Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Archbishop's Presidential Address - General Synod, York, July 2003

Monday 14th July 2003

An address from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at General Synod, York.

Does the Church of England exist? One thing that recent weeks and months have reinforced for me is that there are several different 'Churches of England'; that they do not communicate with each other very effectively; and that they need to learn how to do this better if they are to fulfil their primary task of witnessing to God's transforming power. Which means trying to find out what it is that makes these diverse 'churches' one; if we can't answer this, we are in trouble.

What do I mean by saying there are several Churches of England? In the first place, as we all know very well, English Anglicanism is a mosaic of groups many of which are sure that theirs is the natural, historically justified, faithful way of being an Anglican Christian. Some of these, for example – as in the sixteenth century – believe that the English Reformation is still incomplete, or barely begun. The reconstruction of the Church on faithful scriptural principles is not very far advanced, and must be fought for, with increasing urgency as it seems that unscriptural principle (or lack of principle) is controlling more and more of the territory.

Others are equally clear that being an Anglican Christian now, in just as natural and faithful and historically justified a way, is to offer a hospitable place for a wide variety of people engaged in spiritual exploration. We have never been bound to confessional statements in the way other churches have; we have a special relationship with the cultural life of our country, and we must not fall out of step with this if we are not to become absurd and incredible. We coax people towards a spiritual life that draws on the most sensitive and creative dimensions of what is natural to them, and try to encapsulate that in appropriate liturgies.

But meanwhile, there is a third Church of England, depicted in the news media. This is a soap opera. Its life is about short-term conflicts, blazing rows in the pub, so to speak, mysterious plots and unfathomable motivations. It is both ridiculous and fascinating. As with soap operas, we, the public, know that real people don't actually live like that, but we relish the drama and become fond of the regular cast of unlikely characters, with, in this case, their extraordinary titles and bizarre costumes. And for both actors and audience, the boundary between reality and melodramatic fantasy can get rather blurred at times, as if real human life were after all the jumble of unexamined passions, self-pity and self-advertisement that the drama takes for granted.

And there is yet another Church of England, quite hard to pin down but a serious presence: in a nebulous sense, this is a body which provides a spiritual hinterland for national life, an aura of seriousness, a scent of eternity. It may be in the form of that national religion which surfaces at times of national trauma; it is still for many people connected with the monarchy. But lately we have seen another version as well: it is surprising to see how liberal intellectuals in Britain so often express similar yearnings for a national spiritual hinterland. And the result is that when the Church shows signs of believing and acting upon things that don't derive from, or are at odds with, a progressive consensus, much anger and disappointment is voiced (our discussions not only about sexuality but about embryo research touch this very closely). The Church is failing us; it is not truly a Church of the people.

Forgetting the soap opera for a moment, which mostly has only a virtual reality, the others live in a world of much anxiety. I now have a really remarkable collection of letters which say, 'Every Christian I speak to, and most people I know outside the Church, agree that...' – whatever view it is that the writer holds. And these views are dramatically incompatible. It's hard to avoid concluding that most of us speak and listen mostly to those who share our world, and assume it is indeed the natural one to belong to. But the anxiety comes at this point. If this is so natural, and if everyone I talk with agrees, how is it that this picture of the Church, of holy life, of effective mission, isn't 'winning'? Because decisions are being taken by those who don't find obvious what we find obvious. What has gone wrong? We ought to be the majority but apparently we aren't – or if we are, we are being defrauded of our rights. We end up with a situation where, as I have sometimes said before, everyone believes they are a persecuted minority.

And this is not a situation that encourages easy and honest communication. It is a situation that cries out for scapegoats. It encourages indirect communication – talking to third parties, to the media, to anyone except the actual people who represent that different way of being the Church of England which seems so incomprehensible to us. And the effect is so often of different churches, with strong and serious theologies and a high degree of spiritual integrity, or at least with a case to be heard, failing to relate except at a level of destructive and often angry bewilderment and denial; which, incidentally, does wonders for the soap opera market.

Is there a way of beginning to think around all this? I don't imagine we shall change our habits overnight, or come to agreements where there were none – though I hope we can do something rather urgently about the widespread assumption that my pain or our pain is automatically more real and serious than 'theirs' or 'yours'. There is no possible reconciliation while we are stuck in this mindset. But perhaps we can at least step back sufficiently to ask not so much what makes us one Church of England, but what makes us a Church at all. If we can answer that a little better, maybe we shall have something to say about whether there is a Church of England.

