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Press: Rowan Williams’s orthodoxy is no joke

03 December 2021


AN UNUSUALLY scrupulous and informative interview with Rowan Williams was the high spot of the week in terms of journalistic craft: Tim Stanley, the Telegraph columnist and leader-writer, interviewed the former Archbishop, who was plugging his Collected Poems (Books for Christmas, 26 November).

“Williams is perceived as a man of the Left; as Archbishop, he was critical of untrammelled free markets and the Iraq War,” Stanley writes. “But on many subjects, such as the cultivation of civilisation, he sounds conservative.

“Information has become abundant, he says, yet ‘the process of acquiring that information’ — ie scrolling through one’s phone — ‘has disabled us intellectually. . . We are increasingly forgetting how to learn. We assume that knowledge can be distilled and communicated and transferred just like that . . . a tick box approach which is found in clergy training.’ What knowledge we inherit, we take for granted, yet ‘the absolutism of some modern social morality’ — the idea that right and wrong are obvious — ‘did not drop from heaven. We learnt to see things this way.’”

The trick of interviewing people is always to get them talking about the work they love. In the Archbishop’s case, this means that you concentrate on the poetry and ignore, so far as possible, the job he once had.

On the poetry, he was honest and unpretentious: “‘If one tries to sit down and ‘write a poem about X . . . you’d end up staring at the wall’. Instead, a ‘phrase or a line arrives, and you have to listen around it, [to ask] where did this come from? And see where it unfolds.’ He acknowledges the risk that people raised in the 21st century ‘with no sense of depth or transcendence won’t write poetry,’ but he is optimistic. ‘If the individual is made in the image of God’, as Christians believe, then ‘the desire to express the infinite will wriggle through,’ he tells me.”

People think that journalists are bad about deadlines, but it appears that Archbishops are even worse. This interview produced one completely wonderful story, only 12 years too late: he would, he said, have been relieved had Dr Michael Nazir-Ali been chosen for Canterbury instead of him. There was one deliciously feline touch: “Williams was not surprised by Nazir-Ali’s conversion, though he wonders what he makes of the papacy ‘in the light of the theology . . . I have heard him arguing in the past’.” Quite so.

In fact, the sparring with Stanley, who also became a Roman Catholic, gives the interview some tension. It doesn’t read, though, the way most such encounters do, as if Stanley is trying to show how much cleverer he is (and, by implication, how much cleverer you, the reader, are than the hapless schmuck of a so-called expert who’s being interviewed: contempt was monetised by the print media long before social media came along to democratise it further).

Stanley says that he would not trust an Anglican priest to give him the last rites on his deathbed; Williams responds that most would give communion to the dying and that all of them should. “I tell him that, on my death bed, I would want to know what I’m going to get. ‘You’re going to get the mercy of God,’ he says. What if I don’t deserve it? ‘Of course you don’t deserve it!’ he jokes. ‘Do any of us?’”

I’m not entirely certain that this was a joke. I thought it was orthodoxy.


THE other interview worth noting came from the New Statesman, in which Freddie Hayward talked to Alison Milbank about the Save the Parish campaign.

“Most people in England have a nearby C of E parish church,” Hayward writes. “First established in the Anglo-Saxon period, England’s parish churches are responsible for what is called the ‘cure of the souls’ — the spiritual and pastoral needs of the local population. Milbank explained that, whether Christian or not, everyone has the right to ask their local parish church to provide baptisms, marriages and pastoral care. She paused to glance up as an Asian man with a greying beard and a high-vis jacket entered St Mary’s for a moment’s reflection. Placing his hard hat beside him, he sat in a pew at the back of the nave. ‘It’s a bit like a kind of spiritual NHS,’ she said, turning to me.”

An Evangelical member of the Archbishops’ Council got in touch to express incredulity that anyone could still think of the Church in those terms. But lots of people do. Its what Establishment implies, in social terms — that the Church should be a kind of public utility, available to everyone. Even if it is impossible for some Evangelicals to grasp that other Christians still seriously believe this, the real problem with this model is the funding. The NHS is funded by taxpayers who most of the time don’t use it and don’t want to. The Church has not been funded that way since the abolition of tithes; people who want to retain its character as a public utility will have to find the money somewhere else. State aid for buildings seems to me the only possible solution.

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