Rowan Williams – End of an era

So, the news is just in that Rowan Williams will be stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of this year … Whatever his detractors may say about his tenure and the painful controversies in which he may have found himself entangled (the majority not of his own making), Rowan Williams surely remains one of the giants of contemporary theology. Moving, like NT Wright not long ago, back into the somewhat quieter waters of British academic life (as Master of Magdalene College Cambridge) from the turbulence of Church politics, it is only to be hoped that the loss in terms of leadership of the Anglican Communion will be scholarship’s gain. And who knows – maybe somebody might even be able to persuade him to help out a theologically-minded composer or two as he did as the consultant¬† for James MacMillan and his librettist Michael Symmons Roberts during the creation of their Parthenogenesis, part of Jeremy Begbie’s Theology Through the Arts project which is now based at Duke University under the name Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts.


For those who are long-time fans of ‘The Bearded One’ (as some of my North American theo-friends refer to him), it is perhaps worth pointing out just some of the rich audio and video resources available on the internet which provide ample evidence that whatever toll his time at Lambeth Palace may have taken on him, Rowan Williams’ theological insight remains both as sharp and as profound as ever:

‘The Finality of Christ in a pluralist world’ – in this lecture given at Guildford Cathedral in 2010, the Archbishop offers what has to rank as one of the most cogent recent suggestions for how to reconcile a robust commitment to the core of historical Christian orthodoxy with an authentic respect for other religious traditions.

‘The Image of Humanity in the Philokalia’ – the 2010 Father Alexander Schmemann Lecture given at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY. A reminder of the extent to which Rowan Williams’ vision has been deeply shaped by the traditions of the Eastern Church (both ancient and modern), as well as of his contribution to the understanding of the Eastern Orthodox heritage in the West.


‘Emerging Church Expression’ – in a quite different vein, a video sampler of the DVD accompanying the highly stimulating Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging by Scot McKnight, Peter Rollins, Kevin Corcoran and Jason Clark (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011). Especially recommended to those who may not know that the Archbishop has for a number of years been one of the staunchest supporters of the Emergent Church in an Anglican context (‘Fresh Expressions’).

‘The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin’ – video of the recent debate moderated by Sir Anthony Kenny between Rowan Williams and Richard Dawkins at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford this February. May disappoint those expecting gladiatorial combat, but is likely to go down in the annals as a model of respectful but substantial engagement between two very different viewpoints about the essential nature of humanity.


On a more personal note, one of the most thought-provoking of the many books by the outgoing Archbishop remains for me his short but grippingly dense series of ‘reflections on art and love’ entitled Grace and Necessity (London: Continuum, 2005), a haunting set of meditations on artistic creativity which probably has more underlinings per page than any virtually other item on my shelves. At a music and spirituality conference at the London South Bank Centre in 2008 I attempted a musical transposition of some of Rowan Williams’ ideas (centred on the thought of the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain) in a paper entitled ‘The Necessity of Grace’. Although some of my comments regarding the post-modern philosophical revival of interest in the via negativa of apophatic theology would probably receive some nuancing were I to update it, I offer the essay to any interested readers here as a pdf for want of any better way to mark what is definitely the end of an era.

Father Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture

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