Review article

Some recent books by Rowan Williams

David Daniell
November 2005

The Tyndale Society’s most active Patron, Dr Rowan Williams, is an outstanding man. As Archbishop of Canterbury he needs all his prayerful diplomacy to hold together the world-wide Anglican communion at a time of sometimes intemperately expressed dissension—a task not helped by an inaccurate press. That is surely demanding enough. Yet he also writes several books a year. He is a poet of distinction. He is described as the most significant theologian of his generation. His list of publications is formidable: he is fully at home in the world of learning. He stands at the pinnacle of a noble Anglican tradition of scholarly Archbishops; and he writes with an immediate voice.

I have not space here to comment on Love’s Redeeming Work, the anthology of Anglican devotional writing which he co-edited for OUP in 2001: nor The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ (2003). And immediately before those dates there were, of course, Lost Icons, Christ on Trial and the large book On Christian Theology (all 2000)—the latter setting a new standard in combining immense erudition, challenging thought, pastoral insight and spiritual experience.

The five recent books noticed here are all quite different, but each is profound, disturbingly original, spiritually enriching and fed by the streams of centuries of thought.

In the important booklet of meditation Writing in the Dust, Dr Williams, who was only a couple of blocks away from the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001, asks ‘whether anything can grow through this terrible moment’ (p.xi): in religious terms, ‘you don’t have to be Richard Dawkins to notice that there is a problem’ (p.2). Like the problem, thoughts here deny glib analysis. Working from the ‘breathing space’ of the consideration for loved ones shown in some last words from the aircraft, through the temptations of a language of ‘answering back’, he observes how ‘the shape of state violence has changed’ (p.39) into an irregularity which can, ‘in our restless passion for drama’ ignore ‘local and unexciting heroism’ (p.48). Considering what to do, he asks, ‘Can we, for God’s sake, let go of the fantasies nurtured by the capacity for hightech aerial assault? ... the posturing that suggests that any questioning of current methods must be weakness at best, treason at worst’ (pp.49-50). He recognises the new fear in the North Atlantic world ‘In the global village, fire can jump more easily from roof to roof ’ (p.56): and he observes that to the poor in the global village, ‘the spiral of wealth is also a spiral of threat’ (p.61). The experience of 9/11 ‘is not just a nightmarish insult to us but a door into the suffering of countless other innocents’ (p.63). The trick of opposing symbols not people allows a safe distance: Jesus’s responses in John 9, and 8, suggest a different presence, a ‘breathing space’ that allows the possibility of the unexpectedness of God manifest.

The delicious Silence and Honey Cakes (2003) is loved by an increasing number of Christians of all kinds. In it Rowan Williams returns to the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries, revealing a spirituality that is searching. ‘The desert monastics have an uncompromising message for us: a relationship with eternal truth and love simply doesn’t happen unless we mend our relations with Tom, Dick and Harriet.’ (p.22). Central is the quest for the difference between being an individual and the richness of being a person. Showing the real meanings of ‘Fleeing’ and ‘Staying’, he makes a book full of people and responses to them; he is alert to, among other modern positions, the ascetics’ familiar illusion ‘that to discover ourselves all we need is for other people to go away’ (p.46). Accessible, challenging and funny, he has the nice throw-away remark that ‘archbishops are regarded with healthy suspicion in most of this literature’ (p.45). Nevertheless, this is a book by an archbishop which opens windows, and immediately demands to be read again.

Why Study the Past? develops a series of lectures given in Salisbury Cathedral in May 2003 under the auspices of Sarum College. He presses the importance of the two-thousand-year history of the Church, and he challenges how it is made. He quotes the French theologian Michel de Certeau in 1991: ‘Christianity is not one of the great things of history: history is one of the great things of Christianity’ (p.6). The golden thread running through the book is that the Body of Christ, past, present and future, is ‘established not by human process grounded in and limited by events, cultures and so on, but by God’s activity’ (p.2). At the heart is the strangeness of God in his people, the holding together of continuity and discontinuity in one story. This is powerful in his second chapter, ‘Resident Aliens: the Identity of the Early Church’. The debates about doctrine in the fourth and fifth centuries were not intellectual exercises but arose from the ‘alien citizenship’ of Christians in the Roman Empire, more sharply defined by martyrdoms, and by understanding of the divine presence and power in the eucharist, both, as it were, appealing to a higher court than the emperor.

