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'A higher responsibility' - Interview with Paul Richardson

Thursday 8th May 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams was interviewed by Bishop Paul Richardson for the Church of England newspaper.

Read the full interview below:

Multiculturalism is getting a bad press and the Archbishop of Canterbury ran into a storm of criticism earlier in the year for arguing that there might be a place for Sharia law, so I kick off with this subject when I interview him at the end of April at Lambeth Palace. Why does the liberal state have so much trouble with multiculturalism? I ask. "It is the assumption that the liberal state is where every rational person really belongs," he tells me. "Everybody who thinks about it is supposed to come to that conclusion. The liberal consensus is meant to be self-evident. In a way this has been the problem I have been looking at in a whole range of issues, trying to talk through secularism and what it implies." Secularism, he suggests, has become a 'default setting' we question at our peril. Unfortunately there are people who just won't play the game and instead claim they are responsible to their faith as well as the liberal state. "As I said in synod a couple of years ago," he reminds me, "the reason why people make a nuisance of themselves over the ordination of women bishops or sexuality is because they think they have to be obedient to something. They are not being difficult. There are responsibilities involved. That is what a liberal state—or for that matter, a liberal church — finds difficult. People have another obedience. The sense of another citizenship is so basic in Christianity that you just can't rule it out."

I tell the Archbishop that his argument reminds me of John Neville Figgis, the Mirfield monk who died in 1919 but who made a considerable mark as a preacher, historian and political thinker. Rowan Williams waxes enthusiastic. Figgis has indeed been a major influence on his thinking. "Figgis was for me one of the most formative influences," he tells me. "When I was at Mirfield they were clearing out the library of the old Hostel of the Resurrection in Leeds and I picked up a complete set of Figgis and started reading him then and thought 'Ah, this is important'." He readily agrees with me that it is a pity we have this important political thinker in the Church of England and make so little of him, much less than is made of Niebuhr in North America. "For my money," he affirms, "Figgis is a far more sophisticated and resourceful a thinker than Niebuhr and his work is very relevant to the time we live in. The work of David Nicholls did something to recover his reputation but it is extraordinary that for decades he has been ignored. He is not only a political thinker but a theologian who was trying to hang on to a Catholic identity that was plural and dispersed and yet was also profoundly orthodox." One of the points the critics of multiculturalism make is that it is divisive and that we need to strengthen social cohesion in Britain. This lies behind the criticisms of faith schools but while the Prime Minister has called for a debate on Britishness I suggest that the response of the Church of England has been muted. 'How do we address fears about social cohesion?' I ask. "You have to start with what cohesion means," he tells me "and look at the difference between cohesion and consensus and between cohesion and homogenisation. I'd like to think that cohesion allowed that dimension I have sometimes called 'interactive pluralism' where you have communities that are sufficiently robust in themselves to engage with one another and challenge each other while the state stands by to prevent this degenerating into violence. "But to see cohesion as a situation where no one is allowed to challenge anyone else is a sad view of social life. We should be able to do better than that."

Referring to Britishness, the archbishop mentions a lecture he has just delivered to the David Jones Society in which he drew attention to the way in which Jones understood Britishness as involving change, loss and diversity. Clearly the musings of an Archbishop of Canterbury, influenced by Welsh poetry, are rather different from the views of a Prime Minister who sings the praises of a Scottish Enlightenment as interpreted by a Jewish American academic, Dr Gertrude Himmelfarb, but that only goes to confirm the point Rowan Williams is making. When it comes to the debate about faith schools, the archbishop is outspoken. "Here we suffer from the illiteracy about religion which afflicts not a few commentators these days," he laments. "Faith has become something exotic. Images of the Religious Right and the Islamic Extreme come together. People won't look at the way faith is a matter of routine presence in some many of our communities. A 'faith school' is not a huge statement of alien reality. It is part of the way in which a community of conviction serves the wider community." Pressed about the need to enable minority groups to participate more in our national life, the archbishop agrees that reform of the House of Lords could be a way to do this but he fears that a totally elected house will make this impossible. As he points out, it is not enough to have individuals who belong to a particularly faith community as members. They have to be able to speak on behalf of their community.

