Why Rowan Williams is much more comfortable as an academic than he was as an archbishop; and why he should never have gone to Canterbury in the first place

Lord Williams of Oystermouth, former Archbishop of Canterbury (Photo: PA)

When I read the headlines about Rowan Williams on Sunday and Monday I groaned; it all seemed so reminiscent of what we all got used to when he was archbishop of Canterbury. Here he was again, the agonised academic, clearly disheartened by the perceived impossibility (perceived by him, that is) of defending the Christian cause, either against the advancing tide of secularism, or even against the aggressive cultural imperialism of militant Islam. The Guardian gave the general flavour: “Britain is now ‘post-Christian’, says ex-archbishop Rowan Williams” appeared with the stand-first “Lord Williams enters debate provoked by PM, saying UK is not a nation of believers….”

If we have to have an established Church, what we need is someone who at least actually believes in the Christian religion in a way which can be generally understood, and who is prepared to go in to bat for it. Archbishop Carey did that, and still does, bless him. So, it seems, does Archbishop Welby. His reaction to what he described as the Prime Minister’s “moving” statement on his discovery of faith, was to insist—in the face of an infuriated letter of denial from the massed ranks of secularists that we are, as Mr Cameron asserts, a Christian country—that “It is a historical fact (perhaps unwelcome to some, but true) that our main systems of ethics, the way we do law and justice, the values of society, how we decide what is fair, the protection of the poor, and most of the way we look at society … All have been shaped by and founded on Christianity.” He acknowledged (quite rightly of course) that “others of different backgrounds have also positively shaped our common heritage” but he roundly declared nevertheless that “the language of what we are, what we care for and how we act is earthed in Christianity, and would remain so for many years even if the number of believers dropped out of sight (which they won’t, in my opinion)”. Pretty well put, and exactly the kind of thing we needed from someone in his position and never got from the fastidious Rowan Williams, whose instinct was always to see both sides of a question without ever really coming down firmly on either.

On closer examination, in fact, the former archbishop, now to his obvious relief back in the academic world as Master of Magdalene College Cambridge, wasn’t as negative about our Christian heritage as the way in which his words were generally reported implied, as a kind of surrender to Dawkins et al. When his Sunday Telegraph interviewer asked him the big question “Is Britain still a Christian country?”, he pondered the question for some time before replying in these words: “If I say that this is a post-Christian nation, that doesn’t mean necessarily non-Christian”.

Actually, I would have thought it means precisely that, if words have any meaning. What he means by this formulation, he explains, is that “the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian. And in some ways, the cultural presence is still quite strongly Christian. But it is post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted.”

“You need to pick your way quite carefully here,” he continues, in his typically Anglican (of a sort) and typically Academic (also of a sort—the sort which says on the one hand this, and on the other hand that to every question). This is how he “carefully” picks his way round this one: “A Christian nation can sound like a nation of committed believers, and we are not that. Equally, we are not a nation of dedicated secularists. I think we’re a lot less secular than the most optimistic members of the British Humanist Association would think.”

It’s not exactly the ringing defence of the persistence of our Christian tradition that Archbishop Welby gives. There’s something wistful about it. “I said a few years ago”, he recalls, “that we were haunted by Christianity, and that is still where I would stand”. Not, he says haunted as though by the ghost of something dead; that, he says, is “ not at all the implication I would want to go with. If I were to say, ‘That’s a haunting melody’, I don’t necessarily mean it is dead. I mean it hangs around, persistently.”

“Hangs around”? Not exactly a trumpet call, is it? As if realising it sounds a bit feeble, he ends his exploration of this question (he “explores” questions rather than answering them) on a more positive note: “A Christian country as a nation of believers? No. A Christian country in the sense of still being very much saturated by this vision of the world and shaped by it? Yes.”

Well, it’s something: the trouble is that by the time you get there, the attention is wandering a little. This always was his intellectual approach: but now, he is back where he can indulge it without upsetting anyone. Cole Morton, the Telegraph’s interviewer, comments that “Rowan Williams is a changed man. He was weary and weighed down towards the end of his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, wounded by the press and exhausted by the effort of trying to hold together a Church tearing itself apart. Today he is warm, welcoming and even seems to be walking taller … in the grounds of Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he is Master. Is this life easier? ‘Yes,’ he says, laughing. ‘What do you think? …. Yes, it is a relief not to be at the end of public scrutiny all the time. It’s great to be in this kind of environment where conversation, exploration and teaching all go on.”

When the announcement was made of Rowan Williams’s appointment as archbishop, I did the preliminary research for a piece on him by going to Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, and acquiring everything by him that was in print. This included a substantial work on the heresiarch, Arius, who emphasised the Father’s divinity over the Son, and was thus opposed to a Trinitarian Christology. A former colleague of Rowan Williams at Christ Church, professor Maurice Wiles, had shockingly insisted that Arius was right, and that Christians should regard him as one of the great fathers of the Church. But what did the new archbishop think? There had been academic archbishops before, most famously Michael Ramsey, who like Williams had been an Oxbridge professor of theology. We knew just what he thought about such matters: he expressed himself with total clarity. But not Rowan Williams. Did he, does he, think that Arius was a heretic, and that Arianism was one of the most perilous doctrinal deviations in the Church’s history? You will not find out from reading his book on the subject, an extended exploration which doesn’t, however, actually at any point seriously approach the question. As a professor at Oxford, it hardly mattered what (and how) he thought: in Lambeth Palace, it really did.


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