The third chapter, ‘Grace Alone: Continuity and Novelty in the Reformation Era’, is the most acute exposition of the roots and progress (and modern effects) of the Reformation that I know, mining beneath those immemorial truths of Church history that, as he wrily notes, date from the 19th century. The Reformation debate was not one between self-designated Catholics and Protestants; it was a debate about where the Catholic Church was to be found. ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ was not a joke in the sixteenth century (p.63).

The medieval Church ‘had ceased to be a church in any theologically interesting sense’, something understood from ‘the instinctive recovery by the Reformers—and subsequently by their critics too—of the patristic conviction about the dependence of the Church on God’s action alone’ (ibid.). A fine account of Luther leads to an extended pairing of Tyndale and Hooker, the former going beyond Luther to see far—and early—into the practical considerations of the fact of God’s prior action in all things. Tyndale has ‘a very distinctive sense of how justification by faith shapes a moral and political agenda’ (p.75); how ‘God’s gifts are restless in the hands of the receiver until they are given again ... as active signs of love’ (pp.76-7).

The final chapter, ‘History and Renewal: records of the Body of Christ’, looks at more modern interpretations of ‘what Christians have meant by allying their freedom with the alien sovereignty of God’ (p.114) — the concluding sentence, and summary, of this powerful book.

Anglican Identities collects his latest studies of significant figures in English church history. Richard Hooker gets two chapters, William Tyndale and George Herbert one; B. F. Westcott appears twice, as does John A.T.Robinson. Michael Ramsey has a chapter to himself. It is a compelling book, cunningly cutting to the often hidden heart of modern anxieties. I have myself found that, for his New Testament Greek textual revisions, to more extreme partisans of the King James Bible Westcott still has horns and a tail. Here, in a different world from such ill-informed dispatching, is a Westcott alive to the theology of the whole of Scripture and its emancipations, a record of the manifestation of God’s glory.

The chapter on Robinson’s Honest to God (1963) begins ‘It was a most unlikely bestseller’ (p.103), and Dr Williams’s analysis is not only of the strengths and faults of the book, and of its times (splendidly quoting Charlie Brown in Peanuts, ‘How can I be wrong if I’m so sincere?’ p.116) but also including the essential understanding that, the last religious book in the UK with a mass readership, it appeared to give ‘permission to express dismay or disillusion at the uncritical language of... the semiprofessional theological world’ (p.118).

The common theme of Anglican Identities is the Christian’s essential involvement in ‘a bourgeois environment without self-serving drama’ (p.120), sacred actions or persons [in] the social enterprise at large’ (p.3), not avoiding our neighbour. Most important for readers of this Journal, as for the book, is that the first, indeed, the founding, chapter is on Tyndale, who, as Dr Williams is ‘increasingly persuaded, is the true theological giant of the English Reformation’ (ibid.). The chapter reprints his 1998 Lambeth Tyndale lecture from our Tyndale Society Journal No. 12, March 1999, where he set out, exhilaratingly, ‘to uncover more fully what Tyndale thought he was doing’ (p.10), particularly in his Obedience of a Christian Man and Parable of the Wicked Mammon, the latter ‘perhaps the most powerful treatment of social morality to come from the Reformation era in Britain’ (p.11). Tyndale, he summarises

defines a kind of discipleship which deeply marks later English Protestantism — valuing the home and family as the place where the school of Christ is encountered ... and, more drastically, assuming that Christian discipleship will change social and economic relations to an almost unrecognisable extent (p.3).

That would include relations even to ‘infidels’: Dr Williams sees there an echo of Clement of Alexandria, ‘a love crossing barriers of all kinds’ (p.15), to create ‘the ideal of the Christian society as a pattern of reciprocal action and shared dignity’ (p.16).

