb]

I want to pick out perhaps, three encounters [from over the past three days] beginning with our visit to Oakington detention centre.

The people who work at Oakington are honest and hardworking people, caught up in a system that they can't alter by their own individual decisions. They are caught up with implementing a whole lot of decisions and policies whose effect is deeply, deeply injurious to human beings in their dignity. And that brought to my mind, in the light of more general thoughts I've been sharing, something about both the intense tragedy of a lot of our situations: where many of us are caught up with implementing systems and structures which we know to be damaging, and don't see a quick way out; where many of us also would also rather not acknowledge the reality of the damage we do individually, or corporately, as a person, as a nation. And I came away from Oakington feeling the intense shame that it's unavoidable to feel about such an institution in our country, where human dignity is systematically denied, and where people are pushed to the edge of things: a sense of the often inarticulate passion for understanding, acceptance and meaning that you hear from people in those marginal situations; a strengthened sense of glory and of tragedy, of the extraordinary beauty that comes through in human beings even in dreadful situations; and the ways in which our common life, our habits deny that and stifle it. That was one encounter – as you might say – 'on the edge'.

But there are different kinds of edge: there's not only the social edge, the marginal people who suffer because of poverty, inarticulacy, getting into trouble with the law, being swept up into systems they don't understand. There's another kind of 'living on the edge' which I discovered a bit about at lunchtime today, visiting a major scientific research unit, and getting from there a sense of the excitement and the enormous risk of scientific enquiry – another kind of opening to glory – though they'd probably all be rather embarrassed if I said it to them in those terms. What I saw in one or two people in that institute was joy and a love in their work, which was quite infectious. I'm an absolute scientific illiterate, and I imagine that before I arrived there must have been people – as it were – scaling down and down and down what they were going to say to me! But what communicated itself was actually, very precisely, a sense of the joy and privilege of not knowing, of being in a world constantly inviting you into new perspectives and into new realities which were potentially very dangerous and very difficult, and yet which couldn't somehow be wholly avoided. And coming out of that, from a couple of them in particular, some very marked concerns about how you shaped and understood a real vital sense of what was distinctively human in all this. Living on another kind of edge, but the edge where you look not into the abyss of human suffering, but somehow into the endlessness of a universe which is alive with undiscovered and undisclosed meanings. I felt it was, in a strange way, a quite prayerful place, though most of the people there may not have known quite what prayer was or to whom it might be made; yet the attitude there showed me a little bit more about prayer than some of what I occasionally see in religious practice!

And going straight from there to the Emmaus Community in Landbeach, we watched people working alongside the homeless in ways which allowed the homeless the dignity of producing things, selling things, managing business. It's one of the distinctive things about the Emmaus Community: that's how it deals with homelessness. Not through soup kitchens, not through ambulance work, but through trying to give people a sense of responsibility for what they're doing and value in their labour. Now the Emmaus Community at Landbeach is literally on the edge of the town, right next to the road. It looks and feels a bit isolated at first sight, only you realize as you listen to people talking about it, that what they're doing is something deeply central about human dignity, restoring to people on the edge – those without leverage or power – some sense of their worth, and doing so in a very distinctive way. Because there are no managers and managed and offices or clients: there is a community where everybody shares in the decision-making and the common management of the business – the things that are made and marketed there and the second-hand things that are sold there - it's all managed jointly. And there again, glory, a sense of dignity, a sense of people responding to a call, a sense of something very fundamental being uncovered about humanity as such and a sense of how, in spite of Oakington, human beings are still capable of living alongside each other more deeply and demandingly than the world often imagines.

And so as I look back at these two or three days, I don't actually feel as though I've been shunted from pillar to post trying to cope with vastly and unmanageably different contexts, but that there's been a real continuity between what's happening in Oakington, Emmaus, the University, the whole thing. Because what we've been trying to find words for is, a world to believe in, that is, a coherent vision in which we may stand honestly and hopefully and joyfully. And all these experiences of what might be, literally, edgy places, frontier places and experiences, somehow have been weaving together, and I think that's the impact on myself that I've been grateful for.

Bishops and Archbishops are paid to natter quite a lot, and you can find the words, and sometimes you throw the words ahead of you rather like somebody climbing a rock face, you hope they catch somewhere and you can pull yourself up. But what helps you pull yourself up is the reality, the raw, human reality that's around and makes those words not just words, and gives you something to take away, which is a sense of words made flesh.


