‘The challenge: can you hold people together in relationship?'

The Archbishop of Canterbury on various contemporary issues that matter.

Updated - November 26, 2021 10:23 pm IST

Published - October 21, 2010 12:00 am IST

The Archbishop of Canterbury reaches out to a child as he is driven in a buggy to a tiny church at Vyasarpadi in North Chennai on October 17. Dr. Rowan Williams led the Sunday worship at this church in a working class area on the fringes of a railway line and teeming with vendors of all sorts. He said the welcome he received here was unforgettable, joking that back home in Britain "things are different." Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

The Archbishop of Canterbury reaches out to a child as he is driven in a buggy to a tiny church at Vyasarpadi in North Chennai on October 17. Dr. Rowan Williams led the Sunday worship at this church in a working class area on the fringes of a railway line and teeming with vendors of all sorts. He said the welcome he received here was unforgettable, joking that back home in Britain "things are different." Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

In the concluding part of his interview given to The Hindu , the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams , responds to questions on market capitalism and consumerism, social radicalism and doctrinal orthodoxy, his stand and actions on the Iraq War, continuity and discontinuity in the office of the senior bishop of the Anglican Communion, the issue of immigration and attitudes towards it, engaging with the ‘intelligent unbeliever,' poetry and pastoring, secularism — and who he really is. The full text of the hour-long interview by P. Jacob , Senior Associate Editor of The Hindu , at the CSI Centre in Chennai on October 18, 2010 can be read >here .

Archbishop, you voiced your objection to the French law proposing a ban on the wearing of the hijab in French schools and stated that the hijab and any other religious symbols should not be outlawed.

Yes, because I think when the state tries to determine what is unacceptable expression of religious faith, a door is opened into a rather dangerous territory. The human rights legislation speaks of freedom to express one's faith. I think that needs to be thought through carefully and honoured, and I think, as I said the other day in Nagpur, the state perhaps has better things to do than legislating about what women wear!

You are seen, among other things, as something of a social radical. You wrote in The Spectator that placing too much trust in the market had become a kind of “idolatry.” You have highlighted the need to have an ethical economy. How do you see the Church's role and mission for the poor and the disadvantaged across the world who have been growingly squeezed by the effects of the global economic downturn of the recent years, coming as it did in the time of globalisation, the primacy of market capitalism? This is a point you also made in your MDG sermon at Kolkata Cathedral last week [http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/3010].

Church, market capitalism, and the poor

The Churches can do two things, I think. One is of course what they always do in the circumstances and try to rally around in practical ways to assist those who are most vulnerable. And that may be through working community regeneration, may be through education, it may be through microfinance, which is a great interest of mine. Always might you give power and capacity to poor communities. The Church does a great deal, it will probably have to do a great deal more. The second way in which the Church has to act, I would say, is in keeping before the people the question what is wealth for, what is the nature of real prosperity. And does prosperity demand an endless spiral of material economic growth? In Britain there was recently published a report called ‘Prosperity Without Growth?' I referred to it a few times. And that seems one of the questions we have to keep asking.

Yet people often wonder how your social radicalism could co-exist with your reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy.

( Laughs ) Well, I'm glad to know I have a reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy. I think I'm orthodox but not everyone does! The answer, I think, is that for me the doctrines of the Christian creed state that God is transcendent, God is not simply an aspect of how the world works. The doctrines of the creed state that God acts so as to create a community in the world, the Church, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. And this community exists to reflect not the nature of the world around but the nature of God. So for me the creed says the Church ought not just to be another aspect of how society works. The Church will always be asking awkward questions. And the Church, because it is based on the idea that we live with and for and from each other, the Church is bound to have a radical element in it. It may not express that always in the same way but there will always be that question.

The Iraq War and threats against Iran

Your opposition to America's and Britain's war against Iraq has been well- documented. You have also spoken out strongly against any move to attack Iran, in terms as strong as “criminal, ignorant and potentially murderous.” Yet do you believe you have done enough within your power to oppose the war during these seven years that you have been Archbishop?

