The Archbishop addresses the Hereford Diocesan Conference 'Sharing the Story'
Thursday 5th June 2008The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gave the following address at the Hereford Diocesan Conference, held in Swanwick Conference Centre. Questions and answers follow the transcript.
I want to talk about the interrelation of story and theology. I want to suggest that theology in the Church – one of those words that can lead people to panic at certain points – begins as deciphering stories, deciphering stories that themselves decipher the world. Theology makes sense of lives that make sense of the world.
That ought not to be a surprising or novel observation, because of course that is very much what is going on in the New Testament. It's no accident that Jesus is remembered as a story-teller in the Gospels, not just as a teacher in the abstract. We know that one of the most distinctive things about what he said was narrative. And it's interesting that in that precious story of Jesus' companionship with the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke's gospel, what Jesus actually does is re-tell a story. 'Don't you know', say the disciples to Jesus, 'what's been happening? Don't you know the story of what's been happening in Jerusalem in recent days? You must be the only person who doesn't.' And in response Jesus says in effect, 'I'm going to tell you the whole story.' Beginning with the prophets he re-tells the story of what's been happening in Jerusalem in recent days until it makes sense; and as bread is broken across the table the disciples realize that a completely new kind of sense has been made of the whole of their story, their life and their environment by the encounter with the risen Christ. So at that key moment what happens is a storytelling. The resurrection enables people to re-tell the whole story of God's dealings with his people throughout the centuries, coming to climax and focus in the death and resurrection of Jesus. And in that light, off they go back to Jerusalem to help everybody else see their stories all over again, which is one way you could describe the whole Christian doctrine of redemption. To talk of ourselves as redeemed sinners is to talk of ourselves as having learned how to tell our story differently. Or to put it in rather a condensed way: the unredeemed sinner, you might say, is a person who's not yet learned how to tell a different story about themselves, only the story of failure, the story of loss, the story of guilt.
The Orkney poet George McKay Brown wrote short stories as well as poems about Orkney. And one of the stories is really a story about purgatory. It begins by depicting a man apparently lost somewhere on fog-laden uplands and the indications are it's probably somewhere on the North York moors. He's wandering around not quite knowing where he's going and his memory is working overtime as he stumbles through the fog – the memories of things having gone wrong in his life. And as the story unfolds, very, very subtly you realize that this man is dead and he doesn't know where he's going because he can't tell a story about his life that makes sense and moves towards reconciliation. He's had an experience of deep rupture and lack of reconciliation within his family, and all he can do is go over and over it again and tell the same story. And as the story moves you realize that what he's got to do is to allow something new into that story, some moment of hope or love or reconciliation which he can't generate for himself. And as this short story ends, some corner of the fog is beginning to lift and he thinks he can see the lights of an inhabited house somewhere. There might be a place to live, there might be a story to tell, but until something new comes in to change the story he's trapped, he's stuck with the story he's telling himself.
Now George McKay Brown was a practicing Catholic and wrote that story very much out of the doctrine of purgatory but we all inhabit purgatories of one sort or another in our own lives on earth, don't we? And a very important part of that purgatory is being stuck in stories we don't know the way out of. What the Christian Gospel says – if you have ears to hear – is that there is something that can enter the apparent deadlock, the apparent stand-off with the stories you're telling yourself about yourself that will take them to a different conclusion, and that something is the presence of the redeeming Christ.
So you may perhaps see a little bit of why I suggest that theology is the practice of 'making sense of lives that make sense of the world'. Jesus tells stories so as to change people's world. There he is, physically confronting his audience saying, 'I'm going to tell you a story at the end of which you will not be where you were at the beginning.' Think of the parables in that light, especially the great parables recorded in Luke's gospel. They're stories that really are designed to get you out of your depth and thinking afresh of who and where you are. One of the characteristics of Jesus' parables in Luke is 'the sting in the tail' when you think you've got the point and Jesus' rounds on you and says 'no you haven't, wait!'
The Prodigal Son is perhaps the best example of that. You're just settling down with the happy ending when the elder brother appears on the doorstep. You've been identifying perhaps with the son who's made a mistake and is forgiven, or maybe you've been identifying with the father and feeling your innermost heart stirred with compassion for the sinner or the outcast, and just when you think it's safe to turn off, this large, uncompromising, self-righteous, difficult, unattractive person appears on the scene and says, 'What about me?' And you're left with that uncomfortable question which Jesus undoubtedly wants his audience to bear in mind, 'what if I'm not just the forgiven sinner or the forgiver, what if I'm also the self-righteous nuisance?' And listening to the parable of the Prodigal Son challenges us to inhabit all those different worlds, to inhabit the world of the son who wants to get away from what seems to him perhaps the oppressive environment of the security and love of his home and goes and attempts to lose himself, and finds that he's lost himself all too successfully and has to be humbled and brought low to come home at all. We inhabit that world with its happy ending. Perhaps we dare to inhabit the world of the father. And I wonder as I hear the story again and again what levels of rejection the father endures in the loss of the son, the son who says to him, 'Will you give me the money I'd have when you're dead? Because I can't wait'. Perhaps we dare to inhabit that world of love reviled and love despised and love waiting without consolation or security but simply keeping watch in case there's a sign of response. As we inhabit the world of the son we understand quite a lot about the world of sin, as we inhabit the world of the father we understand quite a bit about what the love of God is really like. Then we have to inhabit the most uncomfortable place of all, the place of the person who doesn't yet know love or need or patience, and is yet the most needy person, the most deeply suffering person in this story. Now, where are you and what's all that done to your world? It's bigger than it was to start with, isn't it, if you've worked through the parable of the ProdigalSon. You've inhabited three different worlds: the world of the redeemed sinner; the world of the loving father; and the world of the unredeemed sinner who doesn't even know that he's a sinner yet, because he hasn't known love. Just an example: but I think it illustrates a bit why Jesus uses stories to bring something new into the world. You're not the same at the end as at the beginning.
