Rowan Williams and careers advice? There’s a neat combination!
Vincent Donovan, in his experiences with the Masai, discovered the importance of the ‘community focus person’, the man whose job “in a very real way is to enable that community to function”.1
Part of that community functioning is in worship. Rowan Williams quote approvingly the Romanian theologian, Dumitru Staniloae, who said that “the priest’s role was to ‘assemble and concentrate’ the Christian people at prayer.”2
But weaving, building a “differentiated unity”, does not stop with presiding at worship3. Paul tells the church in Corinth that although Christ’s ministry is that of reconciliation, he has entrusted that ministry to his church (2 Corinthians 5:18f). This reconciliation may take many different forms, perhaps as many forms as there are individual Christian communities and individual priests, but all forms will share a sense of making connections between people who may otherwise feel themselves to be disconnected. This is what Williams calls “the gift of helping people make sense to and of each other”
In case anybody thinks that this calling of priest as weaver sounds a little vague, or comfortable, or prissy (a kind of ‘knit-your-own-Christianity’ ministry), Williams points out exactly how difficult and demanding it is and will be. If the priest is to help “people make sense to and of each other”, occasionally that will be making sense of alienation or threat. When people feel threatened or alienated, then they can be at their most volatile. Making the connections between separated people means, following Bonhoeffer, showing the connections between people who have been initially separated from Christ, making Christ known, in the mission statement of the Archbishop’s Cathedral4. This is something more than a sentimental “I’m OK, you’re OK, Jesus is OK” introduction. Encountering Jesus Christ means encountering the healing and absolving Jesus, but also the judging and dying Jesus. Occasionally the word of Jesus to his disciple is a word of rebuke; occasionally the parish priest may be the means of speaking that rebuke. Encountering Jesus means meeting him in his birth, and his refugee status, in the poverty of his adult life, in the deeply demanding content of his teaching, and the (properly) awful circumstances of his passion and his death. It means a puzzling meeting with the gardener outside an empty tomb, and not quite getting, not quite understanding, what the power of the resurrection means to either Christ himself or to his followers. It is the task of the parish priest (among others) to prepare people to meet Jesus in all these places, just as they are, “without one plea”, and without the barriers and defences and rationalisations that human beings use to protect themselves from what is real and important5. As Williams says, acknowledging the boldness of his formulation: “the priest sometimes has to speak not only as parent to the prodigal son, but as parent to the elder brother who can only see his brother’s forgiveness as his own humiliation and loss.”
And helping people to divest themselves of these unnecessary defences, or to recognise their unaccustomed relations, can be a painful process: “to be yourself a place where lines of force intersect, where diverse interests and passions converge is one of the hardest aspects of that dimension of priestly life which is about living in the fantasies and expectations of others.”
This is part of a series of posts. Others in the series are:—
- KGH : Death to Herbertism
- KGH : Lin-Chi, the Curate and the Anglican Divine
- KGH : “…how many live so unlike him now…”
- KGH : The only thing I don’t run
- KGH : The Cult of Nice
- KGH : A little soft around the edges
- KGH : Herbertism Habilitated
- KGH : +ABC and the 3 Ws
- KGH : Witness
- KGH : Watchman — The Biblical imagery
- KGH : Watchman — Cultural Literacy
- KGH : Watchman — A Dissenting Opinion
- KGH : Watchman — Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture
- KGH : Watchman — Niebuhr and finding meaning
- KGH : Watchman — Niebuhr’s “Five Types” of culture
- KGH : Watchman — Niebuhr’s legacy
- KGH : Watchman — Not Niebuhr, but Barth
- KGH : Weaver — What is a “community”?
- KGH : Weaver — Bonhoeffer and community
- KGH : Weaver — Communities and Ethics
- KGH : Weaver — a human society unlike other human societies
- KGH : Weaver — Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together”
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 1
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 2
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 3
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 4
- KGH : Weaver — “Life Together” 5
- KGH : Weaver — The Head of the House
- KGH : Weaver — An insight from the Masai
- KGH : Weaver — Weaving, Worship and Worth
- Donovan, Christianity rediscovered, p. 146. [↩]
- Williams, ‘The Christian Priest Today’. [↩]
- For another description of this community differentiation, see Tom Wright, Simply Christian (London: SPCK, 2006), pp. 180-181. [↩]
- Canterbury Cathedral Mission Statement, based on John 12:20 [↩]
- A memorable scene from a modern comedy of manners: MICHAEL: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex. SAM: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex. MICHAEL: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization? (The Big Chill, written by Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, directed by Lawrence Kasdan, Columbia Pictures, 1983). [↩]
It comes to something when the affairs of the Anglican Communion become the stuff of light satirical comedy; it is even stranger when the satirical comedy is pointedly favourable towards the Archbishop of Canterbury.
UK listeners might have heard “The Now Show” on BBC Radio 4 last weekend. If so, then you will have been delighted by Mitch Benn’s song in support of Dr Rowan Williams (“who knows which bits of the bible are no longer true”). If you haven’t discovered the “Listen Again” facility on the BBC’s website, then this is for you:
Lord knows there are many of us who wish the song were true!
Benedict was a Roman nobleman who lived in the last years of the Roman imperial rule. He was born in about AD 480 and died about 70 years later, shortly after Rome was sacked and destroyed by the Gothic king Totila (546). He lived at the beginning of what used to be called the “dark ages” and what can still be called fairly, the collapse of a particular society. As a young man he had left Rome, shocked by its depravity and licentiousness. At first he lived as a hermit, but gradually his reputation for sanctity and plain good sense spread, and he was asked to become the leader of a number of small communities, who had withdrawn from the world. He eventually withdrew again from the Roman countryside and settled on the top of a steep mountain in the hills south of Rome: Mount Cassino. Here Benedict gathered a community of like-minded men around him, and he drew up a rule of life for them, which came to be known as “The Rule of St Benedict”, the foundational document for the most influential monastic order in Europe: the Benedictines.
Benedict’s character, like the character of the Benedictines themselves:
must be discovered from his Rule, and the impression given there is of a wise and mature sanctity, authoritative but fatherly, and firm but loving. It is that of a spiritual master, fitted and accustomed to rule and guide others, having himself found his peace in the acceptance of Christ.1
The order spread swiftly throughout Europe, and soon arrived in England. The first Benedictine abbeys were founded by Wilfrid of York at Ripon and Hexham at the end of the 7th cent. The order spread rapidly. As time passed the great cathedrals of England came to be run by a chapter of Benedictine monks: the English clergy (monastic and parochial) were steeped in the ethos of Benedictinism, and even though Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell destroyed the monasteries, the ethos remained.
Rowan Williams has pointed out three key characteristics of Benedict’s ethos2: “(i) what the Rule has to say about the use and the meaning of time, (ii)what the Rule has to say about obedience, and (iii) what the Rule has to say about participation.”
Time is to be carefully structured in community, balanced between work, prayer, community time and rest. The purpose of the monastery is not to produce and neither is it to consume. The monastery is to be sustained, but that sustaining has to be, as it were, sustainable not just on economic grounds, but also to do with humanity and spirituality. We are more than our work.
Second, the monk is to live under a rule of obedience, and this is obedience for a purpose: “being ready to suspend a purely individual will or perception for the sake of discovering God’s will in the common life of the community.” We are better together.
Third, one of the abbot’s responsibilities was to make sure that everyone in the monastery worked in a way that was appropriate to their abilities and to the needs of the community. No one was to be excused boots, just because of their wishes or status: everyone had a contribution to make. We are all responsible for the health of our community.
The Rule of Benedict as lived in monasteries then and now has been called simply “Anglicanism with a structure.” Traits thought to be quintessentially Anglican, such as balance, thorough scholarship, hospitality, and an emphasis on practice rather than abstract theory, all have their origins in the Rule of St Benedict.
Anglicans are living proof that you don’t have to be a monk to be Benedictine.
This is part of a series of posts. Others in the series are:—
- Anglican Roots / Anglican Routes
- Anglican Roots : Four justifications for the exercise
- Anglican Roots : 664 The Synod of Whitby
- Anglican Roots : 1215 Magna Carta
- Anglican Roots : Movement 1 / The Benedictines
- Anglican Roots : Inheritance 1
- Anglican Roots : The Reformation
- Anglican Roots : 1534 Henry, Supreme Head
- Anglican Roots : 1593 Richard Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity
- Anglican Roots : Movement 2
- Anglican Roots : Inheritance 2
- Anglican Roots : 1604 The Hampton Court Conference
- Anglican Roots : 1662 The Act of Uniformity and the Book of Common Prayer
- Anglican Roots : Movement 3
- Anglican Roots : Inheritance 3
- Anglican Roots : 1784 Samuel Seabury consecrated first American bishop
- Anglican Roots : 1888 The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral
- Anglican Roots : Movement 4
- Anglican Roots : Inheritance 4
Do you know the drinking game “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon“? Sam Norton and Mike Higton have just invented its theological/philosophical equivalent: Wittgenstein to Williams in two steps.
First, this is what Sam Norton would like to be read at his funeral:
I should like to say that … the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer… It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to say it. Practice gives the words their sense.1
(Good on you Sam! No “Death is nothing at all” for you. I bet you don’t even want Crimmond and Abide with me to be sung)
Then Mike Higton wrote this about Rowan Williams:
He assumes that ‘freedom of religion’ isn’t just a case of freedom of opinion, or freedom of speech, or freedom of association – not because religions deserve some extra aura of special ‘respect’, but because none of those freedoms quite captures what religions actually are. To be free to practice a religion is to be free to be involved in a complex, social, ongoing context – a ‘tradition’ or ‘community’ to use some shorthand - that deeply forms ones identity. If freedom of religion is to mean anything at all, it must mean freedom to be formed by such a community, and freedom to participate as a citizen in public life as one who has been formed by such a community.
Simple: W to W in two steps. In other words, (for any broadsheet journalists out there who don’t understand the big words), religious is as religious does.
Hats off to Sam and Mike.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright and Heikki Nyman, trans. Peter Winch, English translation with the amended second edition (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), 85e. [↩]
Again, Mike Higton has nailed it exactly in his excellent commentary on ‘Shariagate’ (and I’m so disappointed it hasn’t been called that by the tabloids and broadsheets). This is how Higton concludes, with two potential narratives for any journalist still uncertain how to report the story:
The first is the story that the Archbishop is a head-in-the-clouds academic, with no real grounding in the real world – and that this lecture is the latest in a series of blunders that could only be made by someone almost terminally naive. Accompany this by pictures that emphasise his eyebrows, and you have the makings of a convincing article. If you’re careful, you can make it sound like he’s been stuck in some academic cloister all his life, and has only emerged blinking into public in the last five minutes. You’ll have to brush over the fact that he’s exercised rather a lot of pastoral ministry, responding to quite an impressive range of quite-real-enough-thank-you circumstances1, and you’ll also do best not to mention how long he’s spent handling eye-watering arguments across the Anglican Communion that involve some of the most fractious and wilful antagonists you could hope to find – but just use the words ‘ivory tower’ a couple of times and your job will be done.
The second, rather similar, is the story that the Archbishop naively assumes the world to be stocked with ‘people of good will’ who will be reasonable if we speak to them nicely – and that he’s rather charmingly surprised when people turn out to be quite as wilfully unpleasant and selfish as they normally are. You’ll have to hide the fact that few contemporary theologians have as dark a view as he does of human beings’ ability destructively to deceive themselves – but people are always prepared to swallow a ‘genial vicar’ stereotype, so you should get away with it.
Go read the whole thing, and applaud.
- I love that phrase! [↩]
‘The prevailing attitude…was one of heavy disagreement with a number of things which the [speaker] had not said’. (Ronald Knox)
After forty eight hours in which people have been outraged by what the Archbishop said, what they thought the Archbishop said, what they thought the Archbishop didn’t say, what they thought the Archbishop ought to have said, and any other random prejudices that could be whipped up by a devious press (they know who they are), it is a relief to have the Archbishop’s own observations on what he said and its context.
Delivered as the presidential address at the opening of General Synod, a video link to the first, ‘sharia’ part of the address is here. The full text of the speech is here, including the ‘sharia section’, but also, perhaps more importantly, touching on the suffering of Christians in Zimbabwe.
Incidentally perhaps some of the more zealous critics of Dr Williams will be mollified by his conclusion to the ‘sharia section’:
If we can attempt to speak for the liberties and consciences of others in this country as well as our own, we shall I believe be doing something we as a Church are called to do in Christ’s name, witnessing to his Lordship and not compromising it.
God’s strength to him, I say.
Mike Higton, of Exeter University, has really done a magnificent job of producing a summary of the Archbishop’s now notorious speech: actually, three summaries; brief, longer and detailed. I mentioned it as an update to my own gloss below, but this really is a masterful analysis of what the Archbishop said (and occasionally, what he didn’t say).
It really does do what it says on the tin. Thank you, Mike.
… then how about this for a description of the last 48 hours:
An archbishop once gave an oration
On religion and law in our nation;
When we heard what he said
We all stoned him down dead,
To protect our great civilisation.
From the completely spot-on Ben Myers. (Thank you, Ben, for writing something that is both funny and acute).
I’ve often thought that the difference between reading the text of one of Dr William’s speeches, and hearing him delivering it, is like the difference between reading a music score and hearing the Berlin Philharmonic playing the piece: only the very gifted can “hear” the music from the score, but even the most flannel-eared can understand the beauty of the performance.
So it is all to the good that BBC Parliament are streaming a video recording of the delivery of the notorious speech. You can watch it here. (Thanks to Matt Wardman of the Wardman Wire for the link). One poignant moment in the lecture as delivered is the aside about the acoustics of the hall: if people aren’t able to hear the Archbishop’s speech, that’s not a problem, as so many people already know what he’s going to say, anyway.