A review article by Philip Harvey of Ben Myers' book ‘Christ the Stranger: the Theology of Rowan Williams’. Ben Myers' blog is also recommended: http://www.faith-theology.com/
Life is life and all our encounters with humans teach us something about humanity and our life on earth. That is a general truth. Or a truism, it may not even be completely true.
Then, on reflection, we think about those throughout our life who have taught us faith, hope, and charity. This focuses the attention mightily on those we have encountered in our life. Who are we really learning from? Who shows by example that which we are asked to believe? Who has increased our understanding, deepened our experience?
I could name many many people in my fortunate life who have shown me faith, hope, and charity: family, clergy, teachers, friends, brief acquaintances (sometimes the most intense and interesting), characters in stories, writers never met, strangers.
One such person is high profile in almost anyone’s language, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. His arrival in my life, before he was Cantuar, came at a time when I needed more thought, a different kind of poetry, a serious recall to why we must work at faith, hope, and charity. Rowan Williams is simpatico. He is an Anglican who draws from the deep wells of Anglican tradition. Yet he is also a searcher and researcher in other traditions, notably Benedictinism, Russian Orthodoxy, and the main streams of Western empirical philosophy. In his search and research these are all treated as necessarily part of an Anglican approach to faith, distinctive traditions that we learn from and live by.
Visits to Melbourne by Rowan Williams in 1998 (Bishop of Monmouth) and 2002 (he knew he had been made Cantuar but had to keep mum) meant seeing and hearing him in person, which is why the term ‘high profile’ is almost comically absurd in his case. Anyone could see that along with a remarkable intellect and prodigious store of knowledge, here was a man with a humility, reverence and self-effacement we might equate with holiness. These things were not a contradiction but seemed the product one of the other. Virtually everything he said seemed to come from a place of prayer, as much as from the processes of recondite thought and extensive reading. He could talk equally well and meaningfully to a child as to the most abstruse academic.
In thanks at the conclusion to one 2002 talk, Bishop John Bayton of Melbourne described Rowan Williams as a ‘living icon’, in the proper Christian sense of showing forth the sacred. Williams visibly bent his head and slumped slightly at this description, as though this was not a grand representation of himself, not a mantle he would take on by his own admission. Bishop Bayton was clearly enlivened and inspired by Rowan William’s words and presence, and justly so, but for Rowan the talk was simply part of his duty, part of the role he has chosen, or that has chosen him. That he would be embarrassed to be called a ‘living icon’ is an insight into Rowan Williams to keep in mind when reading him, and reading what others write or say about him.
As a result of those brief encounters I began to read his publications in some detail. At St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill in Melbourne this coincided with a reading group called the Canterbury Readers, started up by the Vicar Fr John Davis and Robert Whalley, the sole purpose of which was at each session to read in preparation one book, article, or other piece by Rowan Williams. The Canterbury Readers brought together an extended, lively group of parishioners who were able to talk about their faith through the prompts of Rowan’s words. We would sit around the Vicarage table talking about Rowan on first name terms, as though we had known him for years: sometimes it felt like that. The group itself followed the difficult times that he experienced at Lambeth Palace after 2002, usually in solidarity, though the original leaders of the group became a little disaffected after the Archbishop made statements and decisions that went counter to their understanding of his earlier exciting teachings on gay issues. Disputes around sexuality were to be one of the main fields of conflict during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, both in England but more stressfully within the Anglican Communion itself. The priority of keeping the Communion cohesive and communicating would have been one of his main responsibilities. Such considerations played out the challenge he understood well himself, between the call of the Gospel and the exigencies of church politics both global and local.
As well as the pure output of words from Williams himself, there are ongoing biographies, subject theses, and already a number of short introductions to his work. One of the best is ‘Christ the Stranger : the Theology of Rowan Williams’, by Benjamin Myers (T. & T. Clark, 2012. ISBN 978-0-567-59971-1). Originally planned as a longer academic-style book, its concentration on key ideas is helpful both for the novice and the old hand. Myers himself is a theological polymath, hence the appearance of ease with which he meets Rowan Williams on the page. Refreshingly, the book is a gift from Sydney, a city where due to an ideology that has become dangerously political, the Anglican hierarchy there actually boycott Rowan Williams when he visits. There are few other places in the world where we would expect such ungracious conduct. Ben Myers teaches at the Uniting Church theological school in Sydney.