Then there's the parable of the GoodSamaritan. The interesting thing is that it completely fails to be an answer to the question that Jesus has asked. (To me, one of the great marks of Jesus' divinity is that he never seems to give a straight answer to a simple question - because he knows there are no simple questions. There are human needs, and giving the answer to the real not the apparent question, to the need not the want, is one of the things that establishes Jesus' transcendence of our categories.) The lawyer wants to know, simply, who he is obliged to love. He knows he's got to do it and he'd like to know exactly who is a proper object of love so that he doesn't waste his time loving people who don't really need to be loved. And Jesus' response of course ignores the question completely and says 'well, just imagine a case where somebody with absolutely no reason to love whatever, loves you (or somebody like you) and draw your own conclusions. Because that's the world you need to inhabit, a world where the people who apparently are formed by a whole set of obligations about love, find quite good excuses for not doing it and somebody with absolutely no reason for doing it, does it: now then, what are you going to do?' Very confusing, but that's the point of the parable, to spring you out of the trap of your own self and your own story into another set of possibilities.
Scholars have often pointed out the deliberately subversive form of the story. A man falls among thieves and is injured, along comes the priest who walks past, along comes a Levite who walks past. And people know how this story's going to go because the three categories of Israelite are priest, Levite and ordinary Israelite. The audience is probably gearing up for a story about how ordinary Israelites – salt of the earth – are so much nicer than priests and Levites, and that is absolutely not the point Jesus wants to make: the next person to come along is not an ordinary Israelite but a Samaritan, and then things get difficult. So, in all sorts of ways Jesus' story takes us into that new world where we have to begin to imagine that the kind of love God's interested in is causeless, arbitrary, free in ways that really challenge all the modes in which we habitually thing about love. The ways in which we habitually and compulsively want to restrict it to the people we can cope with. And behind that story, opening up, is of course the deep, deep background of what Jesus wants to tell us about God, which is that God's love is not based on affinity and tribal sympathy and loving people who are like him, it's just what it is: it's him it's God. And our own growth into love has got to be a growth into that kind of mysteriousness, that kind of causeless upsurge of compassion towards the stranger. 'Does that answer your question, lawyer, scribe, pharisee, whoever?' Well, no, it leaves you with a whole lot of other questions that are going to take a very long time – perhaps a lifetime – to unravel.
I spent a bit of time on that because it's illustrating the point that story, told in the context of sharing the truth about Christ, is particularly powerful in springing us from the traps we set ourselves; getting us out of the clichés in which we imprison ourselves; taking us into another world or several other worlds. A world where we don't yet know the end of our story and where the categories and conventions we've been taking for granted don't automatically apply. And Jesus' own life and death and resurrection become like one of his own parables; a story that overturns the expectations; overturns the expectations of what Messiah is going to be; the expectations of what God is going to do. Obviously the image of the suffering saviour is an overturning of expectations, but even the resurrection is a kind of overturning of expectations. I don't know what the disciples were thinking about on the first Holy Saturday but I guess that some of them may very well have been thinking it was the end of the story; and that some of them may have been thinking that perhaps there would be a blazing reversal which would give a happy ending to the story. And the following morning something happens that no one has been expecting, that intensely secret and mysterious moment of recognition between Jesus and those he loves and the equipping of those he loves to go and share the story in transforming encounters. But again, as has often been pointed out, Jesus doesn't go and appear to the High Priest or to Pontius Pilate or Herod Antipas, he appears to Mary Magdalene, he appears to Simon, he appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. It's not quite what they were expecting and it takes a while (as the stories so wonderfully tell us) for him to be recognized. It's like the parables, it doesn't leave you where you were, it takes your categories, your world into a new place. And you can see in the New Testament how that works itself out in the growth of the early Churches. You can see people faced with this story that overturns the expectations, saying, 'Manifestly in some way this story has changed everything. And for us who are believers, who are friends of Jesus, who ate and drank with him after he was raised from the dead, for us this is the story that makes sense. But how on earth do we make sense of the story?' And so, even as the Church moves outward with great confidence, with expectation and delight and thanksgiving to the ends of the earth, those who are telling the story are saying to themselves, 'How do we find the words that make sense of a story like this?'
