A Resilient Public Voice: Rowan Williams in Faith's Argument

Becoming a symbol of God's life in any given territory is a costly path.

February 8 th 2013

Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams. Bloomsbury, 2012. 344pp.


Significant occupational hazards surround an archbishop's commentary on public issues. Should he respond with sources such as the Bible or church tradition, he risks the charge of insularity. Alternately, should he opine beyond narrowly "religious" concerns—venturing into sociology or economics, say—he can incite criticism for inexpertise. Acknowledging such stakes, Rowan Williams introduces his recently published lectures by stating that "archbishops grow resilient, and sometimes even rebellious, in the face of all this."

Released in his final months of office as Archbishop of Canterbury, Faith in the Public Square presents Williams's addresses from throughout his nine-year tenure. The venues are diverse, from the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to the New Delhi British Council, and his subject matter is admirably comprehensive, from human rights to European cultural inheritance, religious offence to climate change. Defending his grounds for commenting broadly, he writes:

No theologian has an automatic skill in economics; but there is an ethical perspective here, plainly rooted in theology, that obliges us to question the nostrums of recent decades, and above all persistently to ask the awkward question of what we want growth for, what model of well-being we actually assume in our economics.

His ensuing questions prove just as forthright and unsettling. For instance, in challenging concern over resource allocation in an ageing population, he presses, "can we envisage resisting the temptation to regard the demographic pattern of the future as primarily a threat to economic efficiency?"

Before ever we embark: questioning common language

Williams closely analyzes the grounds and effects of our common language, from neighbourhood to political platform. His resulting challenge to typical public terms is then rooted in an encounter prior to any civil interaction. "We 'answer' not only to circumstance, instinct or even to each other," he observes, "but also to a Creator who addresses us and engages us before ever we embark on social negotiation." Without such a robust account of the personal, he argues, liberalism risks becoming "deeply anti-humanist."

As shown in scripture, this creator's address ranges widely. In response to the surface-level discourse of "climate crisis," Williams retrieves the suggestive biblical phrase "the face of the earth" to show how creation's unique form of speech invites our response. In defending human rights beyond narrow capacities such as verbal rationality—a position which would briskly exclude the unborn or many people with disabilities—he argues that the human body should itself be seen as communicative. That is to say, "the bare fact of embodied reality 'encodes' a gift to be offered by each to all, a primitive communication by the creator."

In light of God's varied speech, Williams resists the dominance of any one source of metaphor for human relations. In our time, this is most often shown in how market language sets all terms of "value." In his lecture on prison reform, for instance, Williams effectively shows how victims are often treated as "customers" of the legal system, diminishing a fuller notion of justice. His overall case proves compelling, such that I would read it against other apparent lapses, such as when he describes sustainable communities as those which do not deplete "human capital." Similarly, he reduces the state's role in a pluralist culture to that of "brokerage." Jonathan Chaplin rightly argues that this latter term loses sight of a richer Christian conception of the state's moral good, historically called justice.

In speaking between religions, the archbishop refreshingly does not trade Christian terms in for a "common core" multi-faith vocabulary. He argues, rather, that attempting to begin from the generic sacred neglects the embodied practices vital to religion. Recognizing how many can hear Christian language wrongly or defensively, however, he tends to gradually show doctrines in operation before he names them. Addressing a Christian-Muslim forum, for instance, he begins with Mohandas Gandhi's mode of testimony against South African racism. From there, he argues that religious groups should function in civil society with a higher authority than that which clamours for a privileged voice or the protection of religious freedoms. He then adeptly reveals his deeper logic in the incarnation's form of power and the extent of the resurrection promise. Such sequence has much to do with discernment of the audience, of course, which makes it unfortunate that venue details are relegated to the book's closing acknowledgments.

Even given the issue of context, Williams can at times prove reticent to elaborate on overt theological content. In his essay on perceptions of the elderly, for instance, he describes how earlier cultures saw old age as one of the most creative phases of life, during which one can "make the soul" toward death. This flows naturally, he writes, from the sense that human life is "a story that is open to the judgement and mercy of God." While he goes on to build a compelling and practical case for honouring our elders, this powerful biblical theme seems to remain a mere "mention"—a habit in Christian public speech he criticizes elsewhere.

Argumentative democracy: loyalties and the state's claim

Williams is especially helpful in challenging the terms that most seem to threaten Christian allegiance. For example, he specifies that it is programmatic secularism which would seek to excise public displays of private religious conviction in order to secure state loyalty (as often seen to be the case in France). In contrast, public policy in procedural secularism gives no preference to any one religious body while acknowledging, even resourcing, their respective convictions (here he cites India's example). While the two adjectives could use sharper contrast, the differentiation is valuable: in this account, insofar as the state "becomes secular" in the procedural sense, it learns its finite bounds. While adopted in modern liberalism, Williams shows the origins of such circumscription in the early church's rival claim against the Roman state.

