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

The Archbishop's Response to the Presence and Engagement Study Day, with Q&As

The Archbishop at St Katharine's Foundation

Monday 1st June 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury responded to Dr Luke Bretherton's paper and to issues raised during the day. Dr Luke Bretheron is a senior lecturer in theology and politics and convenor of the Faith and Public Policy Forum at King's College London.

The Presence and Engagement Study Day at St Katharine's is organised by the Contextual Theology Centre and aims to consider five aspects of the life and ministry of parishes as they are worked out in multi religious parish contexts. The five aspects are:

· Caring for One Another

· Learning and Growing in Faith

· Praying and Worshipping

· Sharing our Faith

· Working for Social Justice

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's speech and the question and answer session below, or click downloads on the right to listen to the speech [25Mb] and to the Q&A [12Mb].

The Archbishop of Canterbury's response to the Presence and Engagement Study Day

First, by way of an introduction, I'd like to say how every much I appreciated the emphasis in one of the presentations, on the problem facing us as essentially a problem to do with the fact that we're losing sight of the political. That is where I think where we are at the moment. A managerial, problem-solving, highly interventionist, law- and regulation-focused concept of government, steers us away from some of those things (which I want to come back to later) that have to do with the rebalancing of imbalance in society. These, along with the brokerage between different kinds of interests in society, are those things which seem to me to be the proper province of national government.

You've had some discussion already today on some quite broad subjects to do with rivalry and competition. We've had some discussion of sacred texts and their significance. And I want to see if I can link those themes with some of what we've been reflecting on this afternoon so far.

One of the basic issues around religion as we all know is identity. Religion can be put in the service of people's identities in some quite destructive and malign ways, occasionally. But it's also indisputably one of the deepest and most resilient sources of human identity that there is. And one of the challenges we face in reflecting on all of this is how the practice of religious faith becomes a deeply-grounded, non-competitive, non-violent form of identity resource. How does that work? That's very much at the heart of some of what we've been discussing. And that's the point at which I think it helps to think about the role of sacred scripture. Because it seems to me that one of the ways in which people acquire identity in the practice of religious faith, is in having what you might call a 'fixed interlocutor' the something or someone there, that you keep coming back to talk to. Something that doesn't just shift according to your own preferences or convenience; it's there and you have elected to spend your life making sense of yourself in conversation with that. It's experience that's received as something given. What that means, of course, people will disagree about no end, but it's there. And for a good many of the religious traditions most strongly represented in this part of London and indeed in this country, scripture is the tangible way in which that 'fixed interlocutor' comes into focus. Scripture is what you talk with. Talkwith, you don't talk to it, you let it talk to you. You try and talk back a bit, and then you talk to each other on the basis of it and you find that it provides resources for talking to other people in shaping the language that you share. And so the relationship goes on: that profound engagement with the there-ness of holy texts; becoming who you are through that conversation. Because one of the things about scripture which makes it both wonderful and difficult is that it just doesn't go away. You find something in the Bible that'sdifficult, and the Bible doesn't say, 'Oh, that's ok, I'll just go away then ...', the Bible more or less says, 'Get used to it, work with it and see where you get to, because here I am, and you've got to listen.'

You won't be surprised if I say that I don't regard that as a recipe for a kind of dogmatic biblicism, or just like rolling over with your paws in the air in the face of whatever scripture appears to say, because that's not a real conversation. But it's there to worry you. Anyway, that's one point in thinking about religion and identity.

And having put it in that way, it also says that religiously-shaped identity is a shared business, in spite of popular suspicion to the contrary, people don't read the Bible or the Qur'an or whatever else, on their own. They read it, aware of other readers across the centuries and they read it, aware of other readers here and now. You can't pretend that coming to terms with sacred scripture is just something you do in the privacy of your own room. And so in thinking about religiously-shaped identity in those terms, you've actually already got some way towards a vision of how religiously-shaped identity plays into our political and social concerns and worries these days about identity itself.