Rowan Williams’ theology of the church is “a theology of growth. For him, the gospel itself is at stake in the question whether the church is the venue of a continuing movement of human persons towards God and towards one another.” Myers shows how Williams wishes to get at the source of the teaching and work with it, using here scripture but also a well-known favourite Father of the Church. “Like Augustine, Williams places limited trust in sudden conversions and quick resolutions; one cannot live by such experiences. It is not the quick transformation of the self but the slow growth into maturity that really matters. The Christian life is compatible to nothing so much as an education, in which we progress by small daily increments.” Like Myers, I find this view not only attractive but true to life. It is the view of someone who has lived long inside the church, long enough to know that conversion is a continuing process. Quick fixes do not serve us for the actualities of day-to-day life, let alone the crises that test and change us as humans, whoever we may be or believe. Christian spirituality is defined by Williams as “an education in the new humanity.” And perhaps it is Myers’ own Pentecostal upbringing that informs his opinion that “there is a sober realism in this picture of the church as a social order whose members represent vastly different stages of understanding, maturity, and responsiveness.” For me, this is the only reality that can allow for all possibilities. All of us are open to the possibility of being church, which is why I relate so strongly to Rowan Williams. He is interested in true catholicity and in real individual involvement, whoever we might be, wherever we might be coming from.
In light of Bishop Bayton’s words, I find Myers’ chapter on ‘Saints’ especially insightful. Put at its simplest, “For [Rowan Williams], the saints occupy the same normative position that hierarchy occupies in Catholic ecclesiology or that practice occupies in much contemporary theology.” This comes from seeing the church as the Orthodox do, “not primarily in terms of form or ritual, but in terms of its saints.” Holy living is a distinct way of being human, available to anyone. The saint stands “closer to the source of what it means to be a full human being.” The church contains believers and it contains “the startling presence of holy lives.” This for Williams is what the church is actually about, how it is constituted. Although drawing from Russian Orthodoxy, I notice that Williams is identifying the example of living that is also presented most forcefully by the Anglican Divines. (It informs his selection of passages in the outstanding anthology of Anglican spirituality, ‘Love’s Redeeming Work’) It is as though he finds in Orthodoxy a sympathetic description of Anglican spiritual life, as though he needed to go outside the Anglicanism of his own contemporaries to rediscover or redefine holiness as understood by his own tradition. Saints live among us, we are made aware of their actions and prayers. The people we live amongst in church are doing this, and often it is not the expected people who prove to be the ones who teach us most about Christ and holy living. Williams calls it “the hiddenness of Christ in the Church’; this is something that I too have been taught about from an early age.
But he goes further. Far from reassuring itself by its successes, the church needs to be open to its failures. Myers argues that Williams thinks “it is often our failures that bring us closest to the well of life.” It is only when the ego is dethroned that we can start to be drawn to “the real source of our being in Christ.” (This is one of the main themes of the sermon we heard him give at St Peter’s on Pentecost Sunday in 2002.) Williams has even said that the lives of the saints “might be the only legitimate apologetics, the only persuasive argument for the existence of God.” Their lives are unintelligible, weird even, defying explanation – unless the explanation is God.
This catholic, but not Roman Catholic, understanding of sainthood is strongly tied to Williams’ views on prayer. As Myers so eloquently puts it, “We are inclined to think of Christianity as a tradition of ideas, an elaborate system of beliefs stretched out across time. But Christian tradition is primarily and essentially a tradition of prayer. It is a millennia-long experiment in listening to God and replying to God while looking at the crucified Jesus” Again, Williams is completely orthodox in his unconventional way of talking about the life of faith. He does not appeal primarily to the main doctrines of the church as the explanation for what is going on, but to the practice that everyone is asked to do who is trying to follow Jesus.
Also, just as saints are meaningful through their failures as much or more than their successes, so prayer “subverts the hidden power operations of our language.” Myers asks the question that Williams is asking through his writing: “For what is prayer except a confession of our own failure, our hunger, our incompleteness before God?” Prayer is the crucial thing, Myers says, or as Williams says, it is the means by which our speech “articulates its own incompleteness before God.” It is by conversing with God in this state of humility that we can begin to converse with others likewise. “The inefficient language of prayer both nourishes and judges our religious speech.” This forwarding of prayer as essential to our lives of faith, as more important than any theology or other talk that we may engage in, explains where Rowan Williams is coming from and going to. It also shows that for him prayer is at the centre of Anglicanism, the centre of Christian life.
Myers charts the progress of Williams’ theology by identifying thinkers who significantly changed the course of his own thinking. Growing up in Wales it was Wittgenstein who taught Williams about language being a product of social interaction. Language is determined by sociality, which means that ideas only become meaningful or useful once we ask “how they operate within wider social environments.” At Cambridge he meets Donald MacKinnon. MacKinnon was a figure at odds with the euphoric even utopian optimism of the 1960s; he gives to Williams a view of existence as inherently tragic. Tragedy, hope and redemption are the theme of Williams’s subsequent lectures on T.S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, a poem that Myers identifies as essential to the intellectual and spiritual growth of the writer. Sigmund Freud’s theories are the start, but not the answer, to his own questions about original sin and our relationship with God. Then, at a stage where he is trying to argue with French theory of differance, it is Gillian Rose who introduces Williams to Hegel.
