The Archbishop Has Much to Teach Us But Reforming Movements Need Soundbites Too

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  • Rowan Williams
    (Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville)
    Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (R) and his wife Jane wave to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip after a Diamond Jubilee multi-faith reception at Lambeth Palace in central London February 15, 2012.
By Alister McGrath, Christian Post Guest Contributor
September 21, 2012|9:29 am

Rowan Williams will stand down as Archbishop of Canterbury later this year after a decade of service. Williams brought a critical intellect to the role, unparalleled in recent years.

The breadth of his writing and reflection has been remarkable, ranging from an acutely penetrating examination of Dostoevsky's fiction to a more recent well-received exploration of C. S. Lewis's magical world of Narnia. Now Faith in the Public Square brings together lectures and articles spanning his period as Archbishop and gives readers the opportunity to read Williams for themselves, rather than having to depend on the often unreliable accounts found in newspaper reports of his speeches.

In this volume Williams offers highly informed, scholarly, and critical perspectives on a wide range of contemporary cultural, moral and social issues. His analysis is often as prophetic as it is scholarly. The most important sections of the work deal with trends in British culture, particularly the rise of secularism and multiculturalism. His definition and subsequent criticism of secularism is of abiding importance.

It would be unfair to focus exclusively on this aspect of Faith in the Public Square, as it would not do justice to the scope and range of the book. Yet there is little doubt that his analysis nudges this public discussion on, leaving behind the stale stereotypes and templates of more polemical writers. Unwilling to accept the "lazy chatter" of left or right, Williams insists on discerning deeper themes and concerns.

Williams argues that in refusing to acknowledge "agencies or presences beyond the tangible", secularism leads to a "social practice that is dominated by instrumental or managerial considerations". Perhaps his most significant criticism of secularism lies in pointing to its loss of imaginative vision - above all, its failure to imagine why others might find the transcendent or divine an object of adoration or a source of social capital. Williams's persistent probing of secularism exposes layers of concerns and questions that take the debate far beyond the fading simplifications of the New Atheism.

Other religious figures might merely choose to criticise secularism. Yet Williams goes further, drawing our attention to the extent to which religion itself has been shaped by secular agendas. His suggestion that religious fundamentalism is itself the outcome of secular influences perhaps needs further substantiation. Yet it is representative of the originality of Williams's analysis, which probes deftly to find cultural connections that others might have missed, teasing out their possible implications.

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His analysis of multiculturalism cautiously navigates a channel between the simplistic rhetorics of culturally entrenched positions. Williams - surely rightly - notes the dangers of "Balkanisation" and "ghettoisation" in modern Britain. He points out the consequences of ethnic groups and cultures refusing to interact with one another, still less allowing themselves to be affected by others. How, he asks, can this encourage social cohesion?

Later essays in the collection deal with the challenges to the environment, the nature of human rights, the place of religion in modern Europe, and perceptions of older people. Williams stands within a long tradition of Christian theologians who recognised that the Christian faith offers both a framework for understanding society, and a vision for its transformation, especially in relation to the poor and the marginalised. Here the range and depth of engagement invites a comparison with his distinguished predecessor, William Temple.

Yet one is left with nagging questions. Does Williams lose himself in translation? Like the phenomena he seeks to explore, Williams is often complex, even inaccessible. He clearly struggles to make himself comprehensible. His highly, perhaps overly, nuanced discussions of complex issues are easily misunderstood and misrepresented. The irate response to Williams's closely argued comments on Sharia in 2008 is perhaps a warning to all academics of the dangers of trying to apply theory to real social and political situations. Fine distinctions, readily accommodated within the academic world, are easily collapsed by the popular media. Journalists facing tight deadlines rapidly scan carefully crafted texts with their highlighters, looking for potential headlines, rather than absorbing their deep structure and distilling their significance.

There is, however, a more fundamental question. What does one do with this analysis? Reading this work expanded my vision, correcting my understanding of at least two points, and enhancing my appreciation of several others. But I wondered whether I or anyone else would behave differently as a result. How does all this analysis affect the Church's engagement with the social questions of our day? How does it further political debate about and engagement with the Big Society?

Many in the Churches, for example, are concerned about loss of national religious identity. What can be done, they wonder, to defend religious rights without asserting religious privilege? How can the language of faith reconnect with the language of our culture?

William provides his readers with an erudite lens, through which we can view our social and cultural world. What we encounter under his tutelage is not so much guidance ("let's do this"), but a different and richer way of seeing things.

Yet this leaves so many dots to be joined up that many are left unable to work out what needs to be done. There will be some among Williams's readers who will reluctantly conclude that things are just so complicated that it's difficult to know what they're meant to do - and so not do anything.

Williams wages war on crass simplifications and shallow slogans. It is impossible to reduce him to soundbites - to snappy and easily grasped slogans. Yet history suggests that great social reforming movements often rely on exactly such simple slogans to achieve social impact and cultural traction. Williams's analysis sparkles with scholarly brilliance and insight. But is that enough to inform and motivate action?

Inevitably, one wonders about the future. Who is to succeed Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury?

None in the Church of England's House of Bishops approaches Williams's intellectual brilliance. Yet perhaps what the Church now needs is someone who can transpose his rich vision of faith into something that can be grasped and implemented.

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Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams (Bloomsbury, £20), (Amazon.com, $24.88).

Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at King's College London and President of The Oxford Centre For Christian Apologetics. His biography of C. S. Lewis will appear in March 2013.

This article first appeared in The Times of London, Sept. 15, 2012.

The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics
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