Before leaving multiculturalism, I turn to the lecture on Sharia law that caused all the trouble. Didn't the archbishop take away with one hand what he gave with the other when he said that rules imposed by a religious group can't deny their members rights granted by civil law? "The law of the land can't be used to compel people to stay in their communities," he replies. "You can't tell people they are Hindus and therefore just have to lump it. They must have the right to get out if they choose. The law of the land guarantees a choice but if people choose to stay in their particular community they have to fulfil their contracts." In a parting shot, the archbishop reminds me that within days of the fuss over his lecture, the government announced plans for Sharia-compliant mortgages.

We move on to the travails of the Anglican Communion and in particular to the proposed Covenant which the archbishop hopes the bishops coming to Lambeth will be prepared to talk seriously about. The Windsor Report refers to 'matters understood to be of essential concern' but how do we decide what they are? Is it who shouts loudest, or Scripture (however interpreted), or tradition? "There is no rapid answer to that question," the archbishop replies. "What the debate has revealed is how ill-equipped to deal with such matters are the structures which have evolved in the Communion. There have to be clearing houses where people representative of different views in the Provinces can decide what is a fundamental matter. At the Lambeth Conference we need to think about how we put that clearing mechanism in place and get something that commands trust." I press him on the ordination of women bishops. Why can this be left to the Provinces to decide, but not sexuality? The archbishop speaks of a 'slow ticking bomb' and says that on the ordination of women we got used to a piecemeal approach. "I'm not saying whether it was right or whether it was wrong," he adds. "But that is how it was done." In the end, he concludes, sexuality matters to more people because it runs up against the teaching of scripture. "You have to work a lot harder to find an argument about the ordination of women in scripture." Then he adds that the issue has been influenced by the 'whole question of power' and the 'suspicions held in the South about the rest of us and especially about the US'. There wasn't this 'political energy,' as he describes it, in the debate about the ordination ofwomen. Questioned about objections that the Covenant will promote certainty, rather than humility and tentativeness, and be a bar to the development of doctrine, the archbishop insists that there are some things that do not change. "We can," he adds, "overdo humility. But if there is be change it is important that it be owned and thought through. There must be an agreed process. At the moment we are talking across each other. My hope for the Covenant is that it will give us processes and protocols." Confronted by the fact that the much-lauded 'autonomy-in-communion' may not survive decisions of the American General Convention or even the British Parliament legislating on church matters and asked what happens to those who break the Covenant and whether this will mean the end of communion and the mutual recognition of orders, the archbishop tells me he does not want to speculate too much about the future. "We couldn't derecognize people's orders," he suggests, "but Provinces would have to make their own mind up about levels of communion. You might say there is a process to be gone through even when you recognise someone's orders."

I turn to the archbishop's own beliefs about a controversial subject. In a paper entitled 'The Body's Grace', delivered before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, he wrote that "the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts or on a problematical and nonscriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation." 'Do you still think that?' I ask. "What I said about the ambiguity of the scriptural texts would need a lot of qualification," he replies."What we have to say theologically about the nature of sexual identity is still to me unfinished business." I ask him how he balances his own opinions and his calling as a bishop to teach the faith with his role as a focus of unity. Does his desire to keep the Anglican Communion together prevent him teaching what he really believes about a matter like sexuality? After all, even if he has modified his earlier views on sexuality, he still has a more open mind about the issue than many in the Communion. "My role is not just keeping the Communion together," he tells me. "When I teach as a bishop I teach what the church teaches. In controverted areas it is my responsibility to teach what the church has said and why." I tell him I understand this point of view but nonetheless it is not how Church of England bishops have normally behaved, most of who have usually been ready to offer personal and sometimes controversial opinions on a range of topics. He readily agrees that his approach is one that the church and the wider society find hard to understand. "It leads to allegations about inconsistency and dishonesty which I find unpleasant," he confesses.