When war was declared in the Iraqi context, I decided that there was no point in going on speaking about the war once the decision had been made. And my emphasis moved to questions of what was going to be done on the far side of the war, what would we be doing to plan for the future, and for a sustainable future. I agreed very much with one British politician who said we could win the war in six weeks – and lose it in six months. And, well, I don't think we are entirely out of the wood there, as we say. So I made a decision not to go on talking about the war itself but to try and move people forward towards a vision for the future.

In the whole region of the Middle East, whether I've done or said enough, I can't say. But I'm engaged fairly regularly with issues around the Holy Land, with the political questions around Syria and Lebanon. We have a lot of contacts there. And one of my concerns, I suppose, there is that we, I mean the international community, find a way of avoiding Iranian dominance of the region without creating yet another war – which will unleash chaos for decades. So all this is a matter of ongoing, and sometimes quite intense, discussion. Next year I'm convening what I hope will be quite a high-level meeting at Lambeth Palace to discuss the situation of Christians in the region, which I hope our government and others will help support. It will be primarily focussed on the Christians in the Holy Land but of course involving people from other faiths…

Where is organised religion going?

How do you see the direction that organised religion as a whole is moving globally in terms of practising numbers, rigour, and faith? Including in India?

Modernity in general brings with it a strong strand of individualism. And consumerism. And consumerism fits very badly with traditional religion. People look for what makes them feel better and they don't particularly like to think of long-term belonging. I think that's one of the major issues we have in the U.K. about younger people and religion; and I think with the more educated and sophisticated in India it's probably much the same, actually. Now this isn't overcome overnight; it has to be addressed through a constant appeal from religious bodies to, as I sometimes like to say, to the imagination. And appeal to people to discover an extra depth to their life, which is not just their possession but which involves them in this mutual relation with others – this sense of being involved in and affected by the sufferings of others.

The trouble is that the reaction that seems easiest is what we call fundamentalism in general. That is a reaction towards an imagined past, a certain absolutely watertight answer to everything, and a real bitterness and venom towards outsiders. The great danger that faces every religious tradition, and I mean every religious tradition here, is that it can seem a quick way out. Christians do it. Muslims do it. Hindus do it. Buddhists do it. For all I know, Jains and Zoroastrians do it and Sikhs too. But we do see this strange attempt to outbid another religion. ‘I feel threatened by the extremism of another religious tradition. All right, so I will create my own extremism!' And so we go on piling up. That's the danger. And that's where it matters enormously for trust and respect and patience to be generated among religious leaders and teachers and communities. And that's work which deserves every ounce of effort and goodwill we can give it.

Playing many roles

You are an academic who has 11 languages, a theologian, a thinker, a poet, and also a perceptive translator of poetry. Mainly from Welsh, is it?

Welsh, and also from German and Russian.

Do these different facets and roles intersect as you go about the difficult task of being primate, pastor, and poet?

Well, it may seem to be some distance from the work of translating Welsh poetry to the work of chairing a board of finance! But I don't think there's a gap, because what you bring to the office of a primate or a bishop is who you are. The skills, the interests you have, and an interest in different languages and cultures can sometimes be very instructive as you sit around the table. An awareness of the extraordinary possibilities and varieties of language can perhaps sometimes make you listen a bit harder to how other people are talking. And maybe that feeds into the ministry. Essentially it is about who you are.

Issues of continuity and change

Your choice as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury was a considerable departure, many people have said this, from your predecessor and his views. Would you like to comment on issues of continuity and change here, going back perhaps to at least the time of Archbishop Robert Runcie? At the end of his tenure, he actually spoke of the pain of having to lead a Church which at times did not want to find a united way forward. How would you see your own tenure in relation to the tenures of your immediate predecessors?

I think it's possible to exaggerate the discontinuity. A great many of the projects that have been most central and valuable for me have been things that my predecessor initiated. And I have to acknowledge a grateful debt to that. But of course the style of each Archbishop is going to be different. Every Archbishop, I think, since the beginning of the 20th century has faced the challenge of a diverse Church. I read the life of Archbishop [Randall Thomas] Davidson who had a long tenure as the Archbishop at the beginning of the 20th century, and I smile occasionally to see him saying some of the things I might want to say about the difficulty of the job. And it's difficult because the Archbishop is not a chief executive, he is not someone who makes all the decisions that matter. The Archbishop presides over a global family with rapid communication and what goes with rapid communication very often is limited mutual understanding! That's got a lot more marked in the last two or three decades. So it's not surprising that there is a continuity of challenge there at least. I think everybody who comes into the office sooner or later does find this is the heart of it: can you hold people together in relationship? It's the job of every bishop. It's the job of an Archbishop of Canterbury in a special way – and there's continuity there. Holding together diversity, not in order to have an easy life or a quiet life, but because of this conviction that we need each other. And when somebody walks away from the table, everyone is the poorer.