The excitement of reading St Paul's epistles is not the excitement of watching a computer whirring at full blast, churning out right answers to questions. The excitement of reading St Paul is the excitement of watching somebody trying to make sense and occasionally finding that he's got to a brick wall. (Among my favourite verses in the Epistles are those where St Paul says, 'Sorry, I just don't know what to say next, we just don't do it OK? Next question ...' Or we're at the end of a great and vastly complex passage – Romans 11 for example – and Paul says: 'I've no idea how all this is going to work out. It's all been for the good so far, against all expectation. O! the depth, the richness of God's wisdom, because I can't find a theory to account for this. Do your best with it -- there it is,' or words to that effect. Paul's letters are 'work in progress', that's the excitement, they are trying to make sense of the life that makes sense of the world. And throughout Christian history there's always been that slight mis-match between the absolute conviction that the life of Jesus Christ makes sense of the world and how we catch up with its realities in words and ideas. (I liked to say to students when I was teaching theology that the history of early Christian doctrine is not a steady advance of theoretical clarity, it's much more a series of failed solutions.) When you get to the point of the great Creeds and the great definitions in the fourth and fifth centuries, what's going is on is (again) not 'this is the end of the story', but 'this is probably the least stupid way we can say this, it more or less covers the bases. Keep these things in play and you've got more or less a recipe for making sense, but be aware that this is a very tiny bit of the reality that you're actually talking about'. True, necessary, and yet not the end but the beginning of something. And I do think where doctrine is concerned we desperately need to convey – to ourselves first, to the world around us also – that doctrine is just that, not an end but a beginning. Doctrine is the least inadequate things we can find to say about God. We can't not say them, and it's taken labour and thought and prayer to get even to this point, but the purpose of it all is to open a window onto an endless vista of God's beauty and God's mysteriousness. That's what the Creed's for – but that would be another lecture or two!
So far in this first half of what I want to say, I've concentrated on these general things that seem to me to arise out of the way the New Testament presents itself to us: Jesus himself telling stories that change things, telling the story of Israel so that it comes out differently when he talks to the disciples on the road to Emmaus; telling those stories that shock us and give us troubling new perspectives on ourselves so that our lives may be enlarged. His own story in turn becomes a story like that, a troubling, different, difficult, transfiguring story that forces us to think and pray and imagine more and more. Then the apostolic writings of the New Testament becoming the first great authoritative, classical deposit of that witness to a life that makes sense, and a witness that struggles to find the words that can carry the significance of Christ's life and the change he brings about.
Now I would like to skip forward a couple of millennia and ask about the lives that prompt theology in this sense today. The stories we might want to tell in our own age that break open some of the categories that invite people into a new world. Because I do think that a great deal of effective sharing of the faith is done by simply pointing to certain sorts of lives and saying 'human life could be like that; isn't that life inviting and challenging?' That seems to me to be one of the ways in which we can communicate our faith at a level where it's not just about inviting people to adopt a certain set of ideas, but inviting people to believe that a certain kind of way of being in the world is possible: 'Life could be like that.'
And so I want to give you four brief stories from the twentieth century which seem to me to be 'theological' lives, lives worth sharing because they make sense of something in critical situations. And as we think about those stories and try to make sense of them, we may perhaps find there are ways of communicating something by telling those stories. I've chosen them as examples of lives that prompt these very fundamental questions, and I've tried to be strictly ecumenical: one Lutheran; one Anglican; one Roman Catholic; and one Russian Orthodox, just in case we think that transformed lives are the prerogative of one group of Christians. I'll begin with the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox.
1 Sergei Bulgakov
The twentieth century was a terrible century in many ways, especially on the continent of Europe. Those of us who've grown up in Britain probably still don't quite understand what the corporate trauma of twentieth-century Europe meant to many people on the continent. And it's worth bearing that in mind. Millions of people in Europe lived through the end of their world and millions of people lived through that not once, but twice. In the tearing up of the map of Europe that followed the First World War: in the massive displacements as well as the unspeakable suffering and slaughter that characterized the Second World War and the years immediately afterwards. Jesus' preaching and the first witness of the early Christians took place in a world where the end of all things was expected. And a great deal of what Jesus teaches is about how to live through the end of the world, when all that you think familiar, controllable and reliable disappears. And that's why it's not surprising that so many figures of spiritual and intellectual depth in the twentieth century rediscovered Christian faith at a completely new level of depth as they lived through the ends of worlds.
Sergei Bulgakov is my Russian Orthodox and he grew up in the late nineteenth century in a priest's family in rural Russia. In his autobiography he describes the climate of the parsonage in which he grew up: a father with a bit of a drink problem who earned most of his income as the chaplain to the cemetery, which meant that his pastoral duties were in some ways occasional and rather limited. (The resident population didn't make very much demand.) A mother desperately overworked, nerve-ridden, tense all the time, worried about money. He didn't find there was anything in the religion of his childhood that really held him very much and as a teenager after a couple of years in seminary his faith disappeared. He became a radical, a Marxist and indeed made such a success of his career as an economist that, in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, many people regarded him as the great rising hope of intellectual Marxism in Russia. Lenin regarded the young Bulgakov with respect as one of the great theorists of the Marxist future. It's not completely clear what made the difference, but around 1903 young Dr Bulgakov, fresh from the publication of a massive work on the application of Marxist theory to Russian agriculture, decided that this wasn't quite enough. He began to read novelists and philosophers from outside his own world. He began to read Dostoevsky seriously; he began to study Nietzsche and Hegel. He even began to read some nineteenth-century English biblical scholarship. And he found his way back to Christian belief. He decided to stand for election to the second democratic assembly in Russia in 1907 as a Christian Socialist. He found that a year of active politics left him angry and disillusioned and frustrated. He wrote some more books, his family lost one of their children, he was removed from his post at the University in Moscow because of subversive ideas and also economic cutbacks in the University, and with impeccable timing he offered himself for ordination in 1917. After which he was exiled and spent the rest of his life in Paris where he was the founder and first principal of a very famous Russian theological college in Paris – St Serge. He died in 1944.
