Williams the anti-individual speaks his individual mind

02 October 2012

HE was "exasperated" by the slogans of the Occupy protesters, he disagrees that atheists should be invited to present Thought for the Day, and he believes that, no, the Church of England is not in a worse position than when he began as Archbishop ten years ago.

Asked on Monday night whether he regretted being outspoken during his Canterbury tenure, Dr Rowan Williams expanded on his answer (in short, no) by providing frank replies to questions that probed some of the thorniest issues he has grappled with.

Dr Williams was speaking at Methodist Central Hall, where he gave the fifth annual lecture of the Christian thinktank Theos. Asked by the BBC newsreader Michal Husain, who chaired the lecture, to look back on certain comments which had got him into "hot water", Dr Williams said: "I do regrets all right, but I do not think that it will do to be too cautious in a job like this. . .

"You are here to try and say what you believe you have been given to say . . . to try and share a particular picture of what the world is like, what God is like. . . You have to keep trying to preserve the big picture."

Asked about whether his successor should be more guarded, he suggested that, in light of the names mentioned, "I do not think anyone will have that problem."

Dr Williams concluded, when asked whether he had left the Chuch in a worse position than the one he had found it in ten years ago, that: "There is no golden age of church history. . . Because I am a Christian and I believe in God, I believe the Church is not just in my hands. . . I believe that if God has called that Church into existence, God is faithful to what he has done."

Dr Williams was asked three questions about the Church of England's stance on homosexuality during the course of the evening. He argued that the Church had issued "repeated condemnation of homophobia", but said: "If people are getting the message that they are getting condemned for what they are, that has very serious mental-health impacts." He hoped that this was "not what the Church is doing".

It was, he said, "a great mistake to imagine people are waiting with baited breath to hear what the Church has to say about their sex lives". Pastoral practice meant "helping people to live with the decisions they have made", and "respecting where they have come from".

Asked about his view on the occupation of St Paul's Cathedral, Dr Williams said that he had felt "exasperation with the language of protest" which was "so general as to be undemanding". It had reminded him of an episode of the TV comedy Father Ted, during which a protest of priests involved them shouting "down with this sort of thing". It "does not help just to say we must work for the overthrow of capitalism".

The subject of Dr William's lecture, a typically wide-ranging and studious talk which encompassed the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky, the LSE professor Richard Sennett, and the psychotherapist Patricia Gosling, was "The personal and the individual: human dignity, human relationships, human limits".

His central thesis was a rejection of individualism in favour of a "personalist" approach to ethics. Dr Williams posited that: "What makes me a person, this person rather than another, is not simply a set of facts. . . It is the enormous fact of my being here rather than elsewhere, being in this relationship with those around me. . . I stand in the middle of a network of relationships."

Every human being was, he suggested, embued with an "enormous mysteriousness", and due "the same kind of reverence or attention". For this reason, Christians "worry about those kinds of human beings who may not tick all the boxes but who we still believe to be worthy of respect". This included the unborn, the severely disabled, the dying, and the marginalised.

He later concluded that this argument meant that: "You are not going to solve ethical arguments like abortion by saying it is like having a tooth out, or by saying you have to decide when the soul enters the body. . . We are talking about personal, relational, realities."

Human rights require, Dr Williams suggested, "a very strong focus on human dignity", and there was a connection between this notion of dignity and the notion of the sacred: "Before anything or anyone is in relationship, it is already in relationship to God."

The language of theology was "possibly the only way to speak well of who we are and what humanity is like . . . expecting relationship, expecting difference, expecting death and . . . expecting rather more than death, too".

Answering a question about where tolerance fitted into this world view, Dr Williams suggested that it was "rather low level" - a term that implied that "I have to put up with other people because in the short-term I can't get rid of them". He would like to "up the ante a little bit" to a "positive expectation" of the Other.

The lecture contained a fierce rejection of individualism: the "evolution of the unco-operative self" which seeks control, rejects engagement with others and fears scrutiny and transparency. It was evident throughout society, in corporate life and in the search for the perfect body or marriage. The "mystery of another person" could induce "terror or inarticulacy", yet we must risk encounter because we need one another, Dr Williams argued.


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