Rowan Williams: Faithful Citizen


In 2003, Rowan Williams, a professor, theologian, poet, and, at that time, the Archbishop of Wales, became the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, the symbolic leader of 80 million Anglican Christians, most of them residing south of the equator. It was never going to be an easy job—sharp disagreements over women in ministry, homosexuality, economic justice, and other matters have divided the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in America, and the Anglican Communion—and many thought that the administration of "Archbishop Rowan," as his staff know him, would exacerbate these difficulties, since he was thought to be a Christian, political, and cultural progressive.

But anybody who had read Rowan Williams might have guessed that his mission would be less to stake out positions and argue their correctness than it was to create a situation where dialogue might be possible. In his theology, Williams has always leaned toward a synthetic approach, where two (or more) ideas compete and converse; he has always leaned toward the idea that a new, presumably better and more beautiful idea emerges from that interaction. It's very Augustinian, that. Once in office—to the dismay of fellow lefties who felt betrayed—Archbishop Williams sought to bring opposing sides to the table to pray together, to talk together, and to find a way forward. It didn't often work—those entrenched on either side of the issue often chose to remain in their trenches—but despite those very expectable and human failures, such pluralistic argument is exactly the sort of thing the Archbishop still advocates at the beginning of Faith in the Public Square, a just-released collection of the luminous speeches he has given regularly during the ten years of his arch-episcopate.

As we come to the end of the Archbishop's tenure—the process to name his successor is underway, and he will return to academe to take up a position as Master of Cambridge's Magdalene College in January—it is a fitting time to consider his contributions to public discourse, to our understandings of faith, and to our thinking about how we live in community. His approval rating among the British is high, despite fairly regular controversies resulting from the ways our sound-bite culture deals with reasoned argument such as the Archbishop's (even these speeches tend to be intellectual and idea-rich, although this collection is among his most readily readable theology). I have argued elsewhere that we will look back on his ten years in office and value them even more highly than we can just now—but we should be able to value them highly based on this collection of well-reasoned and beautifully-stated studies of how we live and reason in community.

So, to put it in the simplest possible language, Faith in the Public Square offers a taste of what it means that the leader of one of the world's largest gatherings of Christians has also been one of Christianity's most intelligent, literate, and compassionate spokespersons. Here we see Rowan Williams wrestling with issues of the day, from secularism to multiculturalism to justice to economics to the phenomenon of the rise of spirituality over religion and the growth of the "Nones," people who profess to be spiritual or religious but claim no group affiliation. No one has solutions to these problems, but the Archbishop offers wisdom and guidance from a life immersed in reading, reason, and prayer, and even when one disagrees, one is impelled to incline the head in recognition of a great mind at work.

The Archbishop offers, on the page and in person, a gentle voice, but he does not shy away from prophetic words and telling hard truths. Like Stanley Hauerwas, he recognizes that our Western obsession with freedom has made it into a secular religion—and it has deformed our faith lives, or any possibility for them. In explaining, for example, why the spiritual seems more appealing to many people than the religious, he begins with a quotation from Bono about experiencing God individually, and he elegantly builds his argument from there:

Bono's remarks provide an obvious starting-point. Religion is a matter of the collective mentality, with all that this implies about having to take responsibility for corporately-held teaching and discipline; so religious allegiance can be seen as making over some aspect of myself to others in ways that compromise both my liberty and my integrity. It may be seen as committing myself to practices that mean little to me, or subjecting myself to codes of conduct that don't connect at all convincingly with my sense of who I am or what is creative and life-giving for me. It may mean being obliged to profess belief in certain propositions that appear arbitrary and unconnected with the business of human flourishing. (84)

10/2/2012 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
  • Faithful Citizenship
  • Anglicanism
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  • Interfaith Dialogue
  • Pluralism
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  • Greg Garrett
    About Greg Garrett
    Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post,, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.