Here is a life which spans a very great deal of the end of the European world, but in more than one way. He had already in 1903 seen through to the end of the Marxist revolution. There's an essay he wrote in the first decade of the twentieth century, in which he lays out the structural weaknesses in the Marxist approach to humanity. And it's not surprising that in the 1980s these were essays secretly reprinted and passed from hand to hand in the Soviet Union, and read, rightly, as prophetic of the collapse of that system which was just beginning to come onto the scene in Bulgakov's early professional career. He saw that there was more to politics than politics, and among his most interesting work in the first decade of the century is some reflection on the inter-weaving of politics and art and liturgy. Three ways in which human beings transform the world they're in: politics, which seeks to transform the relationships between people and social groups; art, which seeks to transform the material stuff of the world; and liturgy, in which human beings invite God to transform the entire environment in which they live, inner and outer. And he said 'each one of these dries and withers without the others.' A politics that's only politics ends up in managerial tyranny or worse: he knew about that, he could see where it was going. Art for art's sake leaves you with a lot of highly cultivated dilettantes who never really make a difference to anything. Liturgy without politics and art isolates the vital presence of the body of Christ in the midst of the world from the real concerns of human beings. But bring them altogether, and you understand what the Church is: the Church, the community, the new creation, the new reality in which the political, the creative and the devotional/spiritual are absolutely fused together so that there is something utterly new.
I find Bulgakov an endlessly fascinating and inspiring figure. But I mention him because this is a life making sense in that he's someone who sees through to the end of some of the great temptations and seductions of his day, and takes the immensely risky step of trying to find a way of living that holds together in thought and prayer and action, the range and depth of the new creation. In his last years he had an enormous reputation as a spiritual director, and I imagine that the ghost of the young Marxist intellectual must have given a wry smile to see the older Bulgakov acting as a spiritual guide in Paris in exile. And it was some of those people whom he directed spiritually; who, visiting him on his deathbed, spoke about the light that they saw in his face – more than just a reflected light they all said. In the last few weeks after a stroke when he was incapable of speaking, people would go into his darkened room and find there was light emanating from him. Bulgakov himself would have said, as would many Orthodox theologians, that one of the things that the saints do is (literally and metaphorically) to 'shed light', to make sense -- by challenging, stepping out of some of the prisons that human beings get themselves into, that make sense by seeking a way of discipleship where the wholeness of new creation can come alive.
2 Edith Stein
My second theological life puts it perhaps even more starkly. It's another story of disruption, profound suffering, risk and eventually death. It's the story of Edith Stein. She came from a Jewish family, not particularly practicing, but with some religious background. She studied philosophy and became a very distinguished teacher of philosophy and an associate of one or two of the most important German philosophers of the day. And as her philosophical imagination deepened and developed she found that there were questions she could no longer avoid. She couldn't stop herself thinking about what it was within and beyond the world of phenomena that made sense of love and sacrifice and devotion. And to the immense surprise (indeed dismay) of many of her family and her professional associates, she decided to become a Roman Catholic and (worse still) to become a Carmelite nun. She took the habit as Sr Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and became an enclosed Carmelite contemplative. In the convent she worked, still on philosophy, but this time on the boundaries between philosophy and mysticism, and wrote a staggeringly difficult but very important book on St John of the Cross, the great sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite mystic.
Whether she expected to live out her days in the Carmelite convent in relative peace I don't know. She was a wise woman and could read the signs of the times as well as anybody else could. Her convent was relocated from Germany to Holland as the Third Reich tightened its grip on Germany. And when the Germans invaded Holland and rounded up those who'd previously fled from Germany, they were particularly interested in those of Jewish background. Sr Teresa Benedicta was arrested as a Jew and she died in Auschwitz. She was canonized by the last Pope some years ago.
Three important things emerge in her story. One is obviously that here is somebody – as with Bulgakov – entering very, very deeply into the mind and imagination of their own times. Being very near the heart of the philosophical revolution that was going on in German universities in the 1920s, and who, going right to the boundaries of what people were thinking and imagining, found herself almost irresistibly drawn over the edge. It's as if, when you look deeply enough into politics (like Bulgakov), or philosophy (like Edith Stein), you're at considerable risk of falling over the edge. Go far enough with the disciplines of this world with honesty and integrity, and God's waiting for you. But I also think of the two more poignant elements of her life. She was somebody who moved from Judaism to Christianity: an appallingly difficult thing to do. She moved from Judaism to Christianity, and yet she died because she was a Jew and because she would not conceal or compromise that fact. She was not eager to move from Germany, she wanted to share the reproach of her people (an appropriate biblical phrase there, I think). But she had no choice, she was moved by her order and it was as a Jew that she died. Accepting the reproach of her people: that is, sharing the suffering of those most deeply vulnerable and at risk because of their Jewishness in the world of that time; that's one of the ways in which she made sense of the nightmare of Germany in the 1930s. Yes, she was a Christian and she believed the Christian faith to be true, but she knew that her discipleship would not allow her to escape the risk of the vulnerable, would not allow her to modify or play down the call of God to be where the weak and the suffering were. And so she accepted that risk and died because of it. But she also knew that the conflict in Germany in the 1930s was about more than politics, it was about 'who is Lord', just as much as in the early Church the martyrs died because they would not say 'Caesar is Lord' (they knew Jesus was), so with Edith Stein. And one of the most vivid stories I know about her, is that about the moment of her arrest when she was summoned to the convent parlour by the SS commandant who was rounding up the Jews in the area, who greeted her with the words 'Heil, Hitler' and she greeted him with what she said to her sisters every morning of her life 'Laudate, Jesus Christus,' 'Jesus Christ be praised.' There, you might say, are the two lordships in conflict in the 1930s, and that response of hers was again a life making sense of a senseless and terrible world.
