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Archbishop's speech at Conference on Christianity and Literature

Paul Contino (left, Co-editor of Christianity and Literature) and Harold Bush (right, President of the Conference on Christianity and Literature) present the Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr Rowan Williams

Friday 15th July 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered the following lecture entitled "Native speakers: identity, grace and homecoming" on the occasion of his accepting the Conference on Christianity and Literature Lifetime Achievement Award.

The address was delivered as part of the conference "The Hospitable Text: New Approaches to Religion & Literature" held at the University of Notre Dame's Centre in London.

A transcript follows, or click download on the right to listen [40Mb]

The Archbishop at the Conference of Christianity and Literature

Native speakers: identity, grace and homecoming

'Oh, it was the loneliness none of them could ever forget, that wry distance, as if there were injury for him in the fact that all of them were native to their life as he never could be'

(Marilynne Robinson, Home, p.249).

Marilynne Robinson's much-praised and much-discussed pair of novels, Gilead and Home, deal, as she has herself said, with the unfinished business of the parable of the Prodigal Son (see the interview in Christianity and Literature 58:3, 2009, pp.487-8). After homecoming, what? And what does homecoming actually mean? As the quotation with which I began suggests, the notion of homecoming is a very ambivalent one when there is no 'home' to start with. The words represent what the prodigal's sister, Glory, is thinking as she picks up the pieces after her brother Jack returns from an episode of desperate alcoholic escape. She has had to become 'resigned' to forgiveness; as she reflects on why she cannot help but forgive – even as she contemplates withholding her mercy 'for an hour or two' – she recognises that it is partly because of the (lifelong?) sense of alienness that Jack carries with him, as if he has always been at a distance from their ethos and speech, even perhaps parodying these, unconsciously or not. He cannot but be an ironist. And being an ironist means, in this context, never having a native tongue. His father and his father's friend, his own godfather, John Ames, cannot speak with him without suspecting that he is somehow subverting their own habitual discourse; and he is cripplingly conscious of this and frequently silenced by it.

'Jack covered his face with his hands and laughed. "The Lord", he said, "is very – interesting."

"I know you don't mean any disrespect," his father said.

"I really don't know what I mean. I really don't."

"Well," the old man said, "I wish I could help you with that."'

(Home, p.157)

But of course he cannot. 'I always seem to give offense', Jack says to Ames at one point, and Ames, denying any offence, responds, 'I do wish we could speak more – directly' (G.169). Even when, in their last heavily charged conversation, John Ames gives him his blessing as 'beloved son and brother and husband and father' (Gilead, p.241), Jack's reaction makes Ames think he has 'named everything I though he no longer was', although this is 'the exact opposite' of what Ames means. Ames has been trying to name what cannot be taken away from Jack's identity; but Jack cannot hear these words in a native tongue. He cannot help receiving them as an ironist, and thus receiving them as ironical, whether the irony is or is not intended. At one point in Home, where Jack reads to his father, we are told that 'there was a kind of grace to anything [he] did with his whole attention, or when he forgot irony for a while'; and this can still surprise his father (p.146). Jack's irony is, we might say, the wrong kind of attention, an attention to himself in the eyes of others rather than to the act or the word or the relational reality itself. But his virtual paralysis in relationship reminds us how very difficult attention is, and how little it is a matter – as his father thinks – of being 'wonderful when he wants to be' (ibid.).

In the great set-piece conversation about grace and predestination recorded in both novels, Jack's serious theological enquiry – are some people, so to speak, born to sorrow and to foreignness and ultimately to hell? – is heard uncomfortably by both Ames and his father, and their response is, as he says, 'cagey' (G. p.151). They suspect him of quiet mockery; but the truth is that he has no language for the question that will sound sincere – except to Ames' unconventional young wife, who is the only one able to give him a reply that actually addresses him: '"A person can change. Everything can change"'(153). Afterwards, affectionately and reproachfully, she says to her husband that '"Maybe some people aren't so comfortable with themselves'" (154) – almost a paraphrase of Glory's thought that Jack sees his family as 'native to their life' in a way he is not and cannot be.

