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Updated: October 8, 2012 23:45 IST

Stridently critical, on the way out

P. Jacob
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FAITH IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE: Rowan Williams; Bloomsbury/Continuum, 36, Soho Square, London WID 3QY. £20.
FAITH IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE: Rowan Williams; Bloomsbury/Continuum, 36, Soho Square, London WID 3QY. £20.

With this book, Rowan Williams is certain to cause fury in large sections of the political establishment and unease within the Church

It takes an individual of extraordinary intellectual honesty and logical consistency to put together his lectures on a range of topics on different occasions in different locales and still ensure that each and every section of the collection represents a more or less accurate delineation of his overall philosophy and world view.

Here, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who, at just 61 years, chose earlier this year to step down in December, has delivered a set of parting shots, not quite traditional antiphons, through this remarkable collection that reflects a remarkable mind. As The Observer rather over-dramatically termed it, this is “the work of a man who finally feels liberated to say what he thinks.”

Rowan Williams’s arrival in Lambeth Palace 10 years ago to become the leader of the third largest denomination of Christians in the world had created high hopes — not just because his predecessor had rather inefficaciously paddled along in the midst of swirling disorder over a series of issues that confronted the Anglican Communion. Williams, who has been termed the most gifted Anglican priest of his generation, has held consistently orthodox views, and generated much debate especially in relation to his stance on societal issues of the time, the human condition, public morality and the common good. But, almost inevitably, he could not cover much ground in terms of overcoming, or even giving a quietus to, those raging contentions that largely related to gender and sexuality in the context of the Church. Once he took office, he seemed more concerned with somehow preserving at least a façade or veneer of unity than risk widening the splits. Perhaps he saw it as a sensible and prudent approach. So it is that this final published work in office for him is hardly a celebration of his achievements. Rather, it is a defence, and an attempt to come to terms with the reality as he saw and felt it. But that is not to deprecate the sheer intellectual energy that this multi-faceted scholar-teacher-writer who reads 11 languages, brought to the tasks at hand.

In this collection — not all the content is religious-theological although his strong Christian beliefs form the definitive backdrop to it — Rowan Williams attacks materialism, military spending sprees and consumerism, among many other compelling issues. He critiques the economic and political values that drive developed societies. He asks whether economic growth by itself is a goal worth pursuing single-mindedly. This is how he puts it: “We have to question what we mean by growth. The ability to produce more and more consumer goods (not to mention financial products)... sets up a vicious cycle in which it is necessary all the time to create new demand for goods and thus new demands on a limited material environment for energy sources and raw materials. The hectic inflation of demand creates personal anxiety and rivalry. By systematically depleting the resources of the planet, it systematically destroys the basis for long-term wellbeing.”

Iraq war

Elsewhere, discussing ‘Europe, Faith and Culture,’ Williams points to some of the greatest risks of our day: “A completely fragmented cultural world, in which we no longer have any certainty about what is and isn’t valuable and serious, will not generate cultural depth or excitement …”

Contrary to the perception he sometimes helped engender, he has not really glossed over the Iraq War issue. Here he is: “… [T]he news from Iraq tells us that, whatever else may have resulted from that ill-fated enterprise, the present situation is not exactly ‘freedom and democracy’ in the sense that the war’s apologists probably had in mind.”

Even ahead of its publication in September 2012, the contents of this book were widely expected to be “incendiary.” Williams has seldom hesitated to wade into sensitive political issues. His interventions in controversies — be it saying that aspects of Islamic Sharia could become part of British law, or describing David Cameron’s talk of the Big Society as “aspirational waffle” — has shown that he is hardly concerned about having disturbed quiet waters. But this work, out three months before he leaves office, is more strident in its criticism than anything that has come before. It is certain to cause fury in large sections of the political establishment and unease even within the Church. The hardline evangelical conservatives, who a decade ago berated him as a candidate for the archiepiscopate, could perhaps gloat now.

In an interview he gave The Hindu during his visit to India in October 2010, the Archbishop was asked how far he saw himself as a Church leader who was successful in holding together diversity over the contentious questions it faced, in particular the ordination of women priests and then Bishops, and also the ordination of gay and lesbian bishops. And he replied: “Well, to the extent that the [Anglican] Communion has not fractured beyond repair and the Church of England is still engaged in shared discussion of these things, I don't think I have yet failed completely! But time will tell.”

The day of reckoning does not seem too far in the future. Rowan Williams is all set to take charge as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, famously identified with C.S. Lewis. It is unlikely that this is the last word from this argumentative Welshman.

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