Last Monday saw the final of a series of conversations conducted at Holland House, our retreat centre in Cropthorne, between Bishop Robert Paterson, former Bishop of Sodor and Man now living in Evesham, and some of his episcopal colleagues. The last 'in conversation' was with Archbishop Rowan Williams. 

Vicar of Evesham, Andrew Spurr, tells us about the evening: 

Dr Rowan Williams is the previous Archbishop of Canterbury and is now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He and Bishop Robert have known one another for many years. Rowan Williams is widely acknowledged to be one of the church’s finest minds and has been published widely in works ranging from scholarly examinations of figures of history, the Christian scriptures, modern religious thought, politics, poetry and other literature.

Archbishop Rowan WilliamsIn an informal exchange, Dr Williams was asked about his life, and his formative experiences. These ranged from experience of the time when, as children, he and Bishop Robert had attended the same Presbyterian church and Sunday school. Its minister had ignited their passion for truth: in Williams’ words, “a minister who preached with enormous fervour and intelligence … I thought, ‘this is exciting … yes, there’s reality here’.” Moving to Swansea as a teenager, he found a new spiritual home in Anglicanism and was impressed with the Vicar’s integrity and courtesy, prayerfulness and willingness to be self-critical. One particular occasion when he was a stroppy youth, he remembers the priest apologising to him, a lesson in integrity to the young man. Bishop Robert was curate of the adjoining parish and remembers remarks about Rowan being Canterbury material – “but they’d never have a Welshman!” During his teenage years he began to act and to write poetry – and is today known as a significant poet in both English and Welsh languages.

After graduation and a doctorate in a Russian theologian, he taught at the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, where he participated in the monastic community life as a way of testing a vocation to monastic life; then he returned to Cambridge and ordination before being appointed Lady Margaret Professor in Oxford.In studying theology, he reflected that it is impossible to do so at a distance. You have to have some personal engagement with God, and what you study has to matter to you. Theology is “a place where God’s challenges are heard”.

That was followed by twelve years back in Wales as Bishop of Monmouth including two as Archbishop; during this period Bishop Robert and he once more began to work together. This collaboration continued in the ‘Theological Education for the Anglican Communion’ Working Group and when Bishop Robert joined the English House of Bishops. Dr Williams noted that a bishop is not appointed to “decide” for the Church but “to guarantee all that the Church decides”. Perhaps for that reason some campaigners felt let down.

When he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams had observed, “It is a curious experience to have your future discussed, your personality, childhood influences and facial hair solemnly examined in the media, and opinions you didn’t know you held expounded on your behalf”. Both bishops agreed that “Being a bishop is potentially bad for the soul”.

In the course of the evening, Dr Williams gave voice to the moral incisiveness which so characterise his public pronouncements. Of his infamous lecture on Shari’a Law he said that we hadn’t risen to the challenge of how “the role and rule of law in a plural society of overlapping identities” might work. Speaking of current concerns about migration, he challenged the use of the judgemental term “economic migrant” used by people who have forgotten the two enormous movements of people in Europe in the twentieth century alone. He also spoke of the dangers of sucking talent from other nations.

Bishop Robert PatersonWith respect to what he believed to be one of the biggest imperatives of our own day, climate change, he felt that the root cause of our indifference to the crisis was that we had lost the sense that creation does not belong to us. We are set in a web of life in which we are symbiotic and interdependent. We need to recover a sense of our place in the balance of life and liberate ourselves from simply quarrying the planet’s resources for our own short-term ends. For the Christian, he noted that Christ, the incarnate, creative Word of God, is at the heart of our understanding of creation.

It was when Dr Williams came to reflect on the characteristics of the Church that he was at his most essential. Church boiled down to being the place where the Word of God is heard and bread is broken: action before doctrine. Its elements are the celebration of the experience of God and the gift of life, of being able to comprehend something of what we would never be able to understand fully in this life; a reflective critique of what we believe and what difference it makes to us and others. He was worried that the anxieties of the Church in our own day (principally about sustainability) were in danger of eclipsing the very thing the Church exists to be and do. By nature he hadn’t been keen on the dominance of strategic thinking; the Church, in the end is in the hands of God.We have to be careful that evangelism - the passion to share something which we believe to be of benefit to others - could, through our anxiety about the future, become distorted into simply trying to recruit others for the sake of our own survival.

In all it was a gentle, informal and very candid evening, followed by some interesting questions from the floor, including one about the Establishment, to which Dr Williams cited an example of how three bishops in the House of Lords had changed the results of a crucial debate. The evening concluding with Night Prayer.

Andrew Spurr, Vicar of Evesham