The Archbishop of Canterbury reponded to questions put by Dr Rowlands. 

Read a transcript of the questions and answers below, or click download on the right to listen [27Mb]


Do you find it easy to believe?


I don't find it easy to lead a life worthy of my belief. I think that's where the shoe pinches most acutely. I think I can only say I find it natural to believe, or at least I can't imagine living without that belief. It's been part of me for all my adult life and quite a bit of my pre-adult life as well. And to say its part of me, in that sense, doesn't mean it's easy, meaning 'oh well, I never give it a second thought' or 'it's all perfectly obvious', it just means that I can't quite see how else to imagine and inhabit the world. But the difficult thing is living as if I meant it and I would guess that's not just my problem, though it may be more my problem than many other people's problem. Because what I believe is something which puts my life into such a radically truthful perspective, that it does frighten me, as I said on Wednesday – because I wasn't talking just about them but about us/me - when talking about allergy to the truth and the fear that comes with it. So, not easy in the sense of 'it's obvious, no problems', not difficult in the sense that I'm daily struggling to make sense of a really difficult conundrum, but a place where I can't imagine not living, and which is constantly, unsparingly difficult to make real, in my actions and choices.

What would be your message to corporate business, in the light of the Church's message?

I suppose one message might be 'repent and believe the gospel' Because, in its original context that is not a word threatening condemnation, it's saying once again, 'what are you about, what are your priorities? Where do you want to be?' Repentance, as the biblical scholars say, is changing your mind. It's deciding to live in a new frame of reference and not imagining that there are no choices. And so to corporate business, I think, I'd want to say 'how are you going to put those skills, which are so abundant, those energies which are so intense, to the service of something beyond simply profit, for the sake of the world?' Occasionally I become a tiny bit impatient with people who talk about the real world of business or economics ... thereal world is bigger than any of these. I'd hope that those who are deeply involved in the business community, recognize their humanity in its fullness and are constantly asking the question 'how do I put what's here to the service of something that humanizes, rather than the opposite, in our world?' Repent and believe the gospel: believe it's possible, believe that by the grace of God, in the face of Christ, change can happen.

We know that the Archbishop has made his stance on Zimbabwe known, but what is the Anglican Church as a whole doing to actively ameliorate the political situation there?

I would like to pay some tribute to the Church in the Province of Central Africa, which, after a difficult few years, has recently rallied to support the opposition in the Diocese of Harare and Zimbabwe, it has recovered some of its edge in that difficult situation. I met recently with the Dean of the Anglican Province of Central Africa, to talk about some of these things, and I think they are now taking some considerable risks and need all our prayers.

What can, or should, we as individuals do in our everyday lives, to help mend society?

A threat to social cohesion is the constant vilification of young people – by the media and others – because of their use of alcohol. Is it not time that the Church, as the body of Christ, makes a call on our society to take collective responsibility for alcohol problems?

I'm grateful for the question because it flags up something which has been of considerable concern to me recently. A few weeks ago I said something about the problem of the binge drinking culture and the way in which twenty-four hour licensing was not exactly a very constructive response to that challenge. But I'm very struck by the way the questioner identifies the problem as the way in which society scapegoats the young for this, and of course it's not simply the young. It is, as the question indicates, a problem for everybody and its partly a problem about how we as a society aren't very good at knowing how to manage our public space in a civilized way. A lot of public space in our cities is unattractive, desolate and invites vandalism and neglect and violence. It doesn't look as if it's a habitation for human beings who are taken seriously. I think those are some real issues we have to address, simply about planning. The second thing to say, is that we haven't in Britain got a very good record of handling alcohol use, generally, all that well in the last couple of decades, because it is not only teenagers who have an issue about binge drinking, it's young adults and it's others. And that of course suggests some really disturbing hinterland of boredom, discontent, resentment about the limits of our everyday life, an incapacity to manage everyday reality which is a bit scary. So I think we need to tackle it at that level, and I do hope that the churches may, without being just censorious, help people to see what those underlying questions are.

