Interview with an Archbishop

This is worth taking a quick peek at. As the Archbishop of Canterbury (I almost cheekily wrote “His Hairiness” at that point, just saved myself in time) is preparing to step down from his office, he is giving lots of interviews and writing books and what not about his time in the job. This interview with Benedict Brogan in the Telegraph is a fairly honest and straightforward self-assessment. If the height of wisdom is “know thyself”, then Rowan Williams is obviously a wise man. We don’t have the full transcript of the interview, but the web page does include a 5 minute recorded excerpt of the Archbishop in reflective mode.

Points of interest:

1) On the Sharia controversy (and probably applicable to other issues on which he has commented): “I failed to find the right words. I succeeded in confusing people. I’ve made mistakes – that’s probably one of them.”

2) On same sex marriage (from the interview recording): “That would mean a change of doctrine for us, and the government doesn’t do that for us”.

3) “He laughs at the recollection of his exchanges with the atheist academic Richard Dawkins, whom he describes as the latest “pub bore” in a tradition of “great public atheists”.” Who’d have thought that that was what he was thinking during their polite “tea & scones” debate?

4) ” He is also upbeat about relations between Lambeth and Rome, in particular after the Pope’s visit last year, but doubts “that we’re any nearer institutional reconciliation”.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Interview with an Archbishop

  1. Stephen K says:

    I found it sad that the question “is he too thoughtful for the demands of an impossible job?” could even be posed. It seems leaders are criticised for being too thoughtful! “Give heed unto reading, exhortation and doctrine. Think upon the things contained in this Book……be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf…etc”

    Rowan Williams is probably wise on a number of grounds but I think also a good one. I think he has given to God’s family “their portion in due season”. I will be reading his book when it is available.

  2. Adam says:

    Well sadly David you did refer to His Hair…… which you wanted to avoid. I dont think these comments are necessary at all. After all what about the late cardinal Tisserant or cardinal Agaginian, both famous cardinals and both of whom had very hairy beards, especially Tisserant a former Dean of the College of cardinals.
    But anyway, the fact is that the Anglican communion is further away from any reconciliation with Catholicism after its women bishops, gay bishops and allowing so many other crazy ideologies come to fruition in their communion. Under Williams’ time for the last decade we have seen ecumenism go down the gurgler. Its all basically a waste of time now. The Catholic Church will never allow women priests nor women bishops full stop. It will not cave in on abortion or other critical moral issues that a wooly, fuzzy divided Anglicanism seeks to promote. The fact is the Anglicans are divided. A communion of opinion, ethical relativism and fading importance.
    Is it any wonder Williams is stepping down and he is 25 years younger than Benedict XVI who heads a Church of over 1 billion. Anglicanism counts about 72 million and Williams is ‘tired’. Oh dear, our hearts bleed for him.
    I hate to be cynical on this matter, but the fact is that Anglicanism has lost its way, its direction, its compass ever since Henry VIII could not get his way.
    When will we ever be truthful and realise that the fabric of unity in the Church is the only way to find The Truth. Any other ways are doomed to failure.
    Semper fidelis, beards or no beards.

    • Schütz says:

      Blast. It must have just slipped out! :-)

      I had a laugh earlier this year when Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was visiting Australia, and an ABC radio national interviewer asked him: “what will it mean for Britain with the retirement of two such prominent religious leaders as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi in the same year?” Lord Jonathan answered: “Well, two less men with hairy beards and eyebrows on the TV evening news anyway.”

      Surely the Archbishop of Canterbury can afford a professional barbers cut? Me, I find a set of electric clippers with the no.1 comb does a good job. It’s trimming moustaches that I have never got the hang of.

    • Peter says:

      Well said Adam.
      I don’t think it is too difficult to mount an argument that the Church of England was always a house built on sand.

  3. Stephen K says:

    Another thing I like about Rowan Williams, besides his ideas generally, is the clarity and lucidity with which he expresses them. There are several examples but here is one, at I think he is too harsh on himself: his Sharia address may have been too out-of-the-box for the bread-and-circuses press, but we already have too many examples of leaders without insight or vision.

