Dialogue for me is recognition of the serious: Rowan Williams

The Archbishop of Canterbury on issues that have come to the fore.

Updated - November 26, 2021 10:23 pm IST

Published - October 20, 2010 12:35 am IST

Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Photo: M. Vedhan

Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Photo: M. Vedhan

One of the most significant visits to India by a major religious leader in recent decades is the ongoing 16-day visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams . In this extended interview, excerpts of which are being published in two parts in the print edition, the distinguished theologian and scholar discusses issues facing the Anglican Communion of Churches that he leads, the state of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, engagement with Islam and Hinduism, issues that have struck him during the India visit, and himself. The hour-long interview was given to P. Jacob , Senior Associate Editor of The Hindu , at the CSI Centre in Chennai on October 18. Excerpts:

You became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003 at a particularly difficult time in relations among the different churches that comprise the Anglican Communion. There was even talk of the Communion being on the verge of fragmentation. Yet your attempts to keep all sides talking to one another have been notable. Could you tell us how it has been going, and what you see ahead of you?

I think that after the Lambeth Conference of 2008 many people felt that we found ways of talking to one another, and perhaps exercising some restraint and tact towards one another. And it was very significant that at the next meeting of the Anglican primates, which was in the early part of 2009, all major Churches of the Communion were represented.

Unfortunately, the situation does not remain there. The decision of the American Church to go forward, as it has, with the ordination of a lesbian bishop has, I think, set us back. At the moment I'm not certain how we will approach the next primates' meeting, but regrettably some of the progress that I believe we had made has not remained steady. Alongside that, and I think this is important, while the institutions of the Communion struggle, in many ways the mutual life of the Communion, the life of exchange and cooperation between different parts of our Anglican family, is quite strong and perhaps getting stronger. It's a paradox. We are working more closely together on issues of development than we did before. We have the emergence of an Anglican health network across the globe, bringing together various health care institutions. We have also had quite a successful programme on the standards and criteria for theological education across the Communion. So, a very mixed picture.

I n your February 2010 address to the General Synod, you warned that infighting over women bishops and gay priests could split the Communion. You even conceded that, unless Anglicans find a way to live with their differences, the Church would change shape and become a multi-tier Communion of different levels – a schism in all but name. Which way are things heading on these two fronts?

Women bishops & gay priests

I think I'll be able to be clearer about that after the next primates' meeting. But at the moment I couldn't say I felt completely optimistic about that. I feel that we may yet have to face the possibility of deeper divisions. I don't at all like, or want to encourage, the idea of a multi-tier organisation. But that would, in my mind, be preferable to complete chaos and fragmentation. It's about agreeing what we could do together.

On both these fronts – the ordination of women priests and then Bishops, and also the ordination of gay and lesbian bishops?

I think that the importance of the ordination of women question is much greater in England than in most other parts of the Communion at the moment. Far more difficult for the Communion as a whole because of the deep theological and cultural issues involved is the question of gay clergy. I know because in the last two Lambeth Conferences women Bishops have been present. Nobody has stayed away because of women bishops. So it's not quite the same kind of issue.

May I point out that the first woman priest was ordained 21 years ago in this part of India.

I've met a number already in North and South India, yes. Which is why I say: as there are women clergy in Africa too, it's not that huge a question.

After years of debate and threatened schism in the Communion, the Church has taken a decisive and progressive step towards appointing women as bishops, with a final Synod vote due in 2012. How do you see the way forward?

I think it's well-known that in the Church of England there is a very significant minority of people who believe that the Church of England and the Anglican Churches generally should not take a large step like ordaining women bishops without more consultation with, or sensitivity to, the other great Churches – the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. That group does not wish to stop the process towards women bishops. I think they know there's a majority, it will happen. What they are concerned about is to find fair and secure provision for their point of view within the Church of England. That's been the most difficult question: not whether or not we have women bishops but what will be the provision made for the minority. Now this last summer the Synod declined to accept the suggestions made by the Archbishops, and I understand their reasons. But it's left us with quite a lot of work to try and do our best for that group as well as honouring the calling of women to the Episcopate.

