Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

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

Skip Content

Press Conference, World Council of Churches Assembly, Brazil

Saturday 18th February 2006

The Archbishop gave a press conference whilst at the WCC Assembly at Porto Alegre, Brazil.

His opening remarks, and his responses to the varied questions asked, follow:

Thank you all very much indeed for coming to this press conference. I'll say just a few words of introduction, it's a great privilege to be able to be a part of this historic meeting and there are two focuses, which are of particular importance.

The word 'transformation' is around in the title and the subject matter of this meeting and I take it that the agenda of this assembly is not simply words, but the identifying the ways in which the Christian churches around the world are able to be agents of change. Not just by statements, not just at the level of hierarchy, but by mobilising ordinary believers. If we are not able to do that, if we remain at the level of general statements, meetings of leaders, we won't have done our job.

Secondly this afternoon I was asked particularly to address the question of Christian identity in a pluralist environment. All Christians are now aware, as they have never been before, that they live in an environment of varied convictions, varying perspectives. Christians can react in two ways, which are unhelpful; they can insist that they and they alone and they exclusively possess the truth, or they can lose their confidence and simply slip into a worldview, which assumes that every view is as good as every other.

What I think an Assembly like this must do, is to find a way of engagement, positive conversation, confident standing in relation with those of other faiths and other traditions. Neither embarrassed nor triumphalist. That is quite a challenge for the church today, which feels both those temptations, to be embarrassed or to be triumphalist. I was attempting to find a way through; we shall see whether anyone agrees with that but it does seem to me to be the agenda that we ought to be facing together as churches in a world of great contrast and increasing tension at the moment.

Shortly I shall be visiting Sudan, a country where communal and religious conflict is a very significant and tragic part of the scene, and not long after that I shall be in the United States chairing the fourth meeting of the 'Building Bridges' seminar that I have been involved in, which draws together Christian and Muslim scholars from around the world. So these are not just abstract questions for me. But that's all I wish to say by way of introduction, to say how pleased I am to be here, particularly with this theme for the assembly, and to say something about my hopes and my anxieties and my perspective on the great challenge of inter-faith relations at this present time. Thank you.

[Questions followed]

Question 1 - On whether there is a problem of people being embarrassed or hesitant to identify themselves publicly as Christians.

Thank you for those questions, just wait and check whether the translators have done their business. The answer to your first question I think is, yes, there is embarrassment and unclarity and it's partly because in a society that is historically traditionally Christian, it doesn't always seem to be a priority to identify what it is that makes you different as a Christian. So there is a challenge that we have to rise to. We rise to it I think by all those programmes and processes of education which churches provide. And I don't simply mean education in ideas, but education in awareness of prayer and worship, in the identification on where we stand with those who are disadvantaged or on the edges of our society. I believe very strongly that the church has to be what I sometimes call a 'learning church', a church always engaged in growth, in mind and heart. And as that goes forward, I believe we begin to get more of a sense of that identification we tried to speak of this afternoon. But the problem is, shared in many European countries, cultural Christianity.

Question 2 - On how new initiatives, such as 'Fresh Expressions', might help bring Christianity to new audiences.

Thank you, you've mentioned some of the initiatives that are going forward in the Church of England at the moment, to build new styles of Christian congregation, that do not simply reproduce the pattern of the traditional parish. These are of very different kinds; there are some worshipping communities for young people that might not on a Sunday, but on a weekday evening, or on a Sunday evening, outside Church premises. There are other congregations that meet on a weekday morning, and are aimed to draw together those who find it hard to get out of their houses at weekends because of family responsibilities. We now have - and I'm speaking of statistics that I heard just two days ago - we now have registered about 400 of these new initiatives in England. Since the project of identifying and resourcing these fresh congregations has launched 2 years ago, we can say that we have seen many, many new congregations of this kind appearing. It's estimated that they have reached perhaps as many as 30,000 people. It's very hard to speak about this in only general terms because the best experts are those involved in local situations. But, just to give you one example, not from England but from my native Wales, of a church in Swansea, my own home town, which began with Sunday evening meetings for young people and young couples in a club in Swansea on the waterfront. Over a couple of years that developed its outreach to the local community, its now working from what had been a disused church building in Swansea, providing both worship services on Sundays and other days of the week, and community resource and assistance. So those are just some of the new developments that are positive.

