Interview: Rowan Williams: Archbishop of Canterbury 2002-2012

By Ashley Coates. Published: 20/09/2013

“I have seen people holding onto their faith in nightmare circumstances, making something of it and making their lives richer. If they can do it, perhaps some other people can.”

Born to a Welsh-speaking family in Swansea, Rowan Williams went to a nearby state-school where he proved himself to be a relentlessly studious child. By his early-teens he was not only reading extensively but also writing poetry and essays on history and religion.

He went on to study and teach theology at both Oxford and Cambridge. In 1986 he became the youngest professor at Oxford, a year after having been arrested for protesting against nuclear proliferation at RAF Alconbury.

Following a series of academic appointments he was elected and consecrated as Bishop of Monmouth, in a “calling he could not refuse”, giving him an opportunity to return to the Church in his home country.

He later became Archbishop of Wales before taking up the See of Canterbury. Rowan was the 105th Archbishop in a line that goes back more than 1500 years to Augustine of Canterbury in 597. His appointment was unconventional on a number of levels. He was the youngest Archbishop in 200 years and the first bishop from outside the Church of England chosen to be Archbishop of Canterbury in over 500 years. His background as an academic, rather than a “career priest”, also contrasted with his predecessors.

He became Archbishop during a time of division, uncertainty and worry within the Church of England about where it was heading as an institution. Issues such as the ordination of women bishops, gay marriage and the decline of Sunday Church attendance were among some of the more pressing concerns for Lord Williams when he took on the job.

A former Bishop of Oxford told him, “God has given you all the gifts and, as your punishment, he has made you Archbishop of Canterbury.”  Lord Williams made considerable headway in dealing with some of the Church’s most divisive issues as well as expanding their development work abroad.

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This is an abridged version of a series of 30 interviews made for a book exploring successful personalities.

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You grew up in Swansea and went to Dynevor, a nearby state school. How would you characterise your upbringing at home and at school?

My parents originated in the Swansea Valley, in an industrial village. My father came from a mining family and my mother came from a farming family. I was an only child and it was a home where there was a lot of encouragement for doing well at school. School itself, although not at all a very spectacular building or a well-known school, was incredibly encouraging and very warm and a pleasing place to be.

You started reading complex material and writing quite extensively from a very early age. What do you think was compelling you to do that?

Apart from the obvious answer that I was showing off! We were encouraged to write and I can remember one essay I was asked to write when I was about 15, and suddenly thinking, “gosh there are ideas here which are worth working out on paper”. I was driven to look into it by a teacher.

Your path to senior cleric roles was very unconventional, was it always your intention for your academic career to translate into a career within the Church?

I suppose right from the start of my teaching of theology I saw it as something I was doing for the Church. I wanted to help increase my understanding, and other people’s understanding of the Church, about where we were and what we were up to.

I have always said that what I would like to see is a learning Church, a Church that is willing to ask questions and explore and grow. I saw my teaching as very rooted in that. From the very first time I was teaching in Cambridge, I was going out quite a bit to do study days with clergy, weekend parishes and that sort of thing.

What were the major themes that interested you during the strictly academic phase of your career?

Two themes really engaged me. One was a better understanding of how people pray and what the theological background is to that and the other theme was what theology has to say about contemporary social and political questions. I had always been fairly involved in social and political issues while I was a student and afterwards. Some people might say that it’s two extremes, being very world-engaged but also thinking a lot about contemplation and solitude.

To me, a figure like Thomas Merton, one of the great religious writers, of the 50s and 60s, was an enormous inspiration. He was a monk who wrote a great deal about the spiritual life and also wrote a great deal about the issues of race and war in America.

Were you at all concerned that by moving into a demanding ecclesiastical role, thinking particularly about becoming Bishop of Monmouth, that you were going to loose the opportunity to work on your writing? 

There was an inevitable price to pay, I couldn’t do the same kind of scholarship as I had done before. That was just something that had to be budgeted-in. The call to be Bishop of Monmouth was something I felt I couldn’t say no to. Here I was being asked to go back to my native country and serve the Church. I had always said that I wanted to put what I had at the disposal of the Church and they took me at my word. I didn’t feel a moment’s regret about that, not a moment.

On the topic of contemplation and solitude, Christianity offers many means by which an individual can reflect and self-evaluate, such as prayer and meditation. What do you do to help you clear your mind? 

It’s absolutely essential to have a serious period of silence every day. I have always tried to maintain that but as part of a regular pattern. I start the day with a substantial period of silence, I go on a retreat or two every year, going away for a few days for silence and reflection. It’s also useful to have a habit of praying during the day, getting into the habit of stopping ever so often and concentrate your energies a bit.

It helps you maintain focus.

That’s the idea, yes. Trying to remember what matters and what doesn’t, which I don’t always succeed with.

Am I right in saying that you were arrested for singing psalms outside a US military base?

I’m afraid you are yes.

How did that come about?

