Theology ‘in the dark’

    John Richardson on Rowan Williams

One of the major reasons why the appointment of Dr Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury has been greeted with such enthusiasm by some is the conviction that here at last is a man to lead the Church of England who is also a genuine theologian. And certainly Dr Williams is held in considerable esteem, not least by his publishers, although the ‘blurb’ on the back of Resurrection surely lapses into hyperbole (if not hubris) when it says that ‘No Christian leader writes with more courage, insight or power than … Rowan Williams.’ Others with less vested interest in marketing the Archbishop nevertheless describe him as an outstanding thinker, as well as being a man of deep personal humility.

Yet not everyone is so keen on Rowan Williams’ theological gifts. In particular, Dr Garry Williams of Oak Hill Theological College has produced a critique of his theology which is deeply negative.1 And no reader of this journal could be unaware of the controversy over the Archbishop’s views on homosexuality expressed in his essay The Body’s Grace.2 So is the Archbishop to be welcomed as a breath of fresh intellectual air or is he, as some have suggested, to be denounced as a ‘false teacher’ with all that this implies? What actually is he like as a theologian and what might it mean for the Church of England to have this man as the Archbishop of Canterbury for the next thirteen years?

A Berean Approach

In the spirit of the inhabitants of Berea, who studied the Scriptures for themselves to see if the gospel were true (Acts 17.11), I set out towards the end of last year to read as much of Rowan Williams as I could manage (or, in the event, afford!). By the same principle, I also avoided reading Garry Williams’ booklet until the New Year, as I didn’t want my judgement coloured in advance. So far I have only read four of Rowan Williams books, but I watched the television programme made about him during the run-up to his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, listened to the radio broadcast he made on the evening of Christmas day, and have read smaller articles of his, such as the Dimbleby lecture.

So far, I certainly feel I have grasped the outline of his theology. Nevertheless, Rowan Williams is a prolific writer and speaker, and I am aware that I have only scratched the surface of his output. In the light of this, however, I also recognize the extraordinary achievement of Garry Williams in digesting so much of the Archbishop’s work in such a short period of time and condensing it into such a succinct booklet. Moreover, my impression is that in his summary of Rowan Williams’ views on revelation, sin and salvation, and sexual ethics (the three main divisions of his booklet), Garry Williams has got it broadly right. Not everyone will agree with Garry Williams’ own Conservative Evangelical theology, but I could find no point at which I felt he had significantly misunderstood or misrepresented Rowan Williams, in spite of allegations to that effect in some quarters. I therefore commend his book to those who want to a critique of the Rowan Williams corpus, particularly as it can be had free of charge!

Outstanding?

But what sort of theologian is Rowan Williams? Certainly he is very intelligent. Moreover, he is effortlessly eloquent. But is he outstanding? My own answer would be yes and no.

My personal response to Williams’ work divided it into two categories. In the one corner are his ‘best sellers’—the ones I have read being The Body’s Grace, Open to Judgement, Christ on Trial and Resurrection. Grouped with these are also his public talks and lectures. And in the opposite corner, standing on its own, is his recently re-published 1987 work, Arius: Heresy and Tradition.

The popular works are indeed tours de force of poetic language and vivid imagination. They are also, in my assessment, theologically questionable, verbally overblown and, for me personally, finally irritating. Reading them one after the other reminded me of the time I got ‘into’ Shakespeare. The reputation of the bard is obviously deserved. But you can have too much of a good thing, and after reading several plays in a row one begins to detect the structural repetitions and stylistic flaws, even in this greatest of writers. In much the same way, however, I found the talks and sermons in Open to Judgement beginning to grate after reading the first dozen or so. The disagreements piled up almost as fast as the grandiose sentences, and the style which was at first impressive seemed after a while to frustrate rather than assist in conveying the substance. Indeed, Rowan Williams’ prose is sometimes as purple as his episcopal shirt:

 

‘... we cannot succeed in surprising ourselves by the effort not to be bored and self-reflexive; we can only struggle in the dark to avoid that imprisonment, struggle against becoming incapable of surprise, deaf to the unplanned question or interruption.’3

Even allowing for its context, this prompted the marginal note ‘What is he on about?’ Notice, in particular, the phrase ‘in the dark’ which adds nothing to this sentence except a spurious air of angst. But Williams’ popular works are full of such ‘angsty’ expressions. Life seems to be one long struggle with uncertainty, compounded by the fact that God seems to take more delight in confounding our conclusions than lightening our darkness. And this is clearly reflected in the way that Williams writes – strong on emotion, but short on clarification. For some people this is evidently immensely stimulating, but increasingly I found myself wondering why, if the Archbishop had something to say, he didn’t just say it, or if he had nothing to say, he didn’t just shut up. Certainly a more radical use of the editorial scissors would not go amiss!

Landmark

Yet just as I was about to write Williams off as a man with a grand way of saying not very much, I opened Arius and discovered an entirely different work by quite a different author. Here was something which I immediately felt deserved the description given of it by Alister McGrath as ‘a landmark of scholarship’. It is clearly a serious piece of theology, taken seriously by others in the same field, reflecting not only an immense breadth of knowledge but a profound ability to distil the complexities of the subject. Above all, in comparison with his popular work, it is straightforward – or at least as straightforward as he can make such a far-from-simple topic. In short, I was impressed.