This nuanced appraisal of secularism lays the groundwork for one of Williams's core questions, namely, where our loyalties lie. Recognizing that in modernity political belonging is assumed to be "unitary and clearly defined," he argues that any properly liberal society must learn to acknowledge a gradation in allegiances. Williams then presses against easily won accounts of social "harmony" or "cohesion" used to call into line religious commitments construed as "divisive." Given the vagueness of such terms, they remain disconcertingly open to the definition of any given ruler, carrying the chilling implication that power takes precedence over truth.

So the deeper loyalty of faith provides for "creative irony" vis-à-vis society. That said, Williams is careful to chasten less principled disassociation. Having one's citizenship in heaven must not be confused with the modern temptation towards "patronage," a posture in which people carefully control relations with the community on the basis of their needs being met. Instead, Williams calls for a robust commitment to what he terms argumentative democracy. This costly, protracted work of persuasion and adjustment is in marked contrast to that societal demand "for an account of the social good that is final and obvious." Such impatience leaves a citizenry quick to take offence, clamour for rights, or "disregard" those with whom we would rather not deal—from prisoners to members of the opposition.

Applying this specifically to his British context, Williams takes up the work of Jonathan Clark to criticize a "presentist mentality which assumes that constructive historical conflict and negotiation are essentially over." Rather than seeing British culture as a fixed identity, a simple inheritance, Clark shows how it often developed through conflict and cross-purposes. This leads to Williams's call for a properly interactive pluralism, moving beyond "nervous, evasive good manners" to the hard work of restructuring a hybrid society through negotiation with its newly constituent communities. Though not reprised here, this line of argument helps to contextualize his controversial and frequently misunderstood remarks on sharia law.

Given the current Prospect feature declaring a New Britain, Williams's counsel has proven prescient. Nevertheless, his argument sits uneasily in the form of a monologue. In light of Williams's call for interaction, the book might have featured transcriptions, or an online media resource, of Williams in public conversation and debate. This would have appropriately shown how even this archbishop's precision in speech must be unsettled by another's demands.

Becoming a symbol: office and man

In a 2011 address on Big Society language and its possibilities for faith communities, Williams states that he makes no apologies for foregrounding "the sometimes fragmented or marginal but still visible communities of the established Church." In spite of such general comments, though, the very public tensions of the churches over which he has presided during the past decade are not specifically mentioned. This silence is critical given that in several instances he proposes, with reference to Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a form of "covenantal mutuality" in the pursuit of broader social unity. As much of Williams's reading public will be aware, however, it was precisely covenant language through which he sought to resist the fracturing of the global Anglican Communion. Given that both society and church are divided on what he calls "the dangerous frontiers of sexuality and power," it would have surely strengthened the integrity of his societal address if he had included a more candid account of the failures within the institution he was serving. Such transparency could still have rendered the church's testimony in seeking to live, in his successor's words, "a better way."

Although the archbishop is a widely recognizable figure in British society, the book cover—a close-up portrait of Williams, with his name dwarfing the title—appears narrowly self-indulgent given the wide readership its topics should invite. Nevertheless, the still visible clerical collar, as understood through the content of his final address, suggests that we can attribute a dimension of depth here.

The book closes with Williams's early lecture "Religious Lives," which proves a fitting valediction to his fuller role as consecrated minister, not only a "public intellectual." In the transcript, he contrasts the borrowed symbolism of fashionable spirituality with the costly path to a person's becoming a symbol of God's life in a given territory. It is an evocative theme which we can now read back over his own time in office. That is to say, an archbishop not only communicates ideas, so risking criticism or offense, he hazards taking his place as a living symbol of God's presence in our all-too-human public life.

Beyond balance sheet appraisals of his term as archbishop, it is as witness to such vital divine address that Williams's words will yet prove resilient.

Topics: Justice Religion
 

David Robinson is a Visiting Scholar at Regent College and a Research Associate at Vancouver School of Theology. His current research focuses on the reception of Greek tragedy, particularly notions of “fate,” in the work of German Lutheran theologians who lived and worked between 1919-1945. Entitled After Tragedy: Conflicting Social Orders and the Unity of God, the project explores a period in which strident nationalism arose out of cultural and material crisis, even as the Luther Renaissance led some theologians to question the rule of fate as “law.”

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