What does he mean?

A perplexed layman writes from the country

Most of us felt good about the appointment of Rowan Williams. He was obviously a man of quality, one moreover who had resisted the temptations of high office, and who valued humility and sanctity. Of course, to the likes of us he appeared dangerously liberal, but he said sensible things about those who were not of his opinions. Like many others, I had neglected his books, taking my view of his theological skills from cleverer friends, who clearly admired him. It was time I read him myself.

I can see now that his enthronement sermon was typical of the man. In common with others, I felt it said something valuable, though wrapped up in too abstract a form. I thought at the time this was because he was cunningly denying the media a misleading headline, but I now see that this is how he operates. He has much that is valuable to say, but he easily cloaks it in labyrinthine verbiage. My donnish friends would barely have noticed; but Rowan Williams is no longer talking to a donnish audience. He is undoubtedly an honest man, able to accept reason even when it points against his inclinations. I believe also that the view he takes of our society is jaundiced in the right way.

There are two ‘buts’. He can, as I said, take a point and so wrap it up in abstractions that his readers lose sight of what he is saying. Diving at random into his writings, I come up with ‘missing political dimensions’, ‘designer rituals’, ‘defining selfhood’, and ‘others’ investment in my reality’. Certainly he knew what he meant by these phrases, but equally certainly I do not. The other ‘but’ is this. We know and understand about the Archbishop’s leftist inclinations; but in his past writings they emerge too readily, particularly in the examples of bad practice to which he often turns. Such examples may be part of the argument, but they are generally chosen from themes anyone on the Old Left would choose – colonialism, fat cats, sleaze, warmongering.

This choice suggests a man deeply committed to the culture which he is ostensibly trying to see from the outside, and it will no longer do. He is the Archbishop of many decent Christians who are far from his position on such matters as colonial history, as on the ordination of women priests. He has to get highly complex matters into simple prose, as poor Milton had to get them into verse. I hope he will be given the time he needs, so that he can do this, and speak clearly to us all.

Paul Griffin is a Reader from Suffolk.

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