Question 3 - On the risks of getting too closely identified with other agendas, when working alongside governments.

It's a particularly interesting question, I think that there is such a risk, that sometimes governments are inclined to say well we need to get the faith communities together in order to cement a public policy or an international policy to make a gesture of acceptance to a minority group and so forth. What is necessary to avoid the risk I think is to make sure that the agenda comes from the grass roots. The biggest challenge of inter faith dialogue, and perhaps particularly of Christian Muslim dialogue, is to listen to the agenda that comes from the streets, from the mosques, from the parishes. In England we have recently launched a national Christian Muslim Forum, which attempts precisely to get the agenda that is on the ground, rather than the agenda that government may have. Co-operation with government in these things is important, it's not the whole story.

Question 4 - On the divisions within the Anglican Communion over acts by some in the Episcopal Church of the United States.

Thank you. I was wondering when somebody was going to ask me about it. What I've said about the particular problem within the Episcopal Church in the United States is that I believe if there is ever to be a change on the discipline and teaching of the Anglican Church on this matter, it should not be the decision of one church alone. And the problem of certain moves that have taken place in the United States is that it is of course seen in the Communion as the decision of one church, which has consequences and repercussions for others that they have not fully owned themselves. I'm also aware that in the United States it is seen, rightly or wrongly, as an issue between those who want to hold to an essentially traditionally view of Christian doctrine overall, and those who believe that the entire Christian pattern is, if you like, open for revision. I think it is very rarely as simple as that, but that it can be represented in those terms indicates how very polarised and divided the situation has become. This year of course the Episcopal Church in the United States has its general convention and we will expect reaction there to what has been said around the Communion in this way. But the basic point I would want to make is the first one I made, I'm very uneasy about the way in which change goes forward. On a central matter, or let's not say a central matter, that might be misleading, but on a matter where traditionally there has been a very clear teaching, it's I think right that the highest degree of consensus be sought before there's such a radical change.

Question 5 - On whether Church leaders did enough to prevent the Iraq war.

I don't know how easily one can judge whether one's done enough, I think many in the Church of England set out their objections before the war, the House of Bishops of the Church of England made a statement corporately about it, I myself spoke about it on some occasions, so did the Cardinal Archbishop in London. I don't know what could or would have prevented the war. In so far as public opinion supported the war, which was not very far, we may ask has the Church done enough educative work with the public at large. But I would want to look back on the pre-war period, not with any complacency, but with a sense that we did try to put the case clearly and publicly. It may well be that it wasn't enough. As I say, I don't know how we would judge that and I would have to listen to what others said about us, in the United Kingdom.

Question 6 - On the paper given earlier that day by the Archbishop.

I would certainly have in mind some of what St Paul says about general revelation here. It seems that in Paul's letter to the Romans there is, as you might say, an expectation that in spite of the heritage of sin, there is still the possibility of some kind of constructive response to the gift of God among human beings, just in virtue of their being made in God's image. So yes, I would have that in mind. I would have in mind the kind of story that the first respondent to my paper this afternoon told, about the sacrificial way in which Muslim and Buddhist neighbours had risked their security for the sake of Christians. I think that Christ in the gospels warns us against assuming that we know now who is inside and who is outside, forever. So as to the hidden Christ theme I find the language quite hard to use at times because it has sometimes been used in a rather glib and easy way. When you see non Christians being good you just say the hidden Christ, whereas I think there is more to it than that, you would have to tease out the patterns of gift and sacrifice of suffering and death and resurrection, not only a general idea of what was good or creative. So it's a long job there, but I think it is work that can be done and indeed is being done.