We catch a glimpse of her on the transports to Auschwitz in an extraordinary little vignette written by another great figure of the time, a young Jewish woman from Amsterdam called Etty Hillesum whose letters and diaries have been published in recent years. Etty Hillesum writing to her sister from Westerbork (the transit camp where the Jews were being sent off to Auschwitz) says she's just met two German nuns who are being sent to the camp because of their Jewishness. 'What an extraordinary impact they made', she says, 'on those who met them even just for few moments in the train.' One of those was Edith Stein. Etty Hillesum died in Auschwitz along with Edith Stein and others. How do you make sense of these stories? Only by telling them. I don't have the words to give you a theory about what was going on in all that, but I can tell the story of lives that made sense, and try in the telling to make sense of them.
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Germany of the 1930s and 1940s provides so many stories not unlike that of Edith Stein. And my third little story is perhaps the most famous figure of this quartet. And you won't be surprised to hear it's Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer's making sense of his world is again very like Edith Stein. He has a chance to get away -- all those scholarships offered to him in the USA when he could have stayed safely as a theologian making sense, abstractly of his world – and he chose to go back and 'make sense' in his life and his death. He chose to go back to Germany knowing how much he would be at risk. He chose to serve in military intelligence as a double agent. He got involved on the margins of plots to assassinate Hitler. From the point of view of the Third Reich he thoroughly deserved to be imprisoned and executed. But for Bonhoeffer himself that was another was of taking on the reproach of God's people, he chose to make sense by being where the need was. He chose to make sense by inhabiting a world that was not comfortable or straightforward; to make sense by his gift of himself. That's the Christlike moment.
Living through the end of the world yet again, the end of the wonderfully cosy, cultivated, liberal world in which he'd grown up in the suburbs of Berlin – and it really does sound paradisal, this large loving family all playing string quartets to each other in the evenings – that world which ended forever in the 1930s was the world out of which he stepped into the confusion and the chaos and the ambiguity and the risk of his later life. And his Letters from Prison he reflects on what it's like to live through the end of a religious world, saying so famously in his letter to his godson in 1944. And he doesn't know how the next generation will be able to use the old religious words in the same way.
He's been misunderstood a lot, of course. People have treated him as some kind of forerunner of 'Death of God' theologies or of some extreme radicalism. But Bonhoeffer was about as orthodox a Lutheran as you could find, what he was saying was quite simply 'the words we've been using in this desperately tragic and confused world no longer change anything. They may be true, all these great theological concepts, but they're not changing things. The next generation will have to find words that are not just out of the religious store cupboard, that will do what Jesus' words did, and change things. And that's the real challenge of Bonhoeffer which to me is constantly present: the words may be true, are true, and yet somehow they fall dead in so many contexts these days. How does life come back to them? Bonhoeffer doesn't imagine you can do this by trying; he hasn't got a programme of modernizing and streamlining religious language, so that it becomes easy. Because of course it isn't easy. And in many of his writings in those last years he says in effect, we've got to wait for God to give us the words and perhaps all we can do is to go on praying, trying to do justice, and perhaps the words will be reborn out of that. His way of making sense in his life is to think of a discipleship that is intensely self-giving, disciplined, prayerful, and very, very silent. But the silence is not the silence of embarrassment, or spiritual doubt; it's a silence that says, 'we need to wait for the words to be real, and then everything may change.' It's not a programme or a theory, it's a challenge, and (again) the only way I can make sense of it for you is to tell you the story of a life that makes sense in its way, like the life of Edith Stein making sense by the sacrifice. (And if that isn't a Christological notion, I don't know what is.)
4 Dick Sheppard
Finally, we come to the Anglican member of this quartet. Dick Sheppard was vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in the period after the First World War. It may seem an extraordinarily large gap to move from the dramas and the terrors of revolutionary Russia and Germany in the Third Reich to a church in central London in the 'roaring twenties'. But I believe that Dick Sheppard's is another of those lives that make sense and that invites being told, in a sense making way.
