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Reading between the headlines

Rowan Williams

This time last week, I was in my usual spot sitting at the feet of Professor David Ford and Professor Jeremy Begbie in my Christology lectures. I cannot tell you how good it is… those in the know may have heard their names but plenty of people in Christian circles haven’t. They should have. The lectures are thought provoking, challenging, deeply spiritual and layered on so many levels that it just feels good to be there learning from them. I digress however…

Last Thursday, Jeremy conducted a lecture on the Christology of Rowan Williams. Fascinating it was too. Of course, like always with people who are still alive, I wonder what Rowan himself would have made of it had he been present. Nevertheless, Jeremy sifted some common threads in our Archbishop’s life and work and helped us build a more rounded picture of the man.

Yet again, the papers are full of rabid headlines (example from the Times which admittedly is one of the better articles published) today apparently concerning the Archbishop’s comments and doubts about the ordination of women. Given my lectures last week, I am quite happy to read those reports and dismissively say “Pfft”.

As Jeremy was explaining to us last week, Rowan’s theology is marked by some very interesting strands. Firstly (says Jeremy), Rowan is suspicious of comprehensive, systematic theologies. He feels we cannot contain God, we cannot prevent God from being free. He is concerned that we never become so concerned with our own dogma, that we end up worshipping it rather than the person to whom it should point.

This also applies for Williams to the concept of ‘God in time’. He has a suspicion of closure, he is concerned that theology tries to ‘freeze’ God. He likes to keep questions alive. It’s not that he doesn’t want answers, but he is very wary of answers that kill off the question in every age. He knows that the church must form doctrine and theology but does not believe it should do so in such a way that it does not “keep alive the impulse that animates such formulae – the need to keep the church attentive to the judgement it faces and the mission committed to it” to quote Williams himself.

Secondly, Jeremy said, Rowan always wants to question the idea that the theologian can stand apart from the world; to see how things really are and then to describe reality. Theology is done by people with particular concerns and particular perspectives and that has to be always borne in mind. Jeremy noted in Williams’ work a twitchiness about powerploys and tends to reminds his readers of those in history who have used God to oppress and subjugate. It links up again with the freedom of God and not trying to contain Him. Orthodoxy, he believes, should be disturbing… a challenge, it should make us feel uneasy, not safe. Williams is concerned that the more God becomes functional to the legitimising of ecclesiastical order, it will stifle God’s ability to challenge and disturb us.

It means that in much of Williams’ books, media interviews, sermons and more… there is always a tendency to doubt, to qualify, to present every side of the argument. You might even describe it as a fear of closure. Some commentators see in Williams’ work a hesitancy, because of the dangers of needing to qualify the whole time.

With that in mind, read The Times article again and perhaps even look at the Lambeth Palace press release issued today that criticises the way in which his comments have been reported.

Apart from the fact that he has been misquoted by some in the last day or so, there is a tendency in Williams’ own method that doesn’t seem to sit well with many both inside and outside the church… those that feel to express doubt, to express openness to other avenues is in some way a major problem.

Williams is not in favour of a return to an all-male presbyterate. He makes that much clear in his press release and, to be honest, if you read the interview with Jeremy Begbie’s thoughts in mind… it’s pretty clear in the interview as well. Personally, I like our Archbishop’s openness in his theology. I like the fact he doesn’t want to try and put God in a box. I like his humility in admitting that we have to do our theology (and by that I am referring to all theology, not women in ministry in particular) in the knowledge that maybe, just maybe we might get it wrong sometimes and therefore should be humble enough to listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ and allow God to correct us where such correction is necessary.


Marcus Pickering


I’m not familiar with much of Rowan Williams’ theology, so I’m very grateful for the light you have shed on the recent news.

Your last sentence has struck a particular chord with me. I get so angry at the entrenched positions that so many branches of the church take on so many issues (and I include myself in that). If only we could shout as loudly about the Gospel as we do about these peripheral matters.


Yoiks, Rowan appears to be coming on to me in the photo… Eek!

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