Yet Ames' wife, Lila, is capable herself of an impact not unlike that which Jack has. When her husband first encounters her as a member of his congregation, he feels 'there was a seriousness about her that seemed almost like a kind of anger. As though she might say, "I came here from whatever unspeakable distance and whatever unimaginable otherness just to oblige your prayers. Now say something with a little meaning in it"' (G.21). She is not more a native than Jack is; yet, despite the strong sense she conveys to Ames that his words from the pulpit are judged and found wanting, she comes to inhabit her identity as Jack never does. Later in the same book, as they sit together in desultory conversation, with Ames half-asleep, Jack offers her a cigarette, and she declines on the grounds that 'it just isn't seemly in a preacher's wife'; and when Jack picks this up with a touch of mockery, she replies, 'I been seemly so long I'm almost beginning to like it' (G.199). She has, though with difficulty and over a significant period of time, learned to pass as a native, yet without losing her critical liberty. Her 'unimaginable otherness' has not made a native tongue impossible for her.

Lila's irony is, we might say, a reconciled irony as opposed to Jack's unreconciled irony. She retains the capacity to question the attitudes of those who are too much at home with themselves or their world; and we must assume that it is she who makes Ames able, after a painful conversation with Jack, to acknowledge that the town of Gilead's surface decencies conceal a systemic untruthfulness, a refusal to ask what is to be learned from crisis or challenge: 'we didn't ask the question, so the question was just taken away from us' (G.233-4). Its very existence depended on its role, in what is now a remote and forgotten past, as a stopping stage on the route to Kansas for escaping slaves and anti-slavery radicals, 'in the heat of an old urgency' (234); but it has lost the capacity to ask what it is there for. And because it has forgotten its history, and the question of its history (a forgetfulness reflected in the half-buried memory of the burning of a 'negro' church, in Jack's father's unthinking racism and in Jack's knowledge that he can never bring his Afro-American wife to Gilead), we have to ask what it now means to be 'native' to a place like this. Lila's reconciled irony does not mean that her ability to pass for native is a muffling of the question; on the contrary, she is able, as Jack is generally not, to give voice to the possibility of change. She is able to speak, where Jack's paralysing awareness of the offence he may give leaves him silent.

What makes the difference? Jack and his father clearly love each other, yet are trapped in a painful inarticulacy towards each other– most poignantly expressed when the old man says that Jack has never 'had a name for me. Not one you'd call me to my face', and Jack replies that he has never know a name that didn't 'seem wrong'. 'I didn't deserve to speak to you the way the others did' (H 311). Jack cannot use the 'script' of unselfconscious family intimacy; but equally it is clear that – as his sister recognises – this script is presented to him both as an obligation and also as conditional on behaving appropriately. The language of 'natural' family relationship, in other words, is a text that cannot accommodate Jack's self-awareness, his consciousness of himself as predestined to be a stranger, morally, culturally, religiously, an 'exile from the ordinary world' (H201): as he says to his brother, 'Sometimes it seems as though I'm in one universe and you're in another' (H267). Glory, his sister, thinking of herself as 'resigned to Jack's inaccessible strangeness' (H249) comes closest to seeing what the problem is and knowing what is needed to resolve it, though her instinctive sense of what Jack needs comes somehow too late to make a difference to him, or to his awareness of himself.

Being resigned to strangeness means also that Glory is unresigned to aspects of Gilead, aspects of the native and natural environment. She – who has herself been a prodigal of sorts – looks at the town and all it means and sees it as 'dreaming out its curse of sameness, somnolence' (H281). Her suddenly vivid perception of the curse of sameness is like the moment in Gilead when Ames sees the town as having forgotten the possibility of truth. Sameness cannot live with the question that history poses. The deceptively timeless surface of Gilead's life, the illusion of a life in which everyone is a native in an undifferentiated present, is a curse, is even, as Ames (G233) calls it, hellish. What Jack perceives – and hears as a kind of sentence on himself – is the stipulation that homecoming is necessarily a return to sameness, something that challenges both his own acute self-consciousness of being a guilty outsider and his deliberate and costly alliance with otherness by way of marrying into an African-American family (for whom also he is, of course, a guilty outsider). His own personal 'doubleness', his constant perception of himself from the other's standpoint, his acute awareness of the offence of his language and perhaps his very existence, all this is subtly fused in the narrative with the doubleness of the history of racial division, the inbuilt possibility in the society and the cultural moment that Gilead represents of more than one story being told. That is the possibility Gilead has buried, for Jack as an individual as for the neighbour of another race.