Dick Sheppard grew up in the grounds of Windsor Castle where his father was sub-dean of the Chapels Royal, about as close to the heart of the British establishment as you could get, and everything was set up for him to be a member of it. Something, however, pushed him towards ordination, and that something was a bit to do with some intense experiences of deep loneliness, depression and illness in childhood. In spite of the fact that he was a famously sociable person, that sociability was accompanied all the time by profound shadows. He didn't have to, but he went off to the trenches to be a chaplain in the First World War, and he didn't last very long. He was too sensitive; he couldn't cope with the emotional involvement demanded of him. He would sit up all night with dying men. He poured out on every individual the same quantity and quality of compassion in a way that -- frankly and brutally – the successful army chaplain in war can't afford to do. But Dick Sheppard never thought about what he could afford to do.
Looking at his life in the cold light of day you may very well say that this was a person so reckless about his inner resources, about taking care of himself and his family, that it's not surprising that he died in his fifties of a heart attack after the failure of his marriage. But let's go right back to the start. There is something about causeless, useless, pointless and extravagant love which only really foolish people can tell us. Dick Sheppard was a really foolish person; its part of his greatness. His foolishness is constantly shown in the degree of outpouring of which he was capable. When he went on to be vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields after the War, he made the place in large measure what it is today. And one reason for talking about him, is that my admiration and devotion to his memory were rekindled by taking part in the re-opening service of the wonderfully restored St Martin's just a few weeks ago, where I had the amazing and quite unlooked for privilege of meeting his daughter, in her nineties. And I was particularly grateful that providence had so arranged it that quite a lot of my sermon had been about Dick Sheppard and had been in his unqualified praise. He made St Martin's a place of welcome for all kinds of people: he began the outreach to the homeless there. But he was also there to pick up the utterly unexpected pastoral encounters that happen in central London and to respond to them in a deeply unprofessional way.
He was coming back from dinner in one of his many clubs (he was an unashamed bon viveur, with white tie and tails etc) and at Charing Cross station ran into a young woman obviously in some distress, who had some days before run away from home in a northern town to come to London, and was finding it not quite what she'd expected. She was beginning to be drawn into the sort of things that young women are still drawn into in London when they do that sort of thing. So Dick Sheppard got her into a taxi and drove to Euston and got on the train with her to go home. Somewhere around six o'clock in the morning he knocked up a family in this northern town and reintroduced them to their daughter (he was still in white tie and tails) and sat down and explained to them what had happened and why they needed to talk about things and to get their act together as a family. And then he got back on the train. Now, although that's no way to conduct a sustainable pastoral ministry, that tells me something about the essence of pastoral ministry and 'making sense' that a great number of more sensible lives, don't.
And none of the four lives that I've talked about are sensible. Making sense of the world is not about being sensible, because making sense of the world is – as in the parables of Jesus – uncovering a new world where what you think is sensible and rational doesn't necessarily work in quite the way you might have hoped or expected. And that's why sharing stories and trying to communicate the heart of the Christian vision by storytelling, is inevitably a way of trying to push people out of the comfort zone, out of comfort into joy as well as risk, out of comfort into a homecoming so profound that it's shocking not just consoling. That's what Jesus is after in the New Testament, that's what redemption is about, not just comfort, not just security, but the new creation.
And the stories I've told about four of my favourite saints of the twentieth century are stories about people who, because they lived through the ends of their world -the end of the comfortable middle-class Edwardian world in the trenches, the end of liberal Germany, the end of intellectual serenity and professional success, the end of the world of the old Russian Holy Empire – were able so to live from the world that is beyond all those ends That they open perspectives and horizons utterly unpredictable and unexpected and not rational, for the rest of us. Sharing stories like this in the light of the great stories that Jesus shares - and the even greater story that Jesus is – is just one way of communicating what I think is a central part of the Good News. The world is more than you ever thought, you are more than you ever thought, God is more than you could begin to think, and that's worth sharing.
Questions and Answers following the address
'Archbishop you implicitly invited me to see the God manifested in other religions and in other mysteries. Would you like to comment?'
This is actually rather timely because yesterday we had a meeting of the bishops of the Church of England who are engaged with liaison with other faith groups. And one of the things that came up in that context was that we do a great deal of inter-faith work very fruitfully, but there's often a sense of 'we don't know where we're starting from' in terms of a theology of inter-faith relations.
Now there's recently been a very helpful document called A Generous Love prepared by a number of people involved in Anglican work with other faiths, which is now launched and is going to be used at the Lambeth Conference. It prompts a very searching question: when I encounter somebody from another faith tradition, what do I see? Do I see people who are simply living in bondage to a lie? who're simply worshipping idols: that is, false gods? I think the answer has to be 'no'. The way these people pray and the way they talk and they act looks to me like the lives of people who are serious about truth and serious about the spirit. They are not trivial, shallow, stupid, deceived, and that means that when I speak to them I speak to people who share a passion for truth and a belief that wherever God is, God and truth belong together. And that's where of course the disagreements begin, that's where I find I can see in the depths of this, something that really resonates and I can see in this or that expression of what the Hindu, the Muslim, whomsoever, is saying, something that I cannot get my mind or heart around. And to understand that, I need a lot of time and listening and patience.
But I begin always with that sense of the kind of person I'm engaging with, in another faith. And let me use a phrase which has often come round when we've been talking (especially recently) about Christian – Muslim dialogue. One of the forms of the dialogue I've been involved in for the last six years now has been an annual seminar called 'Building Bridges'. It's very low key and doesn't issue policy statements or anything, but it does seek to bring together scholars, teachers and leaders from around the world for a few days of reading our scriptures together. So the heart of the work in the seminar is that we take a text from the Qu'ran, and text from the Bible and we engage together with them. That means that when I listen to the Muslim, I listen to him or her listening to the Qu'ran and when they listen to me they listen to me as a Christian listening to the Bible.