Some years ago I remember saying that I thought one of our problems as a society was that we frequently sounded desperately bored, and that's a very strange attitude for human beings to adopt in a world of immeasurable variety and challenge, and I would say as a believer, divine goodness and the capacity of living in the moment. So, what's going on? It's not only about alcohol, it's about other kinds of substance abuse, about the all too ready confusion of recreation with the search for oblivion that recreational drinking – that's always been part of human culture it seems, and yet more recently we've come to regard it as a way of blotting out the tedium and difficulty of ordinary life, and to do that on a rather large scale. So, I haven't got any great social recipes to resolve this. I'd like to think that we were able to approach much more constructively some of the questions about what it is that younger people in our society need in terms of recreational space, public space, such as non-alcoholic bars, places to meet, and places for activity (which are not in huge supply). Somebody noted this morning in the discussion I mentioned, that in the Arbury Estate the largest piece of public ground was decorated with a large notice saying 'no ball games', which is of course very typical of lots of public spaces. I think it's perhaps time that we asked whether that was a sensible kind of notice to put up or message to give: that the only recreation you're allowed to indulge in in public spaces is to sit around, be a nuisance and get drunk. So there's lots to do, but I'm glad that we are able to move away from just that scapegoating of the young in this respect; it is a problem for all of us.

In today's world, as a young-ish parent, how can I not be anxious if my child is late home from school?

Anxiety goes with the turf in parenthood. That's the bottom line. All allowances made, there are very few short cuts out of anxiety for parents, however much you try not to communicate that anxiety to them. But I quite agree that confidence instills confidence, and that means that if you are anxious about this as a possibility, then there are things that can be done to equip children to cope better. You can try to make sure that children are coming out of school with somebody, traveling with a friend. You can, beyond a certain age, give them mobile phones. You can try and make some very basic, prosaic steps in helping them communicate any problems or crises that arise. And, speaking as a parent, I've found that that's actually the most anxiety-reducing strategy that I know, just making sure that communication is open, and you can be reasonably certain that somebody's not going to be on their own.

Do you think there is anything we're in danger of not seeing, or neglecting, as a result of living in close proximity to the gospel?

If we genuinely live in close proximity to the gospel, we ought to be seeing things; we ought to have our eyes open. The effect of proximity to the good news should be a kind of radical honesty in our approach to the world, a capacity for vision. I believe that, with all my heart. But I suspect that the questioner may also have in mind what it is that we may be in danger of not seeing, if we're living not so much in close proximity to the gospel, as in close proximity to religion. I think that if that's where we've living and how we're living, maybe one of the things that we don't see is the actual frustration and even sometimes near anguish of somebody who would like to see and can't, and who doesn't know what it is that the religious person claims to be seeing and yet might quite like to be able to see it. You can become so wrapped up in what I earlier called the sense of inevitability about faith, that you just don't see why someone doesn't see. Some of you may recall that a while back I did a radio programme with John Humphrys about this, a man for whom I've got immense affection as well as respect. For me one of the poignant and challenging things in that and subsequent less public conversations has been that there is a man who really does want to know what it is that I'm talking about. And to the person who says that, I'd go back to what I said earlier on this evening: come and see is not just putting your head round the door, come and see is something about finding a way of sharing some of the perspective, practice, and positioning of religious people, long enough for that imperceptible awareness to take root. It may not necessarily lead you all the way to belief. It may at least help you see what it is that's being talked about, and that's why if you can't see at once, I don't think there's something wrong with you: St Paul and St Augustine spent quite a bit of their adult lives not seeing, and Gerard Manley Hopkins in one of his poems has a contrast between the blinding immediacy of Paul seeing and St Augustine's long drawn out, laborious, very gradual and very reluctant wriggling himself into a position when he just about sees what it's sort of about ... and still can't make the decision for a longer time yet. And there's all that which I think believers have to be immensely aware of; patient with; sensitive to; have respect for; rather than just trying to rush people into a commitment that their experience, their habits of mind and heart don't yet make possible. So no, there's not something wrong with you, as if God has decided well in advance 'she's going to believe and he's not'. I don't really hold with that kind of theology. I think we all have that turning in the darkness towards the source of life, the worm under the soil, as it were. And how long it takes that to reach the light and respond will vary as widely as the difference between every human being. And, to speak very personally for a moment, in such experience as I've had of walking with people towards faith, sitting with them while this exploration is going on and trying to help them towards a decision or to discovery, I've been sometimes surprised, saddened, disoriented by how long it can take and sometimes absolutely astonished by how rapidly change can occur. I stand back in some amazement at the mysteriousness of it because I don't know how other people work. The question is 'just how much time are you prepared to give it? How can someone be encouraged to be where seeing is a little bit more possible? And grow through that. And it is very important to religious believers to know something about that sheer human variety and how people respond, and not be too frightened of it. As is often said 'God makes the converts, not you or me', and God's scale and timing is God's business.