If the claims of religious faith are right, truthful, then there is something absolutely basic and definitive about humanity that is not just about consuming and producing. There is something about being human which is first and foremost about engagement and relation, about being challenged into life. And I would say that in our present climate, one of the most important things that any person of religious faith will have to say into the debates and concerns that we're in the middle of, is to affirm that basic level of our humanity which is prior to all the business of consuming and producing, and for that matter competing.

I was thinking about that in relation to the New Testament. And a rather odd idea suggested itself to me concerning the parables of Jesus: much of the imagery that Jesus and Paul use in them, is economic. There's an awful lot about money in the parables and epistles of Paul, directly and indirectly. Butthe remarkable thing is that money is a metaphor. 'You were bought at a price', says St Paul (remember that 'redemption' is a money metaphor long before it's a theological technical term) Jesus talks about debts and loans and treasure, buried in fields. He's very happy to use economics as a metaphor for something else, which, if you think hard about it, suggests that economics is secondary thing, and something else is the first thing. Money exchanges are really rather good metaphors for the much more basic and comprehensive and exciting exchanges and transformations that go on in relationships between human beings and between God and human beings. And it struck me that that is absolutely the opposite of the way in which we've been encouraged to think for a lot of the last few decades; whereeverything else turns out to be a metaphor for money and the basic relationships are economic. The basic form of exchange is around producing and consuming and purchasing, and if you can't reduce other things to that, well those other things are just surface, unimportant matters. I wonder if one of the big affirmations about biblical theology we ought to be making these days, is in those terms. Instead of everything being a metaphor for economics, economics is one metaphor among others, for the more basic forms of human interaction and human transformation. I think that there's a great deal on every other page of the New Testament to suggest that that just might be the case.

It relates also, of course, to the strange way we have been encouraged to buy into a model of humanity in which the economic motivation is the one constant in human life. And some theologians and philosophers have talked about the 'homo economicus' model, that homo sapiens is homo economicus. Homo sapiens is the human being involved in economic affairs. But 'sapiens' and 'economicus' don't necessarily translate, especially in relation to the last few months! So, that's one opening thought about religiously- and particularlybiblically-shaped identity. And I've mentioned already that issue ofcompetition as a factor in all this. Now you've already had some discussion about rivalry, competition and the deep embedding in human life of the model of imitation, with the twist of rivalry and competition for space that comes with it, as one of those things which tragically makes us human and yet still capable through revelation, of being shifted.

In thinking about inter-faith affairs it strikes me as really quite important once again that we should import into the discussion a recognition that the great faiths of the human family are not jostling for the same space or bidding for the same market. And I've heard that hinted at more than once already in the discussion today and in what I've been reading. It's so easy to assume that when you look at a variety of religious doctrine and practice you're looking at market competitors. The worry is, 'Are we keeping up our market share?' And rather disastrously you can get to conceive mission just in terms of market share. I don't think that will do. Because the great faiths are not presenting themselves as alternative jostling options in solving the same question: they present themselves as a comprehensive vision of how things are, which invite your life. And that's something a bit different from just running your finger along the shelf and deciding you think you'll have Zoroastrianism, and put it in the trolley!

That, of course doesn't mean that religious truth is an uninteresting or unimportant question: far from it. It does mean that religious truth is not settled by majority votes, so that if you're losing your market share you need to wonder if you've got your product right. Just sweep away all of that and I think that the encounter between families of religious belief and practice becomes a great deal more constructive and life-giving and enlarging in that process.