Archbishop, you have often described a Bishop's role as one that involves holding together diversity. How far have you been able to do this on these two questions?

Well, to the extent that the 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.

Relations with Catholic Church

Your tenure has seen fraught relations with the Roman Catholic Church. It has seen the all-but-unilateral Apostolic Constitution that the Pope issued last year, creating a new Anglican rite within the Roman Catholic Church that was aimed at Anglicans who were uncomfortable with the ordination of women and gay clergy. What are your comments on this situation? There was the newspaper headline that spoke of the papal tanks on the lawns of Lambeth Palace .

Yes, I know. I said at that time that was a nonsensical version of the story. I was very taken aback that this large step was put before us without any real consultation. And it did seem to me that some bits of the Vatican didn't communicate with other bits. Overall it seemed to me a pastoral provision for certain people who couldn't accept where the Church of England was going, a pastoral provision which didn't in itself affect the relations between the two Churches, between mainstream Churches. But it caused some ripples because I think there was a widespread feeling that it would have been better to consult. There were questions that could have been asked and answered and dealt with together. And as this is now being implemented, we are trying to make sure that there is a joint group which will keep an eye on how it's going to happen. In England, the relations between the Church of England and Roman Catholic Bishops are very warm and very close. I think we are able to work together on this and not find it a difficulty.

Last year you touched on this question in an address given in Rome. Isn't it somewhat inexplicable that the ordination of women by Anglican Churches became a deal-breaker in the Catholic-Anglican dialogue, in spite of the fact that the two religions have reached agreement on far more complex theological questions in the years since the Protestant Reformation?

Yes, what I was trying to say in Rome last year was that, actually, we had within the last 30 or 40 years achieved an extraordinary level of agreement about how we understood the ordained ministry and the sacraments. And I was still rather puzzled by the fact that this one question – who can be a priest? – suddenly emerged as the only one that mattered, as it were. Whereas, in fact, I think I said the glass is half-full, not half-empty. We have, in fact, dealt with a great deal of substance there and I suppose I really then wanted to remind both my own Church and our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters that we had established a common language for talking about priesthood and about the sacraments. And we shouldn't suppose that our disagreement about the status of women simply invalidated all of the rest of that!

What are your views on the roles of the Christian Church in a plural — in religious terms — context such as we have in India? You made a significant comment in a speech in Chennai on the need to “listen to the voices of other faiths,” but without letting go of the Church's convictions, you said. What will such an approach involve?

For me it involves above all the willingness to build relationships through common study and sometimes through common silence. We can't pray publicly together, for many reasons. Prayer follows conviction. But we can sometimes keep silence together. We can certainly look together at the sacred texts of one or another tradition. We can watch how other people handle their sacred texts and their rituals and learn from that. And in that process we become able to recognise some kind of integrity and some kind of depth in one another. It doesn't mean I say, ‘Oh well, you must be right.' But I can at least say, ‘I know you're serious.' And that's dialogue for me – the recognition of the serious. And therefore if we find we can do things together after all in servicing, witnessing, peace-making, then it will come out of depths, not shallows.

In 2008, you visited the Balaji Temple in Tividale, West Midlands, on a goodwill mission to represent the friendship between Christianity and Hinduism. We learn that you agreed to be part of an Anglican-Hindu dialogue in Bangalore later this week. Have you been following up on this relationship?

Anglican-Hindu dialogue

To some extent, yes. For many reasons in the U.K., it's tended to be the Christian-Muslim dialogue that has filled the horizon. It's politically the more pressing in some ways. But I'm very conscious of the way in which a number of Hindus in the U.K. say, ‘ Nobody ever talks to us, everyone's interested in Muslims.' So of course we try to pursue a dialogue as best we can. I made two or three visits to Hindu centres and welcome the opportunity of hearing from well-placed Hindus during these visits. The dialogue with Hindus in this country has of course been going on for a long time. When I was first in India in 1981, I spent a great deal of time in the Jesuit library, Vidyajyoti in Delhi, reading up on some of the background of the dialogue as it had developed then.

