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Archbishop Celebrates Selwyn College's 125th Anniversary

Thursday 15th May 2008

The Archbishops of Canterbury, York and Wales, and Masters and Fellows of the College celebrated 125 years of Selwyn College at Lambeth Palace with an Evensong and Reception.

Selwyn College, part of Cambridge University, took its name from George Augustus Selwyn, the first Bishop of New Zealand and later Bishop of Lichfield and in whose memory the College was founded. The Archbishops of York and Wales joined the Archbishop of Canterbury in the celebration service in the chapel of Lambeth Palace.

The Archbishops of Canterbury, York and Wales in the Chapel at Lambeth Palace

The Archbishops of Canterbury, York & Wales at Evensong for Selwyn College in the Chapel at Lambeth Palace.

A transcript of the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon follows, or click link on the right to listen [10Mb]:


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


George Augustus Selwyn's reputation rested very largely on his work as an apostle in the Pacific. It was with embarrassingly ill-concealed reluctance that he returned to the un-pacific pastures of the Church of England after his distinguished ministry on the other side of the world. But the effects of his ministry in the Pacific are still visible for those who visit there. And they're visible most particularly in two aspects of church life: one is the powerfully strong commitment to synodical government, the participation of all members of the body of Christ in its decision-making; and the other is in the really remarkable embrace of indigenous culture that characterised Selwyn's mission and was echoed in the sacrificial work of John Coleridge Patteson, a martyr of Melanesia.

From the start, Selwyn and Patteson and other missionaries insisted that those to whom they preached should themselves become active preachers. They should become active disseminators of the Gospel not by servile imitation of their European lords and masters that by finding a language for the Gospel in their own terms. Any of you who have ever encountered the Melanesian brothers will know just how successful that was – that unique religious community in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea and neighbouring areas expresses perhaps more than anything else about the Pacific church life. The vision of Selwyn and Patteson and others, a robust indigenous culture saturated with the Gospel, holy and yet challengingly at home in it's own cultural environment.

In short, Selwyn believed what we heard in the epistle reading this evening. When it says he ascended, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the Earth? He who descended as the same one who ascended far above all the heavens so that he might fill all things. Selwyn's idea of "mission" was that the Gospel was there to fill all things. It was there to penetrate into the realities of human culture wherever they were, in whatever locality they were to be found, whatever language culture was spoken in. The Gospel was not to be a carefully conserved cut-glass export, like the container of the precious oil poured over Jesus' feet, the containers of the Gospel had to be broken again and again so that life could be shared, just as in the great Jewish metaphor: "The breaking of the vessels of the beginning of time allows glory to flood the created universe so that he might fill all things".

And when the church engages with its culture, including its intellectual culture, then it is being obedient to that word and that vision, less dramatically perhaps but no less truly than Selwyn in the Pacific. Selwyn College owes its beginnings to the embrace of intellectual culture by the church. An embrace in the beginning which, at the beginning as we've heard, was perhaps a little bit more of a chaste kiss and hand-holding than anything very much more robust, with that emphasis on plainness and simplicity and a certain amount of caution about the lures of academic glamour. And yet, the vision is true enough. The church was doing once again what it had done in the most creative periods of its history – seeking to inhabit its cultural environment; to fill all things; to listen to what was actually being said and done in that environment and suffuse it with good news.

Over the 125 years of its existence Selwyn College (it might be said) has more and more surely and confidently grown into what that embrace means. It is recognised at various points that an embrace is not a stifling encompassing; the embrace of culture and the intellect brings with it a respect for the otherness of the culture, the freedom of intellectual life and exploration which the church should never seek to stifle. And yet throughout that period, the Christian witness which is bound in with the life of the college, has sought surely, exactly what the apostle seeks. We must no longer be children tossed to-and-fro, and blown about by every wind of doctrine. Speaking the truth in love we must grow up in every way into Him who is the head. For the apostle the purpose of Christ's embrace of all things; Christ's filling of all things, was that every aspect of our humanity should grow to its full potential so that it could speak of God; so that it could in some way echo the suffusing of human nature by divine life which was present without qualification or reserve in the life of Jesus Christ. And this growing up is a matter of people no longer being vulnerable to the opinions, the manipulations, the bullyings - intellectual and otherwise - of other people. It's a matter of confidently taking authority and responsibility for what you believe and what you do, owning a vision of a universe in which compassion, mutuality, love and thanksgiving are the cardinal points.

What that maturity, that growing into the measure of the stature of Christ's fullness, means for the various members of the foundation over the decades will have varied enormously and it will vary even more as the decades go on. And yet surely it is a vision worth celebrating, worth giving thanks for if we see it in terms of the embrace of the intellect by the church as issuing in that confident freedom, that liberty not to be manipulated, not to be bullied, not to be deluded, which is celebrated in our epistle.

The health of the intellectual life is seen in that kind of confidence. I may be argued from a position or into a position, but I will not be manipulated. I am not simply at the mercy of someone quicker on their feet than I am. I am not the tool of a sophist, I have a mind, I have a liberty; and that mind and that liberty will be at the service of a vision I can acknowledge as my own. No longer tossed to-and-fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.

So, in giving thanks for Selwyn, for Bishop Selwyn and the College named for him, we are able to re-commit ourselves not only to the embrace of the intellectual environment by the church, but to give thanks for a vision of maturity; a vision of clear-eyed liberty; a freedom of spirit able to believe that God is free enough, transcendent enough to fill all things, to enter into the furthest corners of our individual humanity and our variegated global culture.

We celebrate that possibility, that open door into freedom, into growth, speaking the truth in love, a phrase sadly abused by its misuse to describe that peculiar form of Christian charity which consists in kindly reminding other people of their inferiority to you. But, as a motto for the life of an intellectual institution, what could be better? We speak the truth, not as a mark of arrogance and exclusion; we speak the truth as a loving gift to one another; we speak the truth so that those we speak to may become more human, and we listen to the truth they speak to us so that we too may grow up into that fullness of humanity.

Selwyn believed that and acted upon it in his mission. Selwyn College has believed that and acts upon it in its mission. May it do so for the decades, and please God even the centuries ahead.


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