What makes a Church is the call of Jesus Christ, and our freedom and ability, helped by grace, to recognise that call in each other. The first reality is God's action isummoning us together as a people – in the words of Jesus, which make it clear that we can belong to God's people if we trust what Jesus says about God and does in God's name, and in the death and resurrection of Jesus, which actively remove the barriers we set up by our sin to communion with God. To announce all this is to announce God's invitation. To accept the invitation, with all it carries of acknowledging what Jesus has done, is to be taken into Christ's living Body, finding there a company of unlikely people who have received and answered the same invitation. The Church's life develops as we slowly and clumsily start working on the ways we recognise each other as called by the same God and Saviour; let me repeat that: start working on the ways we recognise each other as called by the same God and Saviour. Our language, our doctrine, our worship all seek to be effective assurances that we are stepping to the same dance. At the centre of everything, the Scriptures provide the first test of that unity and coherence, to which all else is brought to be judged; then there are the basic identifying acts of the community which tell us that the life of the Risen Jesus is promised if we once let go of the self-protection we cling to (baptism) and that it is to be celebrated and deepened as we literally respond to the invitation of the Risen Jesus at his table (Holy Communion).

That's the Church. It is what happens when the call of Jesus is definitively heard. Some time ago, in the course of a conversation with the Archbishop of Sydney, we found we agreed wholeheartedly that the life of the church should be a matter of verbs before it's a matter of nouns - and that those verbs have God as their subject. God calls, God makes a difference of such a kind that a community appears, bound to and in his Son by the Spirit's power. For the moment, never mind the structures and the precise assurances as to what we agree about. What matters at first is that we are at one in recognising that we are called and who has called us.

If that's where the heart of the Church is, then we might quite properly expect that it won't always look the same or feel the same across the human world. We rightly say that we all need certain structures, in particular a ministry that is recognisable more than locally and that represents our continuity, as a focal part of the work involved in staying recognisable to each other. We hold to Scripture and sacraments as the essential common language God has given. And then?

Well, then, I suspect, it's a lot more chaotic than we have usually assumed. We used to, in Wales, talk about the 'mixed economy' Church – that is, one which is learning how to cope with diverse forms and rhythms of worshipping life. Tearing up the rule book and trying to replace the parochial system is a recipe for disaster and wasted energy. In all kinds of places, the parochial system is working remarkably. It's just that we are increasingly aware of the contexts where it simply isn't capable of making an impact, where something has to grow out of it or alongside it, not as a rival (why do we cast so much of our Christian life in terms of competition?) but as an attempt to answer questions that the parish system was never meant to answer.

At present, we stand at a watershed in the life of the Church of England – not primarily because of the controversies that have been racking us (much as they matter, much as they hurt) but because we have to ask whether we are capable of moving towards a more 'mixed economy' - recognising church where it appears and having the willingness and the skill to work with it. Mission, it's been said, is finding out what God is doing and joining in. And at present there is actually an extraordinary amount going on in terms of the creation of new styles of church life. We can call it church planting, 'new ways of being church' or various other things; but the point is that more and more patterns of worship and shared life are appearing on the edge of our mainstream life that cry out for our support, understanding and nurture if they are not to get isolated and unaccountable. These may vary from the classic church plant model – a new congregation generated by an older one – to the Thursday night meeting for young people once a fortnight, the Sunday evening Songs of Praise in the pub, the irregular but persistent networking with the people you met at Greenbelt or Spring Harvest, the mums and toddlers event on Tuesday morning or the big school Eucharist once a term which is the only contact many parents and friends will have with real worshipping life. All of these are church in the sense that they are what happens when the invitation of Jesus is received and people recognise it in each other.

Can we live with this and make it work? This is where the unexpected growth happens, where the unlikely contacts are often made; where the Church is renewed (as it so often is) from the edges, not the centre. We need a positive willingness to see and understand all this – and to find the patterns and rhythms and means of communication that will let everyone share the benefits. That's to say we need ordained leadership which is capable of making and servicing connections between lots of different styles of 'church' – leadership which is therefore very clear about theological priorities, not protective of its status, skilled in listening and in interpreting what may seem very different language groups to each other. That's why, incidentally, when I've been asked about my priorities as Archbishop, I have regularly mentioned both the encouragement of new styles of church life and the need for theological education. And all this needs to be firmly in our sights as we discuss the proposals around ministerial education before us at this Synod.