Lila's story is different not because she finds Gilead any more unproblematic than Jack does but because the 'text' she has encountered is not simply that of sameness. Her unsettling presence in Ames' congregation, her 'unimaginable otherness' (which Jack's 'inaccessible strangeness' echoes, surely deliberately), is recognised for what it is by the preacher, an invitation to native speakers to grasp the possibility of other narratives and discourses. She is able to find a 'home' in Gilead, specifically in Ames' world, because the text of Ames' preaching is able to live with the possibility of its own failure or lack of truthfulness. It is not that Ames simply rejects what he has had to say: Lila looks on as he baptises two children, and he senses himself asking a question back to her: 'If you know a better way to do this, I'd appreciate your telling me' (G.21). He challenges her anger without denying her seriousness, and this, we must assume, is part of what builds not only her relationship with the Church but the possibility of her eventual marriage to Ames.

Thus we are gently directed back to the question of what it is about Ames' own preaching that makes this possible. Robinson gives us a few hints, particularly when Ames muses wryly about the books he would like to be found clutching in the event of a sudden death: 'The ones I considered, by the way, were Donne and Herbert and Barth's Epistle to the Romans and Volume II of Calvin's Institutes. Which is by no means to slight Volume I' (G.115). Karl Barth appears again at the end of the conversation with Jack about predestination. Ames suggests that Jack might find Barth helpful, and Jack's response is sardonic: does Ames recommend Barth to tormented souls on the doorstep at midnight? Ames turns the remark aside, but reflects to himself that 'I don't recall ever recommending him to any tormented soul except my own' (G 153). It is the other side of the coin from what his wife's loving rebuke about some people not being 'so comfortable with themselves' implies. Ames knows that he stands under an alien judgement, and Barth's theology is one of his resources in learning how to abide its scrutiny. As his recollection of his first encounters with Lila is filled out further – quite late in Gilead – he describes her presence and his increasing obsession with her as 'a foretaste of death', an experience in which he is 'snatched out of [his] character' (G205). 'I simply could not be honest with myself, and I couldn't deceive myself, either' (ib.203). But a Barthian theological perspective (certainly one informed by Barth's Romans commentary) would suggest that precisely such a simultaneous recognition of truth and falsehood is the expected condition of the person who has faith. Faith is not the acknowledgement of a simple consonance between what I think/believe and the truth of God, but the twofold acknowledgement of the incalculable gulf between the truth of God and my own subjectivity along with the inseparable commitment of God to the self-deceiving and helpless heart. 'There is no other righteousness save that of the man who sets himself under judgement, of the man who is terrified and hopes' says Barth early in his commentary (p.41); and later, 'the questionableness of our situation becomes a source of strength' (p.156), and 'Christ in us is...both the where we are judged and the place where we are justified' (p.286).

For Ames to be found with Barth's Romans in his hand makes good sense. And, without elaborating details at this point, the same holds of the second book of the Institutes, which deals broadly with 'The Knowledge of God the Redeemer' including the whole question of what it means to maintain the apparently shocking and counter-intuitive claim that we are in no way 'free' to collaborate with the act of God. Redemption is to do with the ways in which grace brings alive the life of Christ in the human self. An independent human will as source of transformation and life would make nonsense of anything like Ames' simultaneous recognition of truth and deceit: Calvin's idea of faith and the restoration of the divine image is more like a connection always already made, appearing now from this angle, now from that, within the hopelessly unstable experience of the believing soul; never a possession, yet always a presence because it is the presence of an active saviour. And hence the absurdity of suggesting that grace is a fusion of divine and human initiative, as if the divine and the human were agencies operating on the same level, potentially in competition, potentially in harmony. If Calvin's perspective is the foundation of Ames' preaching, we can see a little of why he is – just – able to hear the question that Gilead overall has lost. He may be broadly 'comfortable', as Lila suggests, but it is not a comfort that defends itself by refusing what is strange. His settled faith is based on awareness of a strangeness at the very centre of his identity: Christ in him, in Barth's terms, is a given, a presence not dependent on his own self-correspondence. There is in his identity something that is not mere sameness. And so, if his starting position is an identity or at-homeness that is aware of the alien action of grace in the background, Lila's journey is a kind of reverse image as she moves away from sheer alienness towards recognition or integration, towards her ironic but reconciled inhabiting of a native language shared with her husband.