And that means that we listen to each other's listening to our respective scriptures and so engage at another level than just the 'ping-pong' of argument, so that I come away thinking 'well, I've seen somebody else's face turned toward God there.' And what they see is not what I see, and not what I can imagine seeing, because – I sometimes have to say – I'm a Christian because I believe the Christian faith is true. And that in some sense is what the Muslim claims and what the Hindu claims is not true in the sense in which I believe the Christian faith is true. But engaging with their wrestling with the truth and their listening: there's plenty of God to engage with there, I'd say, and lots to receive, gratefully.
'Can you comment on spirituality, on faith, and on the difference? because people seem to be afraid of admitting to a faith, and to finding a place in a denomination which professes a faith or a dogma or a doctrine. But they do have a deep spirituality, many of them have 70 or 80% unconsciousness of that, but many are increasingly conscious of their spirituality and they know it's a 'seeking' spirituality. And so I wonder if you might comment on how our churches might try to attempt to differentiate and therefore feed the spirituality even if they're still rejecting a faith?
It's been something very much on my mind in recent weeks, having had to give a lecture a few weeks ago in Westminster Cathedral on Religion and Spirituality, which was partly to do with this. Just to comment on the background first: people are very loth to sign up to what seem to be doctrinal demands. And that's not just about Christianity; it's also to do with why people don't join political parties. People just don't join things very much in the way they once did. (It's the difference between being a patron and a subscriber: when you're a subscriber you identify and regularly, almost without conscious thought flow into the common agenda. When you're a patron you decide where you give and where your patronage descends, it's a much more individually focused thing. In our day people like to be patrons, and less and less enjoy being subscribers.
So that's part of the background, and in dealing with this we have to have two things in mind. One is exactly what you said about the 'making space' for people who have not yet fully formed questings and aspirations, not rushing them. One of the mistakes in sharing the Gospel can be wanting to get people to the right point too quickly (whatever the right point may be), and driving relentlessly toward a decision in such a way that when the time comes for a decision people say 'well, actually, if you put it like that, no'. Whereas often we need that very low-key, careful nurture where, by asking the right questions back, we may begin to open up a dialogue that finally gets people to a point where it's not just a set of spiritual feelings or aspirations, but something that's beginning to take shape in some convictions. And out of convictions of course, grow sacrifices, generosity and actual personal growth.
That is why the second thing I'd want to say is that in the dichotomy between faith and spirituality, or religion and spirituality—often talked about these days—I don't want to sell faith short either. I'd love it if people could see doctrine for what it is (which is not the set of things you tick the boxes with, but the point where you stand so that you can see) and getting some of the excitement back into the doctrinal commitments and liturgical patterns of the Church's life so that when people are looking for something spiritual—something serious, authentic and nourishing—they will see it in the light of the Church and the language of the Church. But the main thing is making space and giving time. And it may very well be that making spaces of quiet can do quite a lot for people – not too much said, but spaces where people can be.
'You've beautifully talked through how people in Europe particularly went through the end of their world as they knew it, and how it drew out Christ in their world. As we are living in the end of the societies that we've known in the last sixty years, we're also looking – perhaps prophetically – at the end. We don't know when it's going to come, but I think it is going to come. I just wondered if you'd like to say a few things about how, as the body of Christ in this diocese and individually, we can best prepare ourselves for the change of the end of things that we know.'
Yes, it's a sobering prospect isn't it? I agree, I think we are living through an end time and probably far too few people have the resources that allow them to say that. I'm glad you have, and it's possible to say it.
I read a book last Summer by an American commentator who spoke about America's Dark Age (I think was the title) saying that actually so much is on a knife-edge in terms of economic sustainability, political stability, international positioning, that apparently most secure and prosperous societies could dissolve within a couple of years into something like anarchy. Now that's a very extreme projection, but it's something that has to be on the radar: and I feel too that we're seeing in our own country the end of a lot assumptions about how government works, how societies work, how families work; we see the irresponsible social engineering via rather controversial science that the government seems happy to have licensed, and much else besides, which suggest that the backdrop to our lives is just not going to stay there. So what do we need? We need exactly what the Gospels suggests we need and that is freedom, that fundamental conviction in our hearts that the reason why we or anybody matters, is God. And if that's the case, then nothing can affect that mattering. It is God we matter to. We matter: full stop. And I find that a very liberating and exciting thing to think, because it means that whatever happens human beings remain precious in God's eyes and therefore precious to each other. We start from that freedom and see what follows. Whatever sense Christians make of our humanity will always have that freedom at the centre; and therefore there will never come a time when we as Christians can say, 'we don't matter, nor does anybody else', and act on that assumption.
One of the things it means is that it's worth doing small things. Now that may not be obvious, but it does seem to me that if the reason we matter is God, then to do the smallest thing out of that conviction is absolutely real and transforming, because it's related to the eternal, to something quite outside the world and what happens in it. So the small act of transformation, liberation, kindness (whatever), becomes shot through with meaning. We are making sense even in small ways. I think that's what Martin Luther meant when he said, 'If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.' It's a marvelous Lutheran theological joke: Luther was saying, 'What's worth doing is worth doing. Don't for goodness sake get into the frame of mind that says, if we're not going to win it's not worth doing. Do it, because that's why we matter.' Now that frame of mind is what we need to cultivate, that inner spaciousness that allows us to do small things and value them.
