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 speech at Lord Mayor's Banquet

Guildhall, London.

Monday 14th November 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivered a speech at the annual Lord Mayor of London's Banquet, held in Guildhall, London. Amongst the invited guests were the late Lord Mayor, Michael Bear, and the Prime Minister, David Cameron.

The full text follows:

My Lord Mayor, my Late Lord Mayor, my Lord Chancellor, Prime Minister, Your Excellencies, My Lords, Aldermen, Chief Commoner, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is always a privilege to acknowledge on behalf of all the guests on this occasion the outstanding work of the Late Lord Mayor during his year of office. As the public face of the City in so many contexts, the Lord Mayor has a crucial, if unenviable, role in representing the credibility of the City – its moral and human credibility, not simply its financial probity. And Michael has done just this with distinction, bringing with him some unusual experiences for a Lord Mayor – not only his background in engineering and in the property industry, but his remarkable work as a volunteer in South Africa in the bad old days, when he came to the attention of the security forces as a result of illicitly teaching maths and science to black students in his garage. His own credibility as someone committed to taking risks for the sake of change can hardly be in doubt. And like all who had their difficulties with the apartheid regime, he will be aware of the tensions that sometimes arise between law as it exists in a very imperfect social order and justice as a vision that promises a voice and a place for all on the basis of an absolute commitment to human dignity.

Nothing new about this, of course; and speaking as someone who has been associated in the media in recent weeks with Robin Hood, I might well be expected to have a few thoughts about these tensions. The proximity of more than one Sheriff, of course, guarantees that my remarks will be properly chastened; though it is worth remembering too that the Robin Hood of the earliest ballads shared, broadly speaking, that view of the higher clergy routinely expressed by several of our media friends. 'These Bysshopes and these Archebyshoppes,' says Robin to his men, 'them schal ye beate and binde.' And while we're on the subject of these ballads, you might also recall their claim that Robin would never attack a company that had a lady in it; a solid incentive to look at gender balance, whether in the corporate world, or indeed perhaps among bishops and archbishops...

Recognizing the tension between local good order and the demands of a wider and more comprehensive justice is none too comfortable; but it is something with which quite a few people here are familiar. It is the faultline on which St Paul's Cathedral is currently sitting, at great cost; and it would be wrong not to mention on this occasion the particular costs that have been borne by the clergy of St Paul's in holding the balance in this situation. Armchair pontiffs may say what they will; but I doubt whether anyone in this Hall tonight would refuse their tribute to the integrity and generosity of the Chapter of St Paul's, in the face of such diverse pressures, and to the way they have dealt so honestly and patiently with conscientious differences of perspective within their own number. They have tried hard to give space to a good many uncomfortable and none-too-harmonious voices for the sake of our common moral good, without colluding in a mere chaos of sloganeering, and I hope they know that they can count at least on our understanding in this.

St Paul's with its environs has become, literally and metaphorically, a theatre in which conflicts are played out. Cityscapes, of course, are by nature dramatic. The defining moments in the history of the last couple of hundred years are so often linked with particular urban landscapes – the Paris of 1789 and the Petersburg of 1917, Tiananmen and Prague, the Bucharest of 1989; and now the Cairo or Athens of 2011. But there's also the different kind of theatre we saw in some of our cities this last summer – a theatre of lawlessness and greed from one point of view, yes, but also a dramatic reminder that there are people in our society – more than is comfortable – who feel they have no stake in its 'good order' and feel little sense of obligation to sustain it.

The underlying drama played out in these various urban theatres, is one of alarming instability, a drama of the 'shaking of nations'. Few if any can see the route back to security and stability. No-one has shown us the script for the rest of the play. We may, most of us, try to behave as if things were getting 'back to normal'; but more and more people are asking whether there is a 'normal' to get back to.

'The shaking of nations': a resonant biblical phrase. It 'signifieth', we are told, 'the removing of those things that are shaken...that those things which cannot be shaken may remain' (Heb.12.27). So we have to ask, faced with the drama of our times, what it is that 'cannot be shaken', what it is that we cannot imagine being toppled and shattered like the icons of fallen dictators? Is there anything whose loss would simply make everything else meaningless?

The City of London's motto, 'My word is my bond', is no bad place to start. It is not only about keeping promises, including inconvenient ones, but about a pervasive recognition that we commit ourselves in what we say to each other. A fully human world is one in which mutual commitment is natural, whether it's in personal relations, business or international affairs. To be a human being is to be able to commit yourself to staying the course, changing over time, being moulded by relations with others and with the world; to be more than someone who thinks only of the most immediate individual gratification in the shortest possible term.

Which in turn implies that there is something other than just our own immediate needs and plans that is worth being committed to. We learn this first in loyalty to our families, our nation, and indeed to our companies and corporations; to the ideal of this City of London. But this will trap us in rivalry and suspicion unless it is always expanding towards a greater loyalty – to humanity itself, or, more ambitiously and more alarmingly, to what lies beyond humanity. The Spirit of the Lord is given, says Scripture, in order to proclaim release to the captives; the secret is that release comes to us when we are least preoccupied in defending our little corner of reality and most open to what the whole current of reality might ask of us.

Commitment and risk; the same words I used about Michael's early experiences in South Africa, and it's not an accident. Before we either give way to panic or start constructing more and more sophisticated ways of telling ourselves it's not so bad after all, we might consider what we each of us think is abidingly worth taking risks for – what is so unshakeable that it would push us to go against the apparently obvious wisdom of our comfort zones in order to make something happen differently, whether in our personal lives or in new structural and legal initiatives.

Now I know that moralists are all too ready to come up with bright ideas at this point – and (armed with my bow and arrows) I have not been innocent of this myself. But when all's said and done about the uninstructed naivety generally ascribed to these suggestions, is the question still at least worth asking? If it's really true that 'business as usual' is something of an illusion just now, what actions and policies would point to a larger world of possibilities for all? Repentance, it's been said, doesn't mean feeling bad but thinking differently; if there are voices calling for repentance in various areas of our public life, they are not necessarily playing easy games about whose fault things are, but just asking, 'What can be thought about differently?' And the readiness to do this will become the most powerful testimony to our collective credibility.

My Late Lord Mayor, I'm afraid you and Barbara have only yourselves to blame for prompting these dangerously sermonic reflections on the costs of integrity and vision, because of who you are and what you have done, during this mayoral year, throughout your time in the City and well beyond. We have deeply appreciated the warmth of your friendship and all the personal qualities you have brought to this office and the implicit and explicit challenges you have posed to us all through your commitment to true economic revival and – through your chosen charities – to the needs of vulnerable children and young people. We wish you every kind of rest and well-being in the future. So, with great pleasure, I invite the whole company to rise and to drink the health of the Late Lord Mayor and the Court of Aldermen. 

© Rowan Williams 2011

Back · Back to top