‘As a spiritual leader, he models what he teaches: openness to God, humility, and compassion’ in his sermon at his enthronement in 2003, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he was praying that the Church would find “confidence, courage, an imagination set on fire by the vision of God the Holy Trinity”.
Whatever has happened to the Church during his nine years, Dr Rowan Williams has embodied much of the aspiration of that prayer. He has always magnetised people. Surprisingly light on his feet, unassuming, slightly scruffy, and deaf in one ear, he enters a room and is at once a visible reminder of what Christianity is: the faith of the incarnation, a coming-together of holiness and humanity. Always at his best when speaking extempore, with his fluency and responsiveness he imparted confidence, courage, and the fire of vision.
He was just as unconventional and strangely attractive when I first knew him as an undergraduate in Cambridge in the early ’70s. He has remained his unconforming self as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, in spite of the intolerable pressures of office. His secret, if it is a secret, is that his presence is always personal. He is always Rowan.
We tend to think of holiness and humanness as being two separate things, rather at odds with one another. But Rowan expects the two to converge. As a spiritual leader, he models what he teaches: openness to God, humility, a complete lack of personal pomposity, and compassion.
Rowan’s ministry to Church and nation has not been programmatic. He has not had an obvious agenda. His writings (apart from a significant one on Dostoevsky) have been episodic, written-up notes and lectures, the most memorable of which have been the journal that became Lost Icons (T. &T. Clark/ Continuum, 2000); Writing in the Dust (Hodder & Stoughton, 2002), the searing memoir after 9/11; and Tokens of Trust (Canterbury Press, 2007), a little book on the creeds.
Rowan’s spiritual life has been formed out of an encounter between Welsh Calvinism with Anglo-Catholicism, grounded in patristic theology, and seasoned by his fascination with the Orthodox liturgy. He has always been in dialogue with Roman Catholicism, perhaps more with the Benedictines and Carmelites than the Jesuits.
His marriage to Jane brought him closer to the Evangelical tradition, and his natural warmth and immediacy has enabled him to be himself with Charismatic Christians.
In the Anglican world, he identifies sympathetically with the tortured Archbishop Thomas Cranmer; he admires Richard Hooker; and he respects the biblical exactitude and vision of Brooke Foss Westcott. But his heart is with the poets, especially with George Herbert and R. S. Thomas.
I have sometimes wondered whether Rowan’s spirituality is too much inclined towards the tragic, whether he is over-fascinated by the suffering self. He admits to the persistence of a gloomy streak, a hangover from the Calvinism of his childhood.
This might be manifested in his habit of showing greater sympathy with those who oppose him theologically than with those who support him. There are shadow lands here, and a danger that a sincere attempt to follow the self-emptying, the kenosis, of Christ might bring him uncomfortably close to an unrealisable ambition to have no enemies.
WHEN announcing his departure, Rowan spoke of the dimwitted ignorance and prejudice that had given rise to hostility to faith in recent years. Certainly, his vision of a renewal of society’s engagement with faith has not yet come to pass.
Yet put Rowan in conversation with Philip Pullman or Richard Dawkins, and it is clear that he does not believe in the point-scoring apologetic with which many Christians are comfortable. He is much more likely to begin with friendship, mapping out common ground, affirming the legitimacy of those who differ from him — and only then opening up the possibility of a broader perspective.
This gentle but rigorous approach shows a person who is secure in God in a way that is increasingly rare among his flock. For him, God is not an entity who might or might not happen to exist. God is simply the condition for every kind of life and living, the source and resource that is without end, and who can therefore be trusted at all times and in every circumstance.
He realises that many of us would prefer to fight about a God who competes with human reason: atheists and conservative believers share an interest in a God who can be proved or disproved. But Rowan would have us approach God through the imagination, through the experiment of our own lives, through stillness and trust, action and trial.
In all that he has done as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan has tried to show us that the well of faith is deep. We do not have to conform to our driven and judgemental society; nor should we comply with the demands of an over-anxious and increasingly bureaucratic Church. We should instead be faithful (like St David of Wales) in the little things, sacred scripture, prayer, attention to persons. It is in such details that the gospel is born, and where it is renewed.
The Revd Dr Angela Tilby is a Residentiary Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.