If the text of a native language is to be in some sense hospitable, Robinson implies, it must be a text with a shadow or margin, conscious of a strangeness that surrounds it and is not captured by it, a strangeness that interprets it or at least offers the possibility of a meaning to be uncovered, on the far side of questioning. And the paradoxical conclusion is that the person who 'inhabits' with integrity the place where they find themselves, in such a way as to make it possible for others to inhabit it in peaceable company with them is always the person who is aware of the possibility of an alien yet recognizable judgement being passed, aware of the stranger already sensed in the self's territory. To be, in the Augustinian phrase, a question to oneself is what makes it possible to be oneself without anxiety and so with the possibility of welcome for the other. Odd as it sounds to say that the awareness of judgement is the solvent of anxiety, it makes sense in the Barthian context of seeing judgement and justification in the same place. Anxiety is bound to the impulse to justify oneself: judgement assures us that this is out of our hands.

Thus the tragic standoff between Jack and his father in Robinson's fiction reveals the constantly frustrated search for appropriate language, language that can be 'justified': Jack believes that he can never deserve to call his father by the names that the other children can use, and his father is listening (without ever quite knowing this is what he is doing) for a language from Jack that is not challenging or offensive, a language with no strangeness or questioning. In the event, they silence each other.

'Jack shrugged. "I have to go now. I wanted to say goodbye." He went to his father and held out his hand.

'The old man drew his own hand into his lap and turned away. "Tired of it!" he said.

'Jack nodded. "Me, too. Bone tired."' (H317).

The inarticulate love finally expressed in Jack's parting kiss cannot bridge the gulf created by exhaustion and non-communication. At the end of Home, Glory remains, significantly, the mediator, who welcomes Jack's (Afro-American) wife and child, while still knowing that they cannot yet be made welcome. Delia, Jack's wife, has 'had to come into Gilead as if it were a foreign and a hostile country' (324); Jack's own frustrated wish that he really lived in his father's house (323) has foreshadowed the rejection his family will experience. Glory, recalling Jack's wish to be at home, tries to be hospitable, fully aware that she cannot truly welcome the family because the discourse and imagery of where she lives – with her father, Jack's father – cannot receive strangers. So she dreams of a future in which her entire life will be – so to speak – justified when Jack's son returns as an adult, recognizing the place as familiar, as his father's house; as if her entire life has been oriented towards making room for the stranger, the question. And the young man will never know that he has completed the circle of her hopes, or that 'he has answered his father's prayers' (325). Justification will be the gift of a guest who arrives trustingly. It cannot be guaranteed, planned for, scripted, but it can, it seems, be intuited as a possibility. If Jack and Glory both know this, their narrative is not over, despite the terribly poignant and apparently unreconciled parting between Jack and his father.