  4. Adam says:

    Further to Rowan Williams. I attended a service at St Paul’s cathedral in July at which he delivered a sermon. It was the most academic piece I have ever heard in a church. I was totally bamboozled by what he said and did not know what he said when it ended. The man is an academic and always has been. No pastoral experience in his whole ministry and from January he will be back at Cambridge as master of a college there. So a man just over 60 will now be able to write and do research. Is this really what being a bishop means? Just 62 and most catholic bishops go till 75+. Cardinals till 80. And popes can go on like JPII to 85 with great phyisical disabilities. Was JPII tired? Guess he was every day but he did not just go at 62 and head to a nice uni job.
    Oh, I forgot. What archbishop can take sabbatical in his 50s for 3 months and write a book on a Russian novelist? Oh that would be Rowan Williams. I’m not sure where Tolstoy fits into the preaching of the Gospel in the 21st century? Obviously the archbishop could find time for that ‘tiring’ excercise.
    Semper fidelis.

    • Peter says:

      Perhaps Rowan Williams was a fan of that wonderful U.K. comedy Yes Prime Minister.I remember the episode where PM Jim Hacker had to give a nomination to her majesty to fill the vacancy at Berry St.Edmonds.
      He was reading the CV of one candidate and asked his press secretary Bernard
      “Has he ever done any pastoral work?” Bernard replied “Goodness me no.You don’t do pastoral work if you want to become a bishop.”

      • Peregrinus says:

        All of this seems a little mean-spirited. No pastoral experience in his whole ministry? He had four years as a parish curate (i.e. running a parish) and eleven years as Bishop of Monmouth before being appointed to Canterbury. Not a lot of pastoral experience, perhaps, but on the other hand rather more than one Ratzinger, J., had before he got the gig he now has. And there’s another man, a few of whose sermons and addresses might not pass the “bamboozle” test.

        Williams is retiring, I think, because he recognises that he’s not the man for the job he is in; his skills are not what is required, and someone else could and should do it better. Perhaps his decision displays a degree of humility and of commitment ot his church that should be acknowledged, not sneered at. I could name one or two Catholic bishops who might usefully have displayed similar qualities, but charity forbids.

        • Schütz says:

          Oh, come on, Perry. That’s a bit mean to old JR. I can think of a couple of things would indicate his ability to connect with people on a simple level:

          1) His best seller “Introduction to Christianity”. I can’t help thinking it must have read better in its original German, but it was wildly popular in its day

          2) His many Q&A sessions, with kids, with priests, with journalists – perhaps the most accessible genere of papal communication ever

          3) His catecheses at the Weekday Audiences – these have been republished in little collections that are selling quite well – especially his series on the saints. His current series on prayer is very inspiring.

          But it is especially his sessions with the young children that I love best. He is so very personal and down to earth with them. I have never witnessed any such thing from RW.

          • Stephen K says:

            I am pleased that you leap to the defence of another scholar and thinker, David. I would hate to think that dumbing-down as Adam seems to prefer was to be the criterion of worth. However, the fact that Benedict might relate to children more effectively or more comfortably than Rowan is no ground for diminishing the other qualities he has. There will be aspects to Benedict (or anyone otherwise ‘nice’) that are perhaps less successful too. Be honest, now, you don’t agree with Rowan’s religious conclusions or approach. Fair enough, we all have our subjective responses to different catecheses or philosophy. Just keep being fair.

            • Schütz says:

              I actually agree with him more often than not, I just don’t think he was the man for the job of Archbishop of Canterbury. It was, as Sir Humphrey would have said, a “courageous” appointment to begin with. Rowan was never a campaigner, and I find his words of caution regarding the British Governments head first plunge toward gay-marriage very wise and balanced, but ultimately the position of ABofC requires a much more forthright, unifying, and visionary leadership.

