A student’s brush with Orthodoxy

by
12 November 2008

Would Rowan Williams remain an Anglican? The answer wasn’t obvious at Oxford in the 1970s. Rupert Shortt tells the story in the first of three extracts from his new biography of the Archbishop

Beardless wonder: Rowan Williams with his parents Del and Aneurin after his graduation at Cambridge University in 1971

Beardless wonder: Rowan Williams with his parents Del and Aneurin after his graduation at Cambridge University in 1971

As a doctoral student at Oxford in the 1970s, before he met his future wife, Rowan Williams was attracted to the religious life, and explored a possible calling in visits to Roman Catholic religious communities. His spiritual director was Joseph Warrilow, a Benedictine monk of Quarr Abbey.

DID he really stand on the threshold of becoming a monk at this time? The prospect was certainly a worry to his mother, whose view of what constituted a proper career did not embrace the religious life. (Even on the day Rowan was consecrated a bishop, Del was heard to quip that with a brain like his, he would have done better to pursue a high-flying legal career.)

And his prayer life was nothing if not deeply serious. Peter Sedgwick, who shared a room with him during an academic conference in the late 1970s, notes that Rowan rose soon after 5 a.m. to pray for at least two hours before breakfast.

A query may still be raised about his intentions, though, because he was not also worshipping regularly at a Roman Catholic church in Oxford, or receiving instruction for a possible change of allegiance. John Saward became very close to Rowan in 1971-72, and then, having served a brief curacy in Warrington, when he returned to Oxford in 1974 as chaplain of Lincoln College. “I think it’s curious to ask first about the shape of your own vocation, and only then to consider which Church you should belong to,” he comments. “It’s putting the cart before the horse.”

One answer is that Rowan already considered himself to be a Catholic Christian, especially as the ecumenical tide was then reaching its highest point. For an Anglican considering the religious life, it was natural to weigh up the options available to a Roman Catholic, because of their greater variety. But after the first avenue was ruled out by his resolution to seek a wife, the second became far less likely because he could not accept papal infallibility.

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“I believe that vocations to the religious life are usually very specific,” he explains; “so I thought I should meditate on the general in the light of experiencing a particular community. I would have had to deal with the infallibility question at some point, though in fact it tended to be my Catholic friends who said, ‘We don’t believe this either — just keep your fingers crossed.’”

The Orthodox option was considered, but dismissed more briskly. As Rowan put it to his friend Sara Maitland, the novelist, he couldn’t spend the rest of his life “in intellectual and ethnic fancy dress”.

The apologia for Anglicanism he gave soon after his appointment to Canterbury sums up convictions that he had held unwaveringly from the mid-1970s onwards, at least until talk of a covenant arose in 2005: “For me, Anglicanism is a Church that has tried to find its unity less in a single structural pattern, or even a confession of faith, than in a pattern of preaching and ministering the sacramental action. The acts are what unifies it — the sacraments and the threefold ministry, and preaching the word. . .

“If you are looking for a Christian identity that is dependent neither on a pyramidal view of authority nor on highly specific confessional statements, there’s a lot to be said for Anglicanism.”

THIS is not to say that the appeal of Orthodoxy was only skin-deep. Donald Allchin told his student as early as 1972 that he had nothing left to teach him; so Rowan completed the thesis under his own steam. Entitled “The Theology of Vladimir Nikolaevich Lossky: An Exposition and Critique”, it was very well received by the examiners, Kallistos Ware (doyen among Anglican recruits to Greek Orthodoxy) and E. L. Mascall.

Lossky (1903-58) left revolutionary Russia as a young man, spending most of his career in France. His achievement is sometimes described as analogous to that of Karl Barth, because he was concerned (at least on the surface) to recall Orthodox theology to its primary data: scripture and the historical experience of the Church. He was thus suspicious of attempts by some 19th- and 20th-century Russian thinkers to bring about a rapprochement between theology and philosophy. In particular, he criticised Sergei Bulgakov (1871-1944) — the first object of Rowan’s research, before he settled on Lossky — for a purportedly excessive dependence on Hegel.

One of Rowan’s principal achievements was to establish the relative novelty of Lossky’s own thought. Far from being entirely rooted in the “unsullied” soil of primitive Christanity, as he claimed, Lossky owed a major debt both to modernity and to Catholicism, which made some of his anti-Western jibes look silly.

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The thesis was not a debunking exercise, however. Lossky’s synthesis is presented as having been more original than he himself would have cared to admit. At the same time, due attention is paid to the areas where Lossky’s veneration for the Fathers can be taken wholly at face value. The respect clearly shared by Rowan for the intellectual achievement of early Christianity is significant. In the 1960s and 70s, it was not uncommon for liberal scholars to view patristic theology with the same condescension as a contemporary astronomer might display for an instrument used by Galileo.

The thesis emphasises how the Fathers steered a middle course between intellectualism and agnosticism through an insistence both on God’s absolute incomprehensibility in himself, and his accessibility to humanity. Here as elsewhere, the Trinitarian mystery acquires greater focus. God is transcendent; but he transcends his transcendence, expressing his unknowable “essence” in his “energies” — that is, his manifestation in the world. . .

ORTHODOXY charged Rowan’s political batteries. He has always wanted economics to be informed, or even governed, by theological principle — with mixed results. On the positive side, sobornost, “personalism”, and cognate terms gave him an integrated vision rooted in Christian assurance about a unity to human experience — the belief that every river runs into the same sea. Bulgakov is especially associated with faith in an all-embracing creative principle that foments unity and makes equal sense in artistic and economic terms.

ORTHODOXY charged Rowan’s political batteries. He has always wanted economics to be informed, or even governed, by theological principle — with mixed results. On the positive side, sobornost, “personalism”, and cognate terms gave him an integrated vision rooted in Christian assurance about a unity to human experience — the belief that every river runs into the same sea. Bulgakov is especially associated with faith in an all-embracing creative principle that foments unity and makes equal sense in artistic and economic terms.

As Rowan puts it: “He proposed understanding business, commerce and, in fact, much of daily life in the context of creativity. In his book The Philosophy of Economy (1912), he said there was no such thing as economic man, homo economicus, which was to say, no set of eco­nomic answers that could tell us how society ought to be run.

“The context was Russia’s first 20th-century attempt to modernise by borrowing economic ideas from the West, and already Bulgakov was arguing, against certain German economists, that pure economics wouldn’t work in Russia. You can see a reflection of Bulgakov in the contemporary idea that pure eco­nomics is a fiction; that you need to factor in externals like trust to get a true picture. The Cambridge economist Partha Dasgupta strikes me as writing in a Bulgakovian spirit.”

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But the chief explanation for his sympathy with Bulgakov lies in his already established political profile. Socialism was integral to the world view of many Welsh Nonconform­ists, who tended to stress that Christianity is all about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the com­fortable, and that modern liberal society lacks the bonds of friendship underlying communitarian-based political systems.

To Rowan, the Left was more likely to stand for such virtues as civic-mindedness, frugality, and a critical attitude to the prevailing culture. The Right appeared less interested in many of the concerns dearest to his heart: nuclear disarmament, Third World development, and urban deprivation closer to home.

Rowan’s friends included Ken Leech, Rector of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, in east London. By 1974, Leech had become so alarmed by a perceived political lethargy among high-church Anglicans that he made a public bid to stop the rot. “Sickly pietism and a right-wing stance in social and political issues” represented “a serious betrayal of the social tradition of Anglo-Catholicism”, he warned, and this “might spell the death-knell of the movement as such”.

Behind this comment lay a two­fold concern: that Anglican Cathol­ics had learnt neither from the social gospel expressed in the 1930s by renowned priests such as Conrad Noel, nor from the aggiornamento (modernisation) ushered in by the Second Vatican Council.

Leech’s remarks struck a chord, and resulted in the setting up of a network, later called the Jubilee Group, which hosted conferences and published pamphlets. Rowan and John Saward were already meeting regularly on Thursday lunchtimes at what was then the Horse and Jockey on the Woodstock Road in Oxford; they now used these sessions to compose a manifesto for their colleagues. It begins by quoting another Russian theologian, Nikolai Fyodorov: “Our social programme is the dogma of the Holy Trinity.”

This is an edited extract from Rowan’s Rule: The biography of the Archbishop by Rupert Shortt (Hodder & Stoughton, £20 (£17); 978-0-340-95425-6).

Next week: the Newport years.

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