Ames recognizes, however stumblingly, that justification is not to be won, and so is able in some degree to sense it at work; Jack is left silenced by the impossibility of winning it; Glory dreams of a moment in which it will be briefly visible. For all of them, justification depends on the abandoning of the hope of winning it. Ames grasps this in an effective way, Glory has an inkling of it, Jack, according to the author, prays for it unknowingly, even unhopefully. His doubleness of vision and hearing, the paralysing awareness of how he seems to those he speaks to, incorporates something absolutely vital to human integrity, the knowledge that I do not coincide with myself, that who and what I am is significantly out of my control. The problem is that this is unconnected with the 'graceful' doubleness that we see in Ames and Lila, the knowledge that the stranger whose perception of me I cannot control, is – finally – not my enemy or my competitor but the generative source of myself. What I cannot master, the perspective I cannot by definition attain or imagine (to borrow a thought of Simone Weil's), is the presence that makes me alive and that also makes welcome possible – not only a being at home but a creation of home for the human other. And, if we return to the question of irony, this is a perspective that allows an ironizing of the ironic self – and therefore allows the attention that opens to grace. Instead of the great gulf being fixed between the meanings I alone understand and the appearances that others are content with, it is between every meaning I or anyone else can master and the hidden purpose that is at the centre of my and everyone's life – which enjoins on us all the attentiveness or expectancy Ames is able to bring to his encounters (sensing 'a kind of incandescence' in those who come to him (G.44). 'When you encounter another person.., it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?' (G.124). And Robinson, in the interview already quoted, points out that, against such a background, predestination is a liberating doctrine in that it tells us that 'God's view of us is essentially mysterious' (p.489); so far from imposing on us an unchanging character, it declares that our future is radically unknowable to us – so that change is always imaginable, the answer to the question is always open from the side of our awareness.

It is – as Robinson does not fail to insist quietly in her evocation of Gilead's racial defensiveness – a political understanding as much as a theological one. Identities are not sealed off from history. Gilead's radical origins may decay into the defensive complacency that forgets the burning of a black church and politely declines to be a home for Jack's family; old Ames may work his way late in life towards a more painful awareness of the 'question' than his blameless ministry might have led us to expect, thanks to Lila and Jack. The possibility of changed identity for an individual is no more and no less extraordinary than what David Jones called 'the turn of a civilisation'. But to recognize this also highlights a deeply significant cultural question, at the centre of Robinson's recent lectures on Absence of Mind. 'Whoever controls the definition of mind,' she writes, 'controls the definition of humankind itself, and culture, and history' (AM p.32). How we think about thinking is a profoundly political issue; and thinking, in this context, includes all that we have so far been considering about questions and native languages and identity. Absence of Mind attempts a diagnosis of the contemporary near-obsession with defining mind in reductive terms, 'as a passive conduit of other purposes than those the mind ascribes to itself (p.71). The effect of this, she argues, is to neutralise the questions that the mind puts to itself about itself: the questions we put to ourselves have the capacity, it seems, to change things (p.32 again), and so to silence the questions is to assume that intentional change is literally unthinkable.

But, connecting this to earlier observations about irony, the effect of silencing such questions is bound also to be a dismissal of the possibility of irony. Irony places two registers of meaning in juxtaposition, two levels of discourse, one apparent, the other hidden; the irony lies in their conscious juxtaposition and the different senses in which they might be said to be true. But while the reductive theses Robinson confronts appear to juxtapose registers of discourse – the appearance of consciousness or intention and the actual biological determination of all that is said or done – this is not in fact the case. The underlying story is presented as unambiguously true and the surface discourse as false. This is not irony, the generative play between two registers, but a simple contrast between fact and error. The determining materialist narrative cannot itself be 'ironised'. This account thus becomes one that denies any possibility of its own unsettlement; which is indeed a serious political statement in that it cannot thus be other than a controlling discourse, inimical to change. There is no tension between native and other languages because in an important and troubling sense there are no speakers: language itself becomes a form of determined behaviour. It hardly needs saying that the theorists targeted in Robinson's critique in Absence of Mind would make the writing of fiction impossible, since fiction depends substantially on various kinds of significant gap between what is said and what is shown, between perspectives embodied in different sorts of speech. It may be a matter of Dostoevskian 'polyphony', the unresolved plurality of voices allowed expression in the text; or, say, of the extraordinary double vision of Dickens' Bleak House, with its alternation between not only narrators but tenses, a 'resolved' narrative in the past tense and a wholly unresolved and unhealed authorial present tense; or of the unreliable narrators of late twentieth century fiction, the shifting lights of Ian McEwan's Atonement, for example; or of Robinson's careful delineation of the diverse ironies of Lila and Jack. But none of these is thinkable if language is determined behaviour. None of the varieties of unpredictable narrative change work without a picture of language as fundamentally behaviour that invites and proposes question.