Authority

But this immediately prompted me to ask why I found the Archbishop’s scholarly work refreshing and his avowedly populist material tedious. And the difference, I concluded, is that in Arius, Williams’ intelligence and eloquence are disciplined by his submission to the authority imposed by his material and by the scholarly community.

The discipline imposed by his material comes from the ‘objectivity’ of the texts. In Arius, Williams has set out to discern what the heresiarch really thought and to set it in its context. This is not easy, due to the lack of Arius’ own writings and our dependence on the works of his opponents. Nevertheless, what is available allows scholars to advance their suggestions. However, what the scholar can not do is dismiss or ignore the texts. Equally, he cannot simply throw in his own opinions or introduce material from other sources not germane to the subject. In short, the scholar must treat the available texts in much the same way as the traditionalist Christian treats the Bible. He brings to them all his skills of language, background knowledge and literary understanding, but in the end he can only ‘beat on these texts’ to know what the author means and draw his conclusions accordingly. He is subject to them, and does not sit over them. Nor, in spite of the fact that the texts come from individuals with their own history, does the scholar seek to go behind the texts to a ‘real’ engagement with his topic. All of this is reflected in Williams’ Arius, but very little of it in his populist works.

Community

But there is another discipline imposed on the scholar, and that comes from the academic community. As a scholar himself, Williams knows that his work is to be examined by those who are not merely inclined to be critical but are qualified to criticize. It is not enough to be eloquent in this arena. One must be right, or face the embarrassment of scholarly demolition. Hence Arius is written with care, with caution and with clarity. Moreover, Williams is prepared to engage with his critics, not merely agreeing to differ, but responding either with acknowledgement that they are right or with further evidence for his own position. In other words, he approaches his scholarship in the way that the Church used to do theology, convinced that whilst absolute truth may not be attained, relative accuracy is entirely possible – one position can be more right or more wrong than another.

There is, however, almost no acknowledgement of this standing over against an authoritative community in Williams’ other works. Williams has been described as ‘orthodox’, but it is well-known that his orthodoxy is not that of traditional Christianity. Williams and the traditionalist may overlap, but they often do so for entirely different reasons – the traditionalist because Scripture or tradition tell him so, Williams because having considered Scripture, tradition and the other available evidence, it seems reasonable to him. Thus on the story of the virgin birth, in which Williams is said to believe, he writes,

The core of it may be literally true; or there may have been an oddity or mystery about Jesus’ birth that sparked off legend and speculation.4

Generally, however, Williams is happy to sit light to orthodoxy and even to ignore or dismiss it without advancing his reasons. And this surely suggests that the opinions of the Church do not weigh as heavily with him as those of the scholarly community. Hence, although he must surely disagree with Garry Williams’ critique, he has not produced any formal response. He has not brought his own theological views into this arena, either to admit their faults or to defend their validity, yet he has written a whole new chapter at the end of Arius ‘to respond’, as he says, ‘to various criticisms and to acknowledge weaknesses’.5

Engagement

All this means that although it will be perfectly possible for those who disagree with Rowan Williams to enter into dialogue with him, it will be a fruitless exercise because there will be no engagement between him and his critics. Dialogue is popular in the Church of England, involving as it does acceptance and listening. But dialogue is not engagement. To illustrate the difference, what Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler had in the 1930s was dialogue, not engagement. Chamberlain made his trips to Germany and came back with his famous piece of paper, but the invasion of Poland was as inevitable at the end of that process as it was at the beginning. In my second article, therefore, although I will be examining some of the specifics of Rowan Williams’ theology, I do not pretend that this will be part of a process of engaging with him.

However, Rowan Williams, for all his gifts, is where he is today because of the general culture of the Church of England. He is not the cause of our problems but a symptom, because the Church of England itself is an institution within which the scholarly sphere is characterized by an entirely different ethos from the theological sphere. In scholarship there is still a degree of rigour and objectivity, and when Rowan Williams operates within that community, then he is indeed ‘outstanding’. In theology, however, there is the rejection of objectivity, an absence of rigorous thinking, and a triumph of opinion over authority. In that realm, Williams is also outstanding insofar as his ability to express his opinions is vastly superior to that of most people. But this does not make him a good thing for the future of the Anglican Communion.

 

John P Richardson is Assistant Minister to the United Benefice of Henham, Elsenham and Ugley

 

Notes

  1. G J Williams, The Theology of Rowan Williams: An outline, critique and consideration of its consequences (London: The Latimer Trust, 2002). Online at http://www.latimertrust.org.

  2. R Williams, The Body’s Grace (Oxford: Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, 1989, reprinted 2002)

  3. R Williams, Open to Judgement (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994) 130, emphasis original

  4. Open to Judgement, 26, emphasis added

  5. R Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London: SCM Press, 2001) xiii

Return to Home Page of This Issue

Return to Trushare Home Page