I very much agree that although literature and the arts offer a wider view and reality, in what way does the reality of Christian belief differ from that revealed by literature? Is there in fact a difference? Can the fact that something widens your vision, be proof of Christian historical fact?

Widening of vision in itself doesn't prove any historical fact. You've got to do the historical work; you can't just say 'Oh it sounds wonderful, so it must be true'. I'm very happy to do some of the historical work: happy to say why I believe the gospels are reliable texts: why I believe the resurrection is not a myth or a fiction: why I believe that the act of God in Jesus Christ is anchored in highly specific events in human history. So I wouldn't want to have a short cut there. But what's the difference? I think what I'd have to say there is that the literary broadening and enriching of mind and heart that most of us recognize in some ways, is a challenge to our lazy or self-indulgent habits of mind in a way that's not wholly unlike that of the gospel. We're jolted out of something; we're projected into a new world, a new frame of reference. But what the gospel does is not simply to offer you vision, but to offer you a promise and a relationship, it's not just an epiphany or blaze of glory, it's a glory that speaks into who you are, and tells you it is possible to change and makes that change itself now. In other words, when you're encountering the gospel, you are encountering a living agency, speaking for change. There's a sense in which with all serious creative art you are encountering a presence of sorts working on you, yes. But, it's not just the '...there's no place where you are unseen, you must change your life' sort of perspective. It is '...your life is being changed', There is an agency, there is a relationship developing, and that to me is the crucial difference. I think that our reading of the gospel is – in countless ways – enriched by understanding how the imagination works and I couldn't myself be the kind of Christian I am without that kind of nourishment flowing in repeatedly, and I'm deeply grateful for it. At the end of the day you might have to say 'yes, the gospel is different' it calls me to change, it enables the change, it speaks of grace and communicates grace. Now unpacking that would take a long, long time, but that's the difference as I see it.

Our theme has been 'Faith in the Future' – the taking of our faith into the wide open spaces of our future. Could you say a few words to address that theme in terms of vision?

In about twenty years' time what sort of society and what sort of church might I be praying for, what kind of society? I would be praying, and I hope working, very earnestly for a society in which some visible dignity was truly guaranteed, not only for people in this country but worldwide; where we have somehow learned to do our economic work globally in a sufficiently different way to guarantee that there were no permanent outsiders in that market, no people for ever shut out. I'd pray and work too for a society in which education in our own country took a higher priority - by which I don't mean simply more money poured into existing structures, I mean a revolution in our assumptions about what education is about, a revolution in our assumptions about what is owed to our children in terms of excitement, love, warmth and imagination conveyed through the system. A system in which we didn't allow ourselves to be so obsessed with measurable outcomes that we forgot the training and formation of actual human beings: living, imagining human beings. And I'd hope and pray for a church whose primary and most widespread form and existence in this country would be smallish groups meeting in living rooms with an open bible and a fair bit of silence. People helping each other to become adults in Christ, including children helping each other to become adults in Christ, because the gospel says that's one of the things children do. And that regular, prosaic, unobtrusive, half-hidden reality of the Church would be visible from time to time in the great gatherings and celebrations that Christians want to engage in; but perhaps would see its real focus in terms of that growth in cultivation of humanity in God's image. It means also understanding what it means to be forgiven and to forgive. We are, simultaneously, an astonishingly permissive and a ruthlessly censorious society. Everything is possible and nothing is forgivable. I don't know how we got ourselves into that position in society, but that's quite often what it feels like. And in the middle of all this, the Christian church says 'we are worse sinners than you can believe possible, and we are more freely forgiven than you can believe possible, and we won't be doing either with bland permissiveness, which says all human policies and decisions are of equal value, nor will we be doing with that despairing censoriousness which says there is no restoration, there is no transformation possible'. And that will be a very difficult place to occupy. But that seems to be the place of the gospel, and it's in that kind of culture of forgiveness and hope that I would like to see people being nurtured in these groups, keeping silence around their open bible and supporting, loving and nourishing each other in the presence of Jesus Christ and the power of the Spirit. I think it's possible. I think God constantly makes his church be what he wants it to be, in spite of all the church's attempts to resist him and I long and pray for everybody here tonight to be part of that project of changing a culture in that direction.

© Rowan Williams 2008

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