This was about 1985 and I was part of Christian CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament]. At that time there was a great deal of anxiety about the proliferation of American nuclear missiles in British bases and some of us at Christian CND just decided to go up to the air force base at Alconbury and say some prayers. It was Ash Wednesday, the day when Lent begins, so we start to think about repentance and say some prayers.

So we climbed over the fence and said some prayers. Fortunately they couldn’t work out exactly what to charge us with as we hadn’t cut the wires and we thought quite hard about doing it in a way that would mean we couldn’t be charged with anything.

Was that your only act of political protest or were you part of other demonstrations for the CND movement?

I was regularly at CND meetings and rallies and spoke to various groups over the years. When I was a bishop in Wales I was quite actively involved in protests over the closure of the mines in the early 90s. I had some very inspiring contact with the people that rescued Tower Colliery, the pit having been closed was taken over by the miners themselves as a workers cooperative that ran for many years very successfully.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has an almost overwhelming number of responsibilities, ranging from the ceremonial to the administrative. It looks like a Chairman, CEO and Chief Operating Officer all rolled into one.

There are the responsibilities to Diocese of Canterbury, the Province of Canterbury, overseeing Anglican communities and an array of other official roles within academic institutions in England, such as trusteeships and governorships. Where did you dedicate most of your time and to what extent did you feel distracted by some of the less substantive requirements of the role?

There always seemed to be meetings to chair but quite a lot of the work, like getting out into parishes and to schools and so forth I enjoyed greatly. It was a great regime for me, I loved school visits and as far as I possibly could I used to try to get to a parish at least once every Sunday.

I was able to get around parishes in Kent when I was Archbishop. The international trips were often very exhausting but they also provided huge inspiration. Going to somewhere like the Congo or Sudan, or Pakistan, you see a Church very much under pressure, doing extraordinary things.

The political side of the Church, or rather the issues-orientated side of the Church, is that something you are keen to see more of?

It’s certainly not the only thing the Church is for, the Church is there to help people be holy and loving. One of the ways we express that holiness and love is through the way we serve one another and my interest in international development has grown considerably.

What could we do to help a village in Kenya or a church-school in central Sudan? How do you best support and encourage people who are doing that very basic, hands-on work? Part of my work for the last few years was trying to establish a better network for aid, relief and development agencies in the Anglican community. We needed more sharing of resources, experiences and training and I think we ended up with quite a robust network in the end.

The Church has encountered a number of highly divisive issues over the last decade, what would you say was your greatest challenge as Archbishop?

The obvious answer is that I was Archbishop during a period of enormous international tension between the various parts of the Anglican family. The great challenge was trying to get people to talk to one another and broker relationships, which is usually a recipe for being unpopular with everybody.

Politically, was your situation not unlike that of the recent Coalition in that you were often caught between parts of the Christian community that we might call more liberal and the more Orthodox community and the need to juggle the interests on both sides?

It’s not at all a simple stand-off. On both sides there are people of real integrity and real stature. The lines of division don’t always run where you think they would. It required quite a bit of diplomacy, some hard conversations and certainly required what I talked about earlier, the process by which you sit down and remind yourself what it’s all about.

What would you say is your greatest achievement?

I never know how to answer that because it’s too early to say. Two projects I worked on during my time as Archbishop that seem to have gathered traction are the efforts to get a proper international network for development and the innovative missionary programme I tried to launch when I first became Archbishop. The programme is about trying to get Christian communities started away from the mainstream church, not necessarily meeting on Sundays or meeting in Church buildings. Over the years we reckon that we reached something like 30,000 people with that programme.

Although the statistics for Sunday worship are not all that encouraging, the fact is that on the one hand the rate of decline has definitely leveled off, and on the other, Sunday attendance no longer measures people’s involvement with the Church in quite the way it used to. I do feel quite pleased about how that turned out and I had fantastic staff and colleagues who helped to take that forward.

After you stood down you spoke of having “unfinished business” within the Church, what would you most like to have done if your tenure could have continued?

I would have been, very, very happy if I could have left with the issue of the ordination of women bishops settled. Last year was very hard, I had hoped when I first announced that I would be standing down that this particular cycle would be over. I think I was too optimistic.

There was a lot of movement though.

Yes but I think last November [2012] was a bitter blow for all sorts of people.

Over the years you have spoken to many prominent atheists, including Richard Dawkins. Which aspect of your faith, rather than the position of the Church, have you been challenged on the most?

The one challenge that keeps coming back, and to which there is never a cut-and-dried answer, is the question of suffering. I remember when Jon Humphrys asked me directly to answer his questions on the Today programme the morning after the killing of children in Beslan [Russia] some years ago.

It was very tough and it’s the question that people find the most difficult. How could you talk about a God of love when etc etc? The theoretical answers are often not of much use to people. All I can say is I have seen people holding onto their faith in nightmare circumstances, making something of it and making their lives richer. If they can do it, perhaps some other people can.


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