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This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

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Archbishop of Canterbury - New Year Message for 2003

Wednesday 1st January 2003

This was Dr Williams' first New Year Message as Archbishop of Canterbury. First broadcast on New Years' Eve to the UK on BBC television, it was flimed at Lambeth Palace and on stage at the London Palladium.

A New Year visit to the theatre is something special. At no other season is there so much choice -- from period dramas to pantos, murder mysteries to musicals. There's something magical about the theatre. It is a different world in which anything can happen. In this world, with a dab or two of makeup here and a change of costume there the players are able to transform themselves completely -- to assume new identities, far removed from their every day characters and personalities. As spectators we enter willingly into the make believe. We admire the skill of the actors. And perhaps we feel a twinge or two of envy. How wonderful to be able to escape into another character, to become someone else altogether -- inhabiting that absorbing world on the other side of the footlights.

After the performance we accept the make believe for what it was. But in much of the modern world the issue is a bit more serious. We are in the world not of make-believe but of make-overs. Walk down almost any street in town, and you'll see banks, businesses, cafes and bars busy reinventing themselves. Time for a change—to the décor and the name. Businesses, charities, seem obsessed with re-branding themselves. You do wonder a bit how much difference it really makes. So what's going on? I suppose that behind all this is an anxiety. What do people really think of us, of me? Do they trust us, do they admire us, do they think we're better than our competitors? Perhaps if we changed the name, changed the image, we'd look better, and be trusted and relied on. Worth a try. But how do we know?

Perhaps people trust us even less when we change the brand name? It can be an infallible recipe for anxiety, permanent, restless concern about how we look. We're bound to think, as the year changes, about change in general – and this is just one kind of change. But it's one that tells us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves, about the way we live now.

So it may be worth remembering that, for Christians, New Year's Day also commemorates the Naming of Jesus. Christians, like other religious believers, see God as someone who tells us who he is, who gives himself a name by which we know him, a name to call him. And we believe that God isn't constantly anxious about what we think of him, constantly reinventing himself. Of course, that hasn't stopped us down the ages inventing millions of pictures of him— human images of our own devising to help us try to grasp the divine.

But in reality Christians, like other religious people, believe that God doesn't change—he is eternally who he is and delighted in being who he is. So God tells us, openly, lovingly, who he is, and invites our response. And the strange thing is that if we do respond in trust, we discover that our anxieties about who we are can be dealt with. For if God doesn't change, there's something in us that doesn't change, something that's always true and valuable and loveable. No need for constant makeovers.

For me, this isn't just words – I find myself in the middle of some of the biggest changes in my own life. Still, however the world goes, whether any of us ends up as a success or a failure, something is there that can't be destroyed – this year, next year, or ever. I hope that as this New Year begins you'll be aware of that, and know that there is something beyond anxiety and fear. God is to be trusted; you don't have to struggle endlessly in order to be loved. A very happy New Year to you all.

© Rowan Williams 2002

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