An insight into the theology and ministry of Archbishop Williams

Christ the Stranger,
Benjamin Myers
Continuum, pb, £14.99

No one who wants to understand Rowan Williams not only as a theologian but also as a church leader should miss this book. It is both an account of his theology and also an intellectual biography. It is no sense authorised but it is interesting to note from the preface that Williams himself read a draft of the book.
Wittgenstein, TS Eliot, Donald Mackinnon, Gillian Rose, Hegel, Augustine, and Orthodox theology come across as the most significant influences on Williams’ thinking. Myers does justice to the Welsh background but argues (quoting Rupert Shortt) that even today, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Williams is best understood as essentially ‘Orthodox in Anglican form’. This is probably true but there are other, Anglican, influences, that could have been mentioned: the years teaching at Mirfield and the continuing relationship with the Community, JN Figgis (Williams bought all his books second-hand as a young lecturer at the College of the Resurrection), Austin Farrer (Williams called him the greatest Anglican theologian of the 20th century), and even the neo-Thomist, EL Mascall. Donald Allchin (at whose funeral Williams preached) deserves more than a single footnote.
Myers appears to have examined everything Williams has written and scouring his footnotes will make many readers wish that an enterprising publisher could persuade Williams to collect his occasional papers, sermons and addresses in book form. I would dearly love to read a lecture published in Wales in 1994 on ‘Mission and Christology’.
For those familiar with Williams’ work there are few surprises here but Myers is very good at tracing the development of Williams’ thought. He sees three main stages: the early years when Williams was particularly influenced by Wittgenstein; the middle period when, under the influence of Gilliam Rose, Hegel became significant; and the years as a bishop and archbishop when attention focussed on the nature of human desire and whether human beings are capable of love or are forever trapped in selfish fantasy.
Although not mentioned a great deal, Myers perceptively comments that original sin is an important element in Williams’ theology. “The problem of fantasy,” Myers writes, “leads him to envisage Christian faith as one enormous pattern of asceticism and kenosis.” We are told that “devotion to Christ as ascetic renunciation of fantasy: that is the theology of Rowan Williams”.
Williams can be hard to read because he is always alert to the difficulty of talking about God and of the strangeness of Christ. As Myers points out, the Archbishop is all too aware of the fact that Christ remains a stranger even to those familiar with the peculiar language games of church and academy. It is from the lives of the saints that we really learn to speak of God. Summarising Williams’ views, Myers writes that “if we really want to get to know God, then we will have to go to those hidden places where God is most deeply at work: to the church’s hidden history, the history of its saints, its mystics, its people of prayer”. Although Myers is right to draw the link here with Orthodoxy, the importance of the witness of holy lives was also much stressed by Austin Farrer.
For the most part Myers confines himself to exposition rather than criticism. He does not refer to Robert Jensen’s charge that Williams is too reluctant to accept closure although he does make the point that Williams is no post-modernist. But he offers an interesting criticism at the end of his book when he suggests Williams has a tendency to find in other writers what he wants to find in them and to align them too quickly to his own position. In some ways this contradicts what Myers has to say early on in his book about Williams’ attentiveness.
Myers has almost nothing to say about the disagreements that have rocked the Anglican Communion during the time Williams has been Archbishop of Canterbury or about Williams’ intervention in public debate (except for his address on Sharia law). But what his book does do is to trace Williams’ theological development and set out the main themes in his work in concise and accurate way. It is easy to see how Williams’ style as an archbishop has been shaped by his belief that we find the truth when we engage in the hard work of sustaining relations with those with whom we disagree. This is a short book of only 140 pages, but it is one that will repay careful reading and re-reading.

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