Developing the archbishop's reference to the role of a bishop in teaching the faith of the church, I try to tease out what he means by the church. In the past he has quoted the maxim 'The whole church knows the whole truth'. Can Anglicans act alone on such issues as sexuality and the ordination of women? How does this play out ecumenically? "There is no one visible organism which is the whole church here and now," the archbishop tells me. "To talk about 'the whole church knowing the whole truth' is in some ways a counsel of perfection. Within the various families of practice and understanding within the visible church we need the highest possible degree of consensus and transparency about how we have come to a particular line. If the whole Anglican Communion comes to a common mind it doesn't mean it must be right, but if the whole Communion has come to a common opinion on such a matter as the ordination of women I don't think it is wrong to act upon it. "Otherwise we would all of us be caught in a situation until there was a consensus which looked unimaginably distant." Nonetheless he admits it is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. "We have to be transparent and ask our ecumenical partners to comment on the arguments we have put forward and the path we propose to follow," he recommends.

We turn to the Church of England where the archbishop proves to be surprisingly upbeat. He refuses to accept that all the statisticspoint to decline, claiming that there are 15 or 16 dioceses, including Canterbury, where attendances have gone up and pointing to the success of 'Fresh Expressions' in 'signing up hundreds of new congregations'. Patterns of loyalty are changing, he maintains, and it is simplistic to say the trend is down. "I am not just being defensive, I genuinely think there is another story to tell," he assures me. When he became archbishop, Rowan Williams stated his desire to engage with the culture. I ask whether he (and the rest of the church) are on the cultural wavelength of most of the people. He defends himself against allegations of obscurity, jokingly referring to one critic who said he directed his apologetic to people who shop at Waitrose and agreeing he has his limitations but then adding that "someone has to address the concerns of artists and intellectuals."

Then he goes on to instance the large amount of preaching and teaching he does in ordinary parishes and congregations. But he accepts that much modern theology is obscure, suggesting this flows from a reaction against the insular British theology of the 1960s and 1970s and a desire to engage with continental thinkers. He was spurred on to do this by Donald Mackinnon. "But perhaps it has gone too far," he admits. As a theologian, Rowan Williams was sometimes accused of seeing so many sides of a question he could never reach closure but he insists that even as a Professor he was convinced there was such a thing as heresy. As a Professor at Oxford he believed that the Nicene Creed was true and he believes that now. Teaching other things is heretical. What has happened as a bishop is not that he has gained a new sense of certainty but that he has started to do theology in a 'celebratory mode' as opposed to a critical mode. Orthodoxy, he believes, is like a house you live in. You move into the rooms one by one and it takes time to settle in. Intellectual exploration is a significant part of the settling in but not the most important part.

Finally we turn to the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in public life. The day I saw him the archbishop had just released a joint statement with the Archbishop of York on Zimbabwe. On what grounds does he feel justified in speaking on political or social issues? He tells me that he thought people expected him to address the moral dimensions of an issue. When he speaks, he tries not to go straight to theology but to use arguments that have a wide appeal. But in the end, our religious beliefs cannot be ignored. They are bound to shape our judgements and opinions and cannot be left out of debate. As far as Iraq is concerned, the archbishop feels his opposition to invasion has been justified by events but he recognizes that we now have obligation to help the people there and cannot simply pull out. On the wider issue of humanitarian intervention he admits to being 'confused'. He is glad Tanzania went into Uganda but recognises armed intervention is not always the answer. On Zimbabwe he agrees South Africa's record has been 'uneven'and seems to be hoping for a mediated solution.

In the end Rowan Williams's opinions will leave many people dissatisfied. Some liberals believe he has let them down; many conservatives still do not trust him. But I go away from Lambeth Palace concluding that on one of the great issues of our time, the need for sensitive pluralism rather than secular totalitarianism, he is right — thanks largely to a providential encounter with the largely forgotten work of a long deceased monk.

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