Rowan Williams bears witness to the catholicity of the gospel. Myers sees Williams as engaged in genuine theological endeavour, which is about being “drawn into a collective struggle for truthful speech.” (p. xi) His work all has the same starting point, according to Myers, “a trust that God’s activity is intimately accessible, available right here in the midst of ordinary embodied life with others.” (p. 4)
Ben Myers does not claim to be comprehensive, that is impossible anyway. He offers “no more than a record of my curiosity, my fascination with the way Williams thinks and writes and reads.” This simple admission comes close to many people’s first experience with Rowan Williams, my own included. It is the fascination that comes from meeting someone who is prodigiously learned and yet shares that learning as though it really does belong to everyone. Unlike other intellects we could name from English universities, Williams nearly always leaves open a space for doubt or further exploration in his theology. I find this everywhere in his writing in his use of indefinite words like ‘perhaps’ and provisional clauses like “We may want to think of this question in this way, if we wish.” It is the curiosity that comes from hearing complex things said in an noncomplex manner. We are aware that Williams is offering things of immense preciousness. We are made conscious that this preciousness that cannot have a value placed on it. Myers’ record helps this way to understanding with practical illuminations and a keen attention to the growth of his mind.
That said, I wish to raise one necessary quibble. When he became Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams played to the media by self-styling himself “a gloomy Celt”. We can argue that this was a way of fending off those who would complain that he was too serious, or not English enough, or not good-humoured enough to sit on the chair of Augustine of Canterbury. I see it as more of his Benedictine self-deprecation, but Ben Myers concludes his record of Williams’s theology with the view that it is, in fact, well, more than perhaps, rather gloomy. While Williams has “recovered the meaning of the word ‘love’ … the price … is tragedy.” He likens his theology to a tightrope walker moving precariously between two points, tragedy and love. He calls it a “theology of Lent”, even adding the disconcerting claim, “one cannot live by ash alone.” I have to say I do not find this a satisfactory summary of Rowan Williams or his thought, at all, just as I disagree with Myers’ view that “the deepest patterns of his thought … are drawn from the piety of Russian Orthodoxy”, that Williams is “Orthodox in Anglican form.”
My impression of Rowan Williams is of an Anglican Divine who not only believes entirely in the catholicity of Christianity but demonstrates it every day in word and deed. This means seeing every expression of Gospel as having the potential to teach us something of the ways of God. Not all of these expressions will be productive, some may be false leads, but whether it is Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Protestantism in its many manifestations, or some other means to the same end, what is of interest is its use in revealing in new ways the how and who and what and why of the Trinity. I would say that this sort of broad embrace of traditions is not typical generally in other forms of Christianity, but it is very much a part of Anglican practice and tradition. It is because of Anglicanism that Rowan Williams can go out to these places and bring back new things. Permission is given and the results deepen our own understanding both of Christianity and of Anglicanism. A larger book may well have brought in more of the Anglican thinking from all ages that is, undoubtedly in my view, is what informs “the deepest patterns of his thought.” I know that when I visit the Lambeth website today to read his latest lecture or statement or sermon, the first thing I hear is Anglican language, with all its care and particularities. Reasons for this blind spot, if I dare to cal it that, may have to do with Myers’ own religious growth; the life of the sacraments, for example, is not a strong subject in this book.
The thread of a thesis in the book is highlighted by the title. Rowan Williams presents us repeatedly with Christ as the stranger, not as the person we know but as the person we must come to know, the person we don’t even recognise as Christ because he is a stranger. Ben Myers has found a very helpful message and meaning at the centre of Williams’ thought. In the Prologue, he quotes poems by Williams about two artworks depicting Christ (Piero della Francesca’s ‘Resurrection’ and the Pantokrator at Daphni in Greece) as examples of how, far from being familiar, as we might hope and think, we are confronted with the face of a stranger. The Interlude in the centre of the book looks at the icon of ‘Our Lady of Vladimir’, where the Christ child pushes insistently for warmth from his mother. In all of these works there is a shock. We must face up to the fact that that there is “something frightening about redemption, something alarming abut the relentless intensity of God’s love.” When talking about the saints he says that often we do not recognise saints when we see them because their behaviour is so “knocked off balance”, they are strangers to us until we start to learn from their “weirdness”, the strange geometry that reveals how much it is our own world that is knocked off balance. And the book’s Epilogue recounts the story of Emmaus, that moving testimony of certain individuals who meet a stranger on the road whom they do not recognise until the bread is broken at their simple meal. This is the same stranger that we meet again each time we partake of the meal that he first shared. Myers keeps bringing to our attention that which Williams also wishes to present to us: in Christ “we see one another clearly”. This stranger who is “completely out of step with our familiar world” meets us and in that sharing we are never the same as we were before. Certainly that waking-up sensation, which we may hear in a sermon and know in the eucharist, is something I also encounter frequently in the words of Rowan Williams. That there is till more to hear and learn is itself cause for hope.