'What's the provision for the future unity of the Anglican Communion?'
I like to start with 'bottom line' issues and so my vision for the future of the Anglican Communion is that we be an honest and loving community dedicated to the values of the Kingdom of God, serving God's people, and praying and giving ourselves into God's love and service. That's what I hope for, as I hope we all do.
But then comes the difficult bit about how we're going to make that work. What I'm hoping and praying for on the other side of the Lambeth Conference is something like this: that the experience of meeting in the Conference will have taught us that whatever our profound convictions (left or right in the Communion) there is real value and importance for our discipleship in trying to learn to walk in step: neither too fast nor too slow, to try to make sense of where we are to our neighbour before we rush ahead in one direction or another.
Now, let's be very specific about sexuality, the great tormenting question at the heart of the Communion's troubles. I would say that my trouble about the situation in the USA is that for reasons that seemed perfectly good and godly to many, many Anglicans in the USA, they went ahead with a development that could not easily be owned by, or explained to, the huge majority of their Anglican brothers and sisters across the world. That was interpreted and felt as an act of violence. Now, people will say 'that's a small thing compared with the violence that gay and lesbian people have endured from Christians across the centuries etc.' And that's real as well. And I don't for a moment make light of it, but that movement beyond the consensus of how the Bible's to be read and discipline is to be applied, was just a movement that was so hard to make part of the common mind that it's actually dug the ditches deeper than they were before. And that's what keeps me awake at night.
At the other end there are those that say, 'In that case we need to institutionalize that gulf and say that we are not with you any longer. If that's what you think is Christian, then, sorry, we're going somewhere else to create a Church which is purer and simpler and more biblically faithful.' And I want to say to them as well is that one of the fundamental things about the Church is that you don't choose your company. You're always trundling along (heavenwards you hope) in the company of all sorts of people you would never really want to spend the time of day with, left to yourself.
What I'm worried about are two kinds of 'narrow purity' that of the radical and that of the conservative. And that's not just an appeal for some kind of woolly, Anglican, 'fudge', it's more an appeal for what I hope is the real Gospel virtue of 'deep listening' to one another: a listening which at times makes you say, 'Though this looks right to me, this isn't just about me. I need to be talking and listening to a lot of other people before I move on this, whether it's rightwards or leftwards.' And it's a talking and listening that intends to try harder to find a way of moving together. That's part of my hope, and underlying it is the conviction that the Church is not the 'association of people who think like me'. The Church is the communion of people invited by Jesus Christ to his table. And that's the reality on which I rest, and I think sometimes we're very bad at simply realizing the priority of Jesus Christ's invitation.
So those are some of the hopes I'm bringing to Lambeth and beyond.
'According to the story of history, the Church of England was the one who bought the Good News in Africa, especially in Tanzania, the country where I come from. According to history, the Church of England is very important to the Church in Tanzania (especially to the Anglican Church) because the Church of England was the one who bought the good tidings to Tanzania. Now the Church of England seems to be rich and the Anglican Church in Tanzania seems to be poor. We used to say 'the Church of England is the mother and the father of the Anglican Church in Tanzania'. What then is the responsibility of the Church of England in making sure that the Anglican Church in Tanzania has economic development?
That's a very important question because I think some of the tensions in the Anglican Church worldwide are connected with a feeling in some of the younger churches that perhaps the older churches haven't exercised the right kind of responsibility towards them. And that's something very important we have to hear. I think there are a number of ways in which that responsibility can be shown – not simply in the transfer of capital from one to another, because so much is (as you'd know better than most in Tanzania) about the creating of capacity and skill within a young country. One of the inspirations of Tanzania's recent history has been how central that vision has been, from President Nyerere onwards. So it's partly using the skills we have to create skills.
It's partly also using the power of the leverage we have with government and with NGOs. Speaking from the point of view of some of the work we've done from Lambeth Palace recently, we've found it one of the big challenges to try and persuade our government and some others that the churches in Tanzania, Burundi, Sudan, wherever, are the right partners for government to engage with in situ. We can say to government, the Church in, say, Tanzania reaches out to all areas of the community in the country; it's trusted and dependable; it's got a moral framework; it can deliver local goals very effectively, small-scale. You don't have to invent the wheel, you don't have to create lots of new NGOs, and churches given the proper capacity can rise to the task.
Now I think that's an agenda that the whole of the Church of England ought to be pressing very hard. We found – working with Burundi a couple of years ago – that it was possible to persuade the new Burundian government and our own government and Irish aid, that the Anglican Church in Burundi, though small, had a great capacity in education. They could do more in school building and basic education (especially for girls and women) than any other body in the country could, even though they're a lot smaller than the Catholic Church in Burundi. And we were able to persuade Irish aid and our own government and the Burundian government to go into partnership with school building with the Church in Burundi. Now, that's a model which I think we need to be working on in all sorts of contexts: building that capacity, that's the responsibility, I think.
© Rowan Williams 2008