          • Peregrinus says:

            Hi David

            My aim is not to criticise the Pope, but to show that the criticism of the Archbishop are unfair, and possibly partisan. I’m not suggesting that both men should be criticised, but rather than neither should.

            But, while we’re on the subject, I don’t think it’s terribly helpful to compare the experience of hearing an address by one man with reading something written by the other. In this case, both men are well-regarded writers, but the qualities which make for a good writer don’t necessarily make for a good speaker. Adam was “bamboozled” hearing a sermon of Williams’, but papal homilies are often pretty dense too, designed to yield most upon being reread and studied (the assumption being that they *will* be reread and studied).

  5. Stephen K says:

    I feel a lot of respect for Rowan Williams as well as considerable sympathy on account of some of the kinds of criticisms he receives. I don’t think anyone could reasonably deny that he is as he comes across, a thoughtful, considerate, spiritual and gentle man in the best sense of the terms. Would that there were more Christian leaders like him, but given his calibre, perhaps we should be simply take heart that there is in him one.

  6. Jim Ryland says:


    When listening to the Archbishop, I am often reminded of Cranmer’s words found in the Book of Common Prayer rite for the Consecration of a Bishop;

    “GIVE heed unto reading, exhortation, and doctrine. Think upon the things contained in this Book. Be diligent in them, that the increase coming thereby may be manifest unto all men; for by so doing thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee. Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, devour them not. Hold up the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring again the outcasts, seek the lost. Be so merciful, that you be not too remiss; so minister discipline, that you forget not mercy; that when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, you may receive the never-fading crown of glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

    That admonition is rather powerful and it ought to be used and heeded in the broader catholic world.

    • Schütz says:

      Actually, I like Williams as a scholar. Like N.T. Wright, I know he has his moments, and his peculiarities, but I learn a lot from both men’s scholarship. I have just recently read William’s introductory essay for a new translation of Bede’s History of the English People. I can’t remember where I managed to get a full copy of it, because I can’t now find it on the net (I think it was published in the Times Literary Supplement), but there is an excerpt here: . It helped me get a real grip on the whole business of the Council of Whitby. I am currently reading a little book on the Northumbrian Saints, given to me by Prof. Paul Murry of Durham University, and Williams piece helped me to put this all in context.

      I once knew someone who argued that all bishops should be Doctors of Theology – not just teachers, but scholars. I don’t know about that. Our archivist came to me at work the other day with a couple of books by Melbourne’s second Archbishop, Archbishop Thomas Carr on various learned topics – apparently he regularly gave lectures on history and doctrine. They are quite scholarly, but also very pastoral as well. That’s the real trick of a bishop. He has to be able to hold his own with the guys and girls in the academy (else they will think him a nong and look down upon him), and yet at the same time have the ability to speak plainly and practically to the man and woman in the pew. That’s really quite a tall order.

  7. Jim Ryland says:

    That “tall order” and other responsibilities may account for the fact that so many of the really fine and sainted bishops did not want the post but were called to it,,, including Augustine of Canterbury.

    I agree. I’d love to tip a pint with Dr. Williams and let him ramble. The problem is in the fit of a scholar to a powerless but very visible station.

  8. Stephen K says:

    I’d like to comment further but briefly, if I may, on the subject that is providing here some kind of axe, as in “grind”: namely, the question of what has been referred to as academia, in the context of being a bishop, shepherd, leader etc. That the demands of certain roles and functions fit better with some temperaments as well as training/experience, I have no doubts. We can usefully comment on the differences between Ratzinger, Wojtyla, Montini, Roncalli and Pacelli, for example, in comparing papal styles and appeals. Each of them would have struggled with their commissions in different ways. So we can certainly do so when it comes to Williams, Carey, Runcie and Benedict, Morris, Dolan, Pell and Lefebvre.