Question 7 - On the Church of England's position on relations between Iran and the west.

The bishops of the Church of England recently put out a statement on the Iran situation, but I think not yet with any very clear recommendations. So I think the answer it is a matter of anxiety for many of us. It has not yet come to the point where we are absolutely together as a group of Anglican bishops in England, about this. I would certainly hope and pray with all my heart that the West does not embark upon another costly and uncertain military adventure in which the risks of long-term instability in a deeply unstable region are made worse.

Question 8 - On how friendships can be made with those of other faiths.

Thank you, I'm very glad to have that brought up here. When we were trying to begin some work some years ago when I was in Wales on training families in parenting skills, for example, on an inter faith basis, we were faced with just this challenge; how do we involve Muslim women in an appropriate and adequate way? One way we found of beginning to move into this, was working a little bit with young Muslim professional women who acted as language teachers in the schools. They were often people who bridged the school and the home and therefore had a very distinctive role. So that's just one thing we have done, generally speaking it's often through contact in the education system in Britain that friendships are made.

Question 9 - On whether we can learn from Orthodox and early Christianity.

Thank you, another very interesting question. I think the answer is increasingly yes. I quoted Olivier Clement partly because it seems to me that he is one of the very best examples of someone who is manifested in engaging with the agenda and concerns of modern Western Europe, and doing so out of an extremely rich early Christian and Orthodox heritage, so he shows what it possible there. I'm also struck by some work done in America recently, by an Orthodox writer in New York, a priest of the Orthodox Church who has again attempted to do just this, to draw out those elements in 20th century Orthodox Christianity, which really engage with the true agenda of Western society. So that you have a deeply traditional, fully resourced Orthodox Christianity, not isolated in a kind of museum, but genuinely critiquing and questioning and learning from its context. I think it is possible.

Question 10 - On the value and purpose of the WCC.

Simply because the World Council represents such a variety of Christian context and experience, minority churches, majority churches, historic mainstream Western churches, young churches, it's very difficult for the WCC to appear as, if you like, supporting simply an apologetic, or simply a triumphalist view. There's enough variety here to provoke a degree of corporate humility. I think if there were a real bit of agenda for the World Council of Churches, it might be to work on that corporate humility. Humility being a very different thing from embarrassment. And it's that variety; here there are churches, which are in world's terms 'strong' and churches, which are in the world's terms 'weak'. They listen to each other, they work together, and they find what they can say together. I think that helps us.

Question 11- On whether it is necessary to apologise for the Church of England's involvement in the slave trade.

I hope it's significant just because it needs saying, and I would much prefer to speak of repentance than to speak of apology. We are naturally turning to those who are the heirs of slaves and saying, 'our Church is a church which was responsible for the suffering of your ancestors'. We're also turning to God and saying 'ours is a Church which has refused something of what you God have called us to do'. And, as I tried to say in the Synod last week, to live in a Christian community that extends over time as well as space, means we have to share some responsibility of what our ancestors have done, and not be afraid of that. And to face your failure without being afraid does seem to be a very fundamental Christian ideal.

Question 12 - On the Church of England's relationship with the Hispanic Churches in Latin America.

The question was about how the Church of England sees the Hispanic Churches in Latin America, as I understand. Two or three thoughts, first of all we are now at last becoming conscious that the Anglican Church worldwide is not monolingual; it's not just about English language or English custom. And second, we are conscious of the Hispanic communities on this side of the Atlantic as some of the fastest growing and most creative elements in our Church. This I think has become more and more evident in recent years, to the Church of England and others in the Anglican Communion. The challenge that is now before us is to make sure that Hispanic speaking communities are properly represented in the world wide Church, that literature is translated and produced in Spanish (and Portuguese I hasten to add because I'm here in Brazil) and that we do not just assume that everyone really speaks English, if only they try hard enough.

Back · Back to top