While in India during the past few days, you have come across several issues of justice, marginalisation, even oppression within the Church being raised in different fora. The voices that have highlighted the so-called high caste-low caste issues, the Dalit question, have been quite striking. Are you going to continue to engage with these questions?

Oppression and justice

I hope so, yes – the questions that have already been presented in the U.K. from time to time. I suppose my main concern here is that India constitutionally does not recognise caste, except by its provision for scheduled communities. It certainly doesn't recognise any discrimination based on caste or any privilege based on caste. It's part of the great Indian political project, in a sense, of equal access to the law for everyone. And I would hope that the pursuit of that project ought not to be offensive to people's religious convictions. However, I know it is not as simple as that and I think the situation of some communities is a matter of real concern. I have heard a little bit, not only on this visit but from previous contacts, about the condition of manual scavengers, for example, in this part of India as well as elsewhere. That gives me great concern and I shall want to pursue some of these issues.

You were in New York on September 11, 2001, metres from Ground Zero. You were delivering a lecture there, and subsequently wrote the book, Writing in the Dust , offering reflections on the event. What are your views on the controversy on the erection of a mosque there?

In an ideal world, the erection of a mosque on the site would be a powerful, positive symbol of what Islam was at its best. In the real world, not everyone is going to see it that way. And I think I would be more encouraging of some real cooperation between the faiths around that site. To make some kind of holy space that everyone could recognise – Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and others. Because suffering and death are not the preserve of any one community and the response, the godly response, is not the preserve of one community. I would love to see a real cooperation on that site.

You famously made a reference to Al-Qaeda, saying that terrorists “can have serious moral goals” and that “bombast about evil individuals doesn't help in understanding anything.” May we have your views on terror and the “war” against it?

Yes, what I was saying on that occasion was that the appalling wickedness and violence of terrorist methods shouldn't blind us to the fact that sometimes, not always, but sometimes, terrorists are working for something which we might think was good, that is the real inclusion of an oppressed community. The methods are utterly indefensible, and as I say, they are evil. But if we simply say, ‘ all terrorists are individuals who are completely evil,' that means I have no responsibility to understand them, I have no responsibility of recognising in myself some of the things that just might push me towards violence or anything, and I don't think that helps us.

So the ‘war on terror' phrase has always been to me a bit doubtful. Because a war is usually something, an event where we engage with a clear enemy, with a clear goal in view. We know when we've won. The ‘war on terror' isn't like that. And the struggle against all the conditions that produce terrorism is greater than a war. It's a struggle against the material conditions that drive people to despair, it's a struggle against the mental and spiritual environment which, in more than one religious tradition, creates extremist positions and hatred about this. That's a struggle worth engaging with, it really is. Because, as I said, I think, last week, bad religion is not the preserve of any one tradition – but bad religion is best driven out by good religion.

You've argued that the partial adoption of Sharia in the U.K. is “unavoidable” as a method of arbitration in such affairs as marriage, and should not be resisted. Did your Sharia lecture have embedded in it a belief, and dismay, that religion has been driven out of public life into the private realm of individual choice?

The Sharia question

Yes, that was one of the concerns of the lecture – that a mature and healthy society ought to be capable of some degree of flexibility about the legal provisions it recognises in the community's make-up in society. Let me illustrate the point in a more specific way, though. After I'd given the lecture, a Muslim lawyer in the U.K. came up to me at the reception and said, ‘The reason I agree with some of what you say is that there are already Sharia codes operating in Britain but they are uncontrolled, they're not accountable, they're often administered by people with very limited legal skills. I would like to see a real professional engagement between the state and the Muslim community to set standards for some areas where Sharia might operate.' And the comparison, in my mind, is with the way the state and religious bodies work together in education. If I as a religious person say, ‘I will ask the state to cooperate in a religious school,' I'm saying ‘I expect the state to hold me accountable to certain standards. I have to look very hard at my own practices and the syllabus and methods.' I think that's very good. The state agrees to cooperate but the state can quite rightly ask about the standards we set. Now, in the context of religious schools, I think that's a good development. There might be areas of the law – and I say might – where that could be done. We haven't really begun to have that argument properly. I think the reaction to the Sharia lecture slightly showed how hard it was to have that discussion but we have moved forward.

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