But competition is deeply ingrained. Rivalry is deeply embedded in the lives we live. And the great tragedy or catastrophe of applying that sort of language to religious faith is that it undercuts something about religious faith itself. We spoke earlier about limits and I remember about ten years ago trying to write something about this in connection with some of the historic uses of the word 'charity'. How in the Middle Ages and the very early modern period the word 'charity' was used in ways that made it very clear that charity within society was one of the ways in which you limited rivalry. Charitable relationships were those that cut against endless competition and an event representing charity socially, when all the members of the trade guild went to mass together or something like that, that was the moment when everybody said, 'Look, our relationships are not all competitive'. At some point you have to say, 'That's enough competition' and stand together. That's charity. And I think essentially the religious vision gives you every reason for thinking that there is such a place to stand; a place where you stand together, not edging against each other. Where you stand in a space or territory opened up for you by the gift of God, not standing on the ground you have won over against somebody else, with the fences up and the landmines in position. That's why I say it's somehow both nonsensical and destructive to think of religion in competitive terms. It's first, gift that we're talking about and invitation; invitation into that space I've described where you stand together. Which is also why the religious perspective or human perspective shaped by religious faith is one in which we can't miss the point that some kinds of human good are necessarily and invariably social. There are some good things that you can only have together, and whether that drainage systems, or good parties, or symphony orchestras – those are inherently social goods – you can't have an individual good drainage system or an individual good symphony orchestra. Some things you have to collaborate to make good. Religious belief just puts that centre stage. 'The good that is my good alone is going to be an illusion, a kind of category mistake, I shall get it wrong and I'll get myself wrong and I'll do myself damage in that process. And all the emphasis that has been put in the last couple of decades on the glory of individual choice, has pushed us that little bit closer to thinking that there's no such thing as a really social good. That, I think, needs saying pretty firmly and repeatedly. Not because individual choice is an evil, but because if it is the only good you ever think about, it becomes an evil very, very quickly. And on occasion, for more people it breeds. It breeds division and clefts between people, and ultimately a rather toxic social pattern in which proper interaction for the goods we might share becomes harder and harder to achieve.

So religious identity is something to do with that sustained conversation with the text, in partnership, something to do with coming into that space where relationships beyond competition open up. And all of this focuses, finally, on some quite tough questions about what -- religious communities in general and Christian communities in particular -- we're educating people in and for. Do we think of it as part of the role of a healthy Christian community, school, or parish as shaping citizens? Not just giving lessons in good citizenship (which is the easy way out and not particularly interesting) but do we see it in terms of shaping the sort of person who is going to be a real citizen? the sort of person who understands about inherently social 'shared goods'? the sort of person who understands that there is something prior to rivalry or commerce? the sort of person who might very well understand that the right place for economics is to be a good metaphor for other things, not to be the basic form of relationship? Is that what we're doing? I suspect the answer is 'no we're not very effectively'. But it's not a bad time for asking, 'Why not?' and, 'Can we do better?'

Of course it ought to be something that we as Christians should be locating very strongly in the context of our theology of the Church and Eucharist. The central identifying thing Christians have done since the New Testament period has been a shared activity; a shared social good; an act of charity where people stand together in a common relationship to something they hadn't expected or asked for, as invited guests together, all hungry, all needing what is to be given. More than that, it's an action in which you're hunger being met isn't an individual thing, but something which takes you into a life that then triggers sharing in other contexts, and meeting other people's hungers. And here we are day after day and Sunday after Sunday, doing this extraordinary thing or having this extraordinary thing done to us: which is the Eucharist, and yet so frequently missing the point and not taking that step of saying, 'Well, my hunger is met' so that I can meet the hunger of others. So the question of what we educate people into as Christian believers is very closely bound up with how intelligently and fully and prayerfully we assimilate what the Eucharist is all about.

I say that as someone who belongs very explicitly in a Eucharistic tradition. And I'm aware that there are Christian traditions around for whom this is not historically the primary locus of identity or practice. And yet I think those traditions (whether it's the Salvation Army or Society of Friends) have perhaps not found it at the centre of their identity, because they have so stressed what perhaps is the other side of it, which is feeding the hunger – both spiritual and actual – of people outside and around. We may have had the sacramental focus but have been pretty dim at the outworking: some Christian families have the outworking in abundance but haven't focused on the sacramental. There's an interesting conversation to be had there. But I don't think there's a fundamental disagreement about what's going on in discipleship in the Church there.