2005 has also seen the appearance of Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, the exploration, originally in the Clark Lectures in Cambridge earlier this year, of ‘a theme that had fascinated me for several decades—the relationship between Christian thought and the practice of the arts’ (p. ix). Starting from a much-needed reassessment of the French Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain, Dr Williams proposes a new theological aesthetic, using as examples two Catholic artists, the Welsh painter and poet David Jones, and the short story writer and novelist from the deep South, Mary Flannery O’Connor, both of whom thought and wrote about what they did in the light of their faith. What emerges is that if art is an uncovering of what is uniquely human, that condition being supremely in Christ, the much-fought-over ground of the dichotomy of grace and nature—are they distinct, or a unity?—yields to the presence of the being and action of God. Reading this ground-breaking, dense book, written at a theological frontier, we are aware that Dr Williams, even before he became Bishop of Monmouth and Archbishop of Wales, was for six years Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

These comments, I felt, were necessary before I could come to the 2004 book that the editor originally asked me to review, the 43 page Christian Imagination in Poetry and Polity, ‘talks’, as he describes them, first given as a seminar at the Institute of Spiritual Studies in Melbourne. Introducing them, he explains that though the time-sequence of Temple to Herbert seems odd, the theme will be seen to fall that way. Anglicanism’s engagement at the centre of social order is well shown by William Temple, an Archbishop who argued for reforms and re-thinkings, who should be thought of as one of the architects of the post-war Welfare State in Britain. Equally in the historical essence of Anglicanism, however, as a largely hidden stream, is the wisdom of the country priest crystallised in local writing, seen in ‘the mystical intensity and contemplative imagination’ (p.2) in the poems of George Herbert. As in the whole, penetrating, fourth chapter of Anglican Identities, here in Christian Imagination he shows how, in Herbert, theological terms were, experientially, ‘made strange’ (p.58, quoting Herbert). Turned to ‘with much joy’ (p.29) Herbert is placed with Spenser, Traherne, Vaughan, T.S.Eliot and R.S.Thomas with wonderful lucidity in the understanding of what Herbert meant by affliction, ‘a theology of God’s grief ’ in Dr Williams’ startling phrase (p.41).

Of special interest to readers of this Journal, however, is Dr Williams’ increasing emphasis on the theology of William Tyndale ‘a better theologian than he is sometimes given credit for being’ (p.8). In this book he follows his Anglican Identities thinking to concentrate on Tyndale’s emphasis on a true Christian’s perpetual ‘grateful indebtedness’ to God and his neighbour, against a religious practice which ‘struggles to keep God in your debt’ (p.8). The brief, crystal pages on Tyndale shine with a marvellous light—not for nothing were they extracted and printed in the Church Times for 9 September 2005 (at the time of our Oxford Tyndale Conference—was that coincidence?). Here is Tyndale set with Edwin Sandys (Archbishop of York in Queen Elizabeth’s reign), Latimer and, refreshingly, Coleridge. Dr Williams sums up this stream of devotion and theology in his phrase

contemplative pragmatism ... an attitude of time-taking, patient, absorbing awareness of the particular situation you are in … to look long enough and hard enough for God to come to light. Which means a certain suspicion of hasty, gungho religious language, a certain suspicion of exaggerated religious experience—the idea yet again that God is a really exciting leisure activity (p.17).

Tyndale is the first writer discussed here who is, as all can be seen to be, an apologist for ‘a theologically informed and spiritually sustained patience’ (p.7).

What is so characteristic of Rowan Williams’ writing is not only the sense of a doggedly clear mind seeing all the issues that have to be taken into account at any point, but also the extraordinary breadth of reference, in text and notes, to the fundamental discussions of the matters in hand in dozens of different fields. The modest statements that a writer ‘notes, as no one else has’, or that someone’s book is ‘the best account’ of something, conceal a great deal of knowledge. Simply to observe all this and the number of times the authority quoted is, equally modestly, ‘R.Williams’, about the most recent scholarship, work sometimes in French, German or Russian -- is to rejoice that we have an Archbishop (and Patron) so completely at home in the worlds of thought and art. It is seriously important to have such a scholar’s leadership in the new assessment of William Tyndale’s ‘remarkable originality and breadth of theological thought’ (Anglican Identities, p.17).

David Daniell is Emeritus Professor of English at University College London, Emeritus Chairman of the Tyndale Society and Honorary Fellow of Hertford and St Catherine’s colleges, Oxford.