Engaging with intelligent unbelievers

Archbishop, it was interesting to hear you being described (this was mentioned yesterday at the public reception) as a figure who could ‘make Christianity credible to the intelligent unbeliever.' Believing that you took that as a compliment [the Archbishop laughs] … is this a role that you have considered an important one for the leader of the third largest denomination of Christians in the world? Do you believe you have succeeded in this sense?

Well, apart from a growing sense of incredulity as I listened to what was being said about me yesterday, I think the answer is ‘Yes, I do think it's important.' Every Christian leader and teacher these days has to be, in some degree, an apologist, has to be able to have enough understanding of the language of the non-believer to find ways of moving across the frontier. Now some people do this very effectively as Christians witnessing in the world of science. I'm not a scientist, and I make no claims there. I know a bit about the world of the arts, and sometimes I really engage in conversation about the world of the imagination. The world of poetry or fiction can open doors for a deeper understanding. I believe it's worth working at that.

Dealing with immigration

You contributed to the debate prior to the 2005 U.K. elections, criticising assertions that immigration was a ‘cause of crime.' This is a very sensitive issue in the U.K., isn't it?

It is. It's troubling to me that we still seem in the U.K. to have a kind of memory of the language that was around in the 1960s – ‘Oh, you know we're being swamped by the immigrants from other cultures.' The fact is, at the moment, that migrants in the U.K. come from a very wide variety of backgrounds, including Europe, not just the old Commonwealth. The fact is also that they contribute economically to the country; without their services a great many things would collapse. And often they will do jobs which British people won't do. And I believe that culturally they help to keep Britain the lively and varied society that it is. So I am distressed that that suspicion and resentment is still around.

We as a Church have taken a fairly consistent stand on this. We are very concerned too about the status of asylum-seekers and refugees. I try to make it a point to visit detention centres for asylum-seekers whenever I can and to deal with refugee camps in Great Britain – to make sure that people remember that a great many migrants are definitely not in Britain simply from their choice, but because of nightmare situations they're escaping from. When you sat across the table from a woman who has been multiply raped in an African country in time of war, who has seen a family destroyed, who has with great difficulty found her way to a safe place, then it's quite hard to listen to others saying, talking about ‘bogus asylum seekers' and ‘ parasites'! I think Britain ought to do better than that. There's more nobility in the British tradition than that.

Who really is he?

Archbishop, it is often said that you are hard to label: orthodox or liberal, diplomat or dissident. It has also been said that you consider yourself to be a ‘radical traditionalist.' What are you, really?

( Laughs ) Really I'm Rowan Williams, a child of God, I hope. I don't like party labels, I really don't. And I don't see any contradiction in saying that I owe everything to the tradition of the Church in a very old-fashioned way. That all that shaped me in my prayer and in my thinking has been the great mainstream tradition of the Bible and the early Church. And that, as I said earlier, that gives me a sense of why it's important sometimes to be a critic or a questioner – and doesn't incline me to think that blanket conservatism was the answer to everything. But essentially, as I say, you bring to the office who you are, under God.

You would have noticed the different senses of the word secularism here and there .


It signifies equal respect for all religions and a certain neutrality in religious terms here while in England it signifies the principle of separation of matters of Church and state. Is there a point there that's worth elucidating?

Yes, what I've suggested in a couple of interventions over the last few years is that we in England need to be much more careful distinguishing between what I sometimes call Procedural Secularism, which is, the state steps back but allows debate to go on and the state itself stays neutral, and Programmatic Secularism, where the state drives an agenda to push religion out of the public sphere. India is a very good example of Procedural Secularism. That was the burden of my lecture in Delhi [the Archbishop's Chevening Lecture at the British Council, New Delhi, October 15, 2010, that can be accessed at [www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/3014], and I hope to take that back into the British discussion.

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