I have just one last thought to wind up: government. One of the sad traps we may fall into in late modernity is to do with what Philip Bobbitt famously called the 'market state' as the default position of modern politics. The state is there to give us what we want. The best form of politics would be a referendum where everybody got to say what they wanted and they'd count up the votes and the people who got the most votes would get what they wanted. It sounds a bit like democracy, but actually it's not, because it completely undercuts the idea that there is a common good at the end of the day, or so I believe. And that's why the campaign for 'real politics' would perhaps get us back to a view of government that was both robust and quite modest. Robust in that it would grant that there was a moral dimension to our national life: that a society had to make some moral options about how it treated the disadvantaged, the outsider or refugee. A government that never made any corporate moral options about those things would actually be a disaster. But modest because we would be saying, 'The point of government is not to make us either happy or good; the point of government is to balance where there is imbalance, to broker interests so that nobody grabs too much, to listen intelligently and patiently to different concerns and interests in a society, and weave those together in the most constructive way possible. And political disagreement and the difference between political parties ought to be less about who's going to make us rich and happy quicker, and more about who has the deeper skill and the longer reach in this work of brokerage and balancing.

Now, we are some way from that vision of politics, but the shock administered to the corporate system in the last few weeks and months does at least give us an opportunity for getting that question a bit more on the public agenda. What do we expect of government? Have we got to the point where we can't avoid going beyond that fantasy of government as what makes us happy and good? Can we be a bit more 'grown-up' about government? I think that's about what it comes down to! It's a big question. But it encourages me to think that we're here to address it, and also in a spirit of willingness to address it with all those other communities of faith around us who have much the same interest in challenging the glib versions of politics that are around at the moment. And I hope that those relationships and that common commitment will perhaps begin to bring some change and some growth in the days ahead.

Questions & Answers


... there's an uncomfortable truth here. I'm looking at saying we need to get beyond the market view of the world and beyond politics. As a Church we very much bought into that culture. What is our status as a state Church even? And beyond that how have we ended up with a Synod where actually if we do have the largest part of the market share, we can now use it to push others into the corners of the Church to be quite marginalized. So at that point I see very much – surely before we go out into the world to challenge about politics and money – that we need to get our own house in order. There is no more political beast than, tragically, the Church and I guess beyond that, at the moment I'm wanting the Church to say to the world, 'Look, love of money and state has let you down. Here's an opportunity to go back to where we were strong as a nation when we had a vision that we wanted to put on to the earth. The Victorian age had a lot to be sorry for; but it was fantastic in building bold churches for the faith, 'Here it is'. And I think we've sort of lost faith in who we are, so we're often talking in a sense without that real vision and relying a bit too much on politics.


Go back to the beginnings of the Church of England, and although we find it difficult to assimilate this now, the best of the vision of the sixteenth and seventeenth century was, 'The Church is this national community', considered in its dimension as the body of Christ. And the Establishment begins there, but of course it couldn't stay there because already it was saying, '...and incidentally we will disembowel a few Catholics and burn a few Protestants, just to tidy things up'. And inexorably, pluralism comes in from seventeen hundred onwards and you do end up, again inevitably with a situation where there are a number of options there before people. Until relatively recently we've not been too bad about avoiding the purely market model. More recently -- because we're all of us in the Christian denominations anxious about who we are -- we are more and more demoralized by what seems to be the drainage of numbers and energy. Naturally we dig our heels in more, from Left and Right with some of the effects that you describe, and we are certainly not a very credible critic of a marketised, consumerised society if we're not able, somehow, to exemplify a proper plurality and a proper generosity within our own life. So there is a huge number of issues here. But I think what you said at the end about the loss of nerve in all this, does ring a bell or two.


I was very interested in the way you concluded in talking about the proper role of government. It reminded me of the concept that the government's job is to protect and preserve the right of different institutions to operate within their own sphere. I wonder if you would comment any further about that?


I would gladly comment and my authority for this is Neville Figges, our own Anglican political genius a hundred years ago. He defends the idea of the Free Church and Free State; the State as the community of communities; government as the agency that holds the ring for a proper, interactive plurality of organizations. Figges says, 'A healthy society is not one where everything is licensed from the top and franchised downwards from the State. A healthy society is one in which various kinds of association grow up. They may be churches, or they may be Trade Unions, they may be Universities, they may be professional associations or Guilds, but the point is that they are the self-organizing element in corporate life; communities organizing themselves.

