An embodiment of faithfulness

22 March 2012

Dr Williams offers a personal example of his vision of holiness, argues Angela Tilby



‘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.

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