But – to connect this discussion with the internal issue of how Ames' language in the novels becomes open to the challenge of grace, of transformation that enables someone to receive the radically strange – there are fictions that not only work with irony but attempt to show how what I earlier called 'reconciled irony' enacts in its language a perception and reception of grace. To identify Robinson's novels as examples of this is to say that they voice a range of imagined personal perspectives within which it is possible to see how a particular voice or particular 'textual' construction of the self allows a radically unknowable element in by both inhabiting and relativising its own place. It does not seek to be without place, without home: that is the – in fact unimaginable – terminus of Jack's compulsive and desperate ironising. Nor does it seek to dissolve the question addressed to the self by fabricating an identity that collapses everything into sameness, into formal reconciliation. The voice of grace is one in which the unknowable judgement of God is constantly invoked; and by those mysterious processes that Calvin (not least in Ames' beloved Book II of the Institutes) describes, the freedom of God is, as it were, introduced into the human frame of reference and radical change becomes imaginable – not because the human self is free but because God is. We have made ourselves subject to necessity, a necessity that is, paradoxically, 'unnecessary', in tension with our nature as God intended it (see Inst. II.iii.5); we are not compelled to evil, but have always already chosen not to be free by our fantasy that we can live well either by isolating our will from God or by imagining that we co-operate with God as we might with another subject. Change occurs when we receive the gift of a relation with God that makes us 'natural' again – at home with God and ourselves precisely because we have given up the solitary struggle to justify ourselves (e.g. Inst. II.v.15).

In the order of grace, the native speaker is not one who has never questioned the language s/he speaks and has no awareness of what other possibilities exist for speech; the native speaker is the one who can inhabit language without anxiety, without constant defensive activity on the borders of the territory, because of a knowledge that all truthful speech and action is activated by what is and always remains unsaid, the hinterland of God's unimaginable judgement. By such an alignment with an unseen and unspoken judgement, the speaker is aligned with the divine liberty: not a gift of independent human freedom but an openness to the alien margins of human discourse out of which comes the raw possibility of change in the direction of absolution and generosity. I do not coincide with myself; this is a given, we might say, of all serious fiction, of the modern fictional consciousness, preoccupied as it is with growth, self-delusion, recognition of self and of difference. But for the Christian imagination, seeking words and pictures for grace, that fictional consciousness has to be connected with not only the mystery of change but what might be called the mystery of absolution, the unpredictable arrival of the liberty both to absolve and to receive absolution, without any denial of the chains of cause and effect. Grace, the strange gift of becoming a native speaker of the language proper to humankind, the language of being a creature, arrives at right angles to planning and deserving. It rightly provokes both bafflement and gratitude; and a fiction that is hospitable to the gospel will work out of both.

Faced with the sight of the illegitimate child of Jack's youthful affair playing in the riverside sunlight with her mother, 'Glory said, "I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one"'(G 164). And Ames, at the end of Gilead, significantly transfers the language of 'prevenient grace' to 'prevenient courage' – the bravery needed 'to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear', the courage which alone allows us to be generous, hospitable. Bafflement and gratitude both require that courage; Robinson's novels measure something of what such courage entails. It is both the courage to be judged, as Ames is by the alienness of Lila, and the courage to inhabit, as Lila does, a speech and a style of living that you know to be provisional to the point of near-absurdity because it does in spite of everything make space for absolution. It is also the courage – for those who are not quite touched by grace to the extent that Ames and his wife are – to imagine, as Glory does, a 'justification' of all frustrated faithfulness and endurance in terms of a homecoming that is equally personal and political. Ultimately. that is what the Christian fiction is, an imagined justification, achieved (artistically speaking) by trying to voice what it 'sounds' like to speak under an unknown judgement that is constrained by nothing but the nature of a liberty for which 'the one sufficient reason for the forgiveness of debt is simply the existence of debt' (G 161). 

Paul Contino with Archbishop Rowan at the Conference

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