Now, the State is constantly tempted (sometimes with a bit of theological support, unfortunately) to see itself as 'the main agent'. Everything is the State's responsibility. And some people on the Left in the twentieth century, really bought into that in some very damaging ways. Look back on the early days of the Fabian Society and the sort of thing that Sydney and Beatrice Webb were so interested in, comes dangerously close to that idea, 'It's the State's job to solve every problem.' The result of course was that you end up disabling communities and persons. And the pendulum can swing back to a rather toxic individualism or the wrong kind of localism and defensiveness against others (indeed all that we've seen from the 'eighties onwards). So it's interesting that both from an Anglo-Catholic and from a Calvinist perspective you have the same kind of challenge. It's exemplified also in quite a lot of continental Catholic social teaching: the job of government is the creative management of difference. It's not management in the sense of universal direction, throwing regulations at every problem; nor is it just laissez faire,the creative management of difference for the good of every community. Which may mean sometimes 'defending' the distinctiveness of one community against an homogenizing practice: it may sometimes mean 'prizing open a community that has become too closed and saying they've got to relate. But what it isn't is 'setting the agenda for everything'. I resonate very much with that.


Archbishop, you talked about, 'Don't think about it as rival companies trying to get your money...' I'm just wondering how that reconciles with evangelism in a multi-faith parish? Could you say a few more words on that, please?


Evangelism in the New Testament is first of all, proclamation. 'This has happened. This is the door that is open. Walk in and welcome.' And that is what I believe the Church should be saying every hour. 'Come in. It'll challenge you and change you and it won't be easy; but you can live with that!' Evangelism then becomes primarily saying to people, 'There are more possibilities for you than you could ever have imagined, thanks to the grace and mercy of God and Jesus Christ. Now, I think that's a bit different from saying, 'This is the best product in the market and unless you buy it your friends won't want to know you', (which I caricature as a sort of marketing strategy). I believe that the Christian faith is true. I believe that the God it speaks about is the real, living God. And I believe that the highest and fullest possibilities of human beings are realized in Christ-like relationship through the Holy Spirit with that one, true, living God. That's axiomatic for me. And that doesn't mean that I want to say at the same time, 'Outside that, everything is darkness, failure and hopelessness.' It means I know what God has shown himself to be in Jesus Christ; I want others to see that, to share it and live in it and with it. Exactly how God relates to those who don't see their way in, is God's business. And that for me is not at all incompatible with wanting to say to my Muslim, or Hindu or Buddhist friends, 'I wish you could see things like this.' Meanwhile, in that encounter, when they are saying the same thing back to me, I hope I'm growing a little bit in response to thatchallenge. Where I can see, 'Yes, when the Muslim says that, that's not stupid or trivial. I hadn't thought of that.' Or when the Buddhist says, 'Life is likethis', you think, 'Well, maybe the way I've assimilated Christianity has left that out. I need to hear that'. And that's the joy of interfaith encounter and sends me back to my starting point: I still believe that door is open, and that's what I proclaim and offer.

Now, I think the practical difficulties in deeply plural communities these days of pulling apart that glad invitation, from what's felt to be bullying or manipulative or threatening or whatever, is not straightforward because we have a history (and Muslims and Hindus have a history too) of being bullying and manipulative. We've all been bad. We've all fallen short of the glory of whatever God we turn to, and that'll always cloud people's perception. If you were a Christian in parts of the Middle East or of Pakistan, then certain Muslim claims to being welcoming towards other faiths would ring just a little bit hollow. Equally, being a Muslim in certain other contexts means that Christian claims to being open and patient and affirming ring pretty hollow as well. So it's a hard line to tread; but I don't think it's impossible.

When we were discussing all this in Synod a few months ago, what we were hearing from a lot of people was, 'We really need to find a way of treading that difficult line. A way of getting it right and genuinely turning our backs on the manipulative, the superior, and the triumphalist'. Equally, genuinely turning our backs on a kind of shrug of the shoulders, 'Well, we're all going in the same direction anyway'. And holding to an integrity that is at the same time affirming and developing and life giving.

Back · Back to top