Rowan Williams is due to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year. I don’t think he has been fully understood or appreciated during his 10 years in office.
I read his biography Rowan’s Rule by Rupert Shortt a while back. I understand that during his time at Canterbury he was sent faeces through the Royal Mail, by evangelical Christians. As Iconoclasts we seem to have lost the icon of dialogue and grace.
However, he also seems to have been seriously misrepresented on a number of issues. One of the problems is that theologically he is not easily put in any camp. But there is much in his thinking and writing that makes him a friend of evangelicals. He encouraged fresh expressions of church, is orthodox by conviction and has a high view of Scripture.
Although many comment on how hard some of his writing is to understand, because of the complexity of his theological language, it is because he is dealing with difficult questions in what he calls ‘critical’ theology. He tackles apologetic issues, questions our culture raises, in a subtle, poetic and highly intelligent manner – and speaks to people outside the church that black and white thinkers repulse. He sent a beautifully clear and charming letter to a six year old called Lulu, who had asked the question of God, ‘how did you get invented?’
In particular many find his spiritual writings like Silence and Honey Cakes, an exploration of the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, luminous and helpful. Someone I know who has met the Archbishop says that he is a deeply spiritual man and has a charismatic presence with other people. Surely this is the real mark of a Christian – how they are face to face with real people, not how they are in the virtual world of the media?
I was at Worth Abbey a while back and a phrase of the Archbishop’s leapt off the page I was reading and shook me spiritually – it seemed to be no coincidence that just outside lightning and thunder were shaking the building.
He said that ‘Jesus Christ was a person in whom the freedom of God was completely at work.’ I asked myself, what would it mean for me, to be a person in whom the freedom of God was completely at work? I was left shaken by the implications. But at a smaller but no less important level, I think it would mean this for evangelicals.
We need to dissent and dialogue with grace and love. One thing Rowan Williams is renowned for is the way he listens to every side of a debate. Even as a Bishop in Wales he found time to pastor and counsel ordinary members of his flock, people that others dismissed as unimportant.
I think it means in the present that each one of us should write to him affirming many of the good things he has done since being in office, and to say thank you for doing an impossible and thankless role. Perhaps some of us could even send him some honey cakes. I know that he acknowledges the letters and expressions of support more than counteract the hate mail.
He is also someone who tries to live out this idea of being someone who allows the freedom of God to work without obstacle within. This has led him to be accused of holy naivety. But it also means that in a genuine crisis, the courage of Christ comes out. If you are not sure about this, read the account of how he nearly died in the September 11 bombings of the World Trade Centre in Rupert Shortt’s biography. It is deeply moving.
Being mindful means seeing beneath the stereotypes, and seeing through the eyes of God. I for one am going to find some honey cakes to send him. Perhaps you will join me?