I have to say that in spite of everything, it is a moment of great promise. The Church Commissioners are encouraging us all to be more not less adventurous in planning for growth; Bishop Graham Cray's working party on this issue (New Styles of Being Church) is about to report; the Pastoral Measure Review is looking towards greater flexibility in accommodating new churches that don't fit the parochial model; and my personal hope and plan is that the next stage in the work associated with the mission initiatives that have gone forward under the name of Springboard in the last decade will involve fuller co-ordination and resourcing for these new developments. Perhaps if there is a Church of England after all, it appears in the energy and commitment with which so many are discovering all this. Such people are usually very hard to stereotype within our conventional categories (let alone the cast-list of the soap opera); they can be cavalier about denominational boundaries, happily opportunist about who they co-operate with. But what emerges is authentically rooted in the central vision of a church both faithful to God and open to the community.

And it is sustained and made possible, of course, by so much that we hardly notice, the ordinary life of the Church of England as it is – that real Church of England which is visible where the parish priest chairs the school governors in the estate, sits with the asylum seeker to help them complete an official form, negotiates the grant that will allow the crypt to be developed for a drop-in centre, organises the distribution of goods from a farmers' market or the rota of lifts for a pensioner to get to church and shops; and, where he or she is equipping their people to do all this and more. This Church exists all right, and you all know where it can be found. The debate on the report 'Called to Act Justly', triggered by the Stephen Lawrence case, illustrates another vital element of this 'routine' work (not routine enough, of course, in some places); the work of being a place where fundamental issues around the health of our society, around the wounds inflicted by racial violence and hatred for instance, can be addressed with seriousness and without self-justifying slogans.

So there are at least two Churches of England in addition to the ones I began with. There is the growing edge, the abundance of new things happening, with the new challenges about worship and ministry they bring. And there is the so-called routine, the ordinary life of the parish, where people are unobtrusively introduced to Jesus Christ daily. And these two are really one. Here we are looking at a Church with deep roots, both human and theological, getting on with the prosaic business (always so hard) without posturing, free enough from anxiety to be grateful for new things happening, even if they are not easily digestible, doing those basic and small things which are also earth-changing – reading the Bible, bringing people to baptism, celebrating the Lord's Supper. And what gives this Church its solidity, I suggest, is that it knows itself to exist because of God in Christ – not as a cultural fact, not as a society of militants with a human programme but as a community living in the space God has cleared; sometimes unclear about what exactly should be said about this, sometimes (I'm not sure what should be exactly said about this) deeply bewildered about the people who seem to be sharing this space with us, always at a loss as to how we should plan for future security, but confident because it was not our power or initiative that cut through the brambles and made a place to live.

This doesn't solve problems (theology doesn't, much). I hope, though, that it gives us something to remember when the various Churches of England jostle so noisily that we wonder where our unity is. If we believe in God's Church, two things are more likely to happen. We shall find more courage to explore new styles of Church life and the patterns and protocols we need to keep communication going with and between them. And we shall be freer to communicate with each other. The various 'Churches' I've described so often talk to each other, as I've said, through megaphones, through all kinds of indirect means. How do we recover the 'boldness', the parresia St Paul speaks of in our relation with God, as part of our relation with each other? It's been said often enough in recent weeks that we have too often been seen as a community that rewards dishonesty or concealment. It's been said also that some are intimidated in raising critical questions for fear of being stigmatised as fundamentalist and bigoted. These levels of fear and mistrust are cause for grief and repentance. If all the pain of these last weeks can in some way prompt us to see more clearly what we do to each other, why we threaten each other so, we shall have grown a little – grown a little into the space God has made, the new and living way. And I hope that Synod can lift its eyes for a moment from the traumas of recent weeks and days – not to pretend or forget, but to be newly aware of what God is already doing in our Church. If we can see that too a bit more clearly, we shall not feel paralysed. We shall know gratefully that there is indeed a Church, because of God, not because of us. And if that is so, we are free to follow where he has led, to grow and to celebrate.

© Rowan Williams 2003

Back · Back to top