    Some of the names I mentioned might indeed best be appreciated as scholars and others as pragmatic politicians. But just who is placing the demands on whom, here? Isn’t it true that primarily we do not respond to words, encyclicals, and logic – pure and simple – but to something more holistic that each of us here and now need or desire? And, conscious of the capacity we humans have for degrees of self-deception, I don’t think we should regard our personal preferences as anything any of us should treat as of objective fact instead of as an example of the diversity of heart, mind and experience. I think we might tend very easily to be unfair to any of them if we hang them out to dry simply because of their predilections.

    Some prefer and respond to Williams and some to Benedict and some to someone else. It has little, as far as I can see, to a hierarchy of rational comprehension but a lot to do with personalities. Some might even respect both!

    • Jim Ryland says:

      You raise a very valid point. As a professional liturgist and church musician, having served in Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and other churches, I tend to somewhat separate the man from the office. There are jerks who are actually rather good Ordinaries and ‘tother way ’round. Occasionally, one encounters a fellow-well-met who is also an exceptional bishop. There are also those that fail both categories miserably and one wonders how they ever attained that office.

      We have a modern conception of what a bishop ought to be. Among the attributes that one expects to see are the roles of administrator and politician. These may come in handy in today’s world but I tend to look for the attributes expected in the first centuries of the Christian era.

  9. Adam says:

    I would like to where i made or suggested anything like wanting a dumbing-down? And of what or by whom? As a Catholic i am primarily interested in the teachings of Benedict XVI and like John Allen believe he is a very powerful teacher if not the best we have had for ages as pope. Indeed his homilies are amazing and so well prepared and theologically sound. I do not rate Rowan Williams as a teacher first of all since i also question his very apostolic succession as archbishop. The genuine one really, though not in name is +Vincent Nichols. But diverging from that I believe that Benedict’s homilies will have greater value and more power after he dies than any pope of the last 200 years. Can anyone remember the teachings of John XXIII ? Doubt it. But they do remember the bishop of Rome who transformed the papacy in 5 years and Church by the Council along with his successor.
    On a personal note since someone mentioned popes and children, i was fortunate to be in Rome when John Paul I was pontiff for 33 days. I remember being at a general audience and a small boy ran up to the pope. Papa Luciani then held a little chat with the boy. It was an amazing moment for all there. He was the smiling pope, the pope who did not use the sedia, the chair that used by carried high above the people. We will never know what his pontificate might have held as it was only for a month. But his impact in a month was amazing. I think Rowan Williams impact of a decade has been one of confusion, doubt, procrastintion, divisiveness, indecision and total mayhem for the Church of England. He may be a nice, gentle man. I met him once and found him shy and gentle. A man of few words and somehow socially awkward. That does not make him a bad ‘bishop’ but i agree that he was perhaps the wrong choice at that time. The New Statesman magazine cover story this week coincidentally has Rowan Williams on it. What is the future of the C of E and who will be his successor?
    It is amazing how the process goes in choosing his successor who is recommended to the Prime Minister who recommends to the Queen. What bamboozles me (again) is if the Queen is the Supreme Governor of the C of E why does she not get a say in who becomes the new Arch? Perhaps ot shows just crazy and mixed up the C of E is when its supreme governor has no say in the choice. And she does not. She accepts the nomination of the nominations committee.
    We will not have long to wait. Should be known soon but I doubt very much if the new appointee will have any great impact on a divided and confused communion. Sad really.

  10. Adam says:

    One matter that I did not make mention of and which is a major plus for Rowan Williams is that of his meetings with the last two popes especiallh Benedict. Williams has made numerous trips to Rome to meet with Benedict and was a great host when the pope came to London welcoming him to Westminster Abbey the former catholic abbey and home to the coronations of all the kings of England. They are both theolgians and i think its a paradox that Williams has been working hard at ties with Rome but is held back by contrary liberal and unorthodox views in his own communion such as women priests women bishops and gay bishops as well. Once again a man swimming against the tide in his own communion. Perhaps he ought leap across the Tiber like many others have done including a very recent anglican Bishop of London who took the leap.
    Semper fidelis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *