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 speaks at Building Bridges Seminar on Death, Resurrection and Human Destiny

Monday 23rd April 2012

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, chaired the 11th Building Bridges Seminar in London and Canterbury on 23rd-25th April.

Public lectures on the seminar's theme of Death, Resurrection and Human Destiny: Christian and Muslim Perspectives were given on the first day of the seminar at King's College London.  The speakers were Bishop Tom Wright, Prof Mona Siddiqui, Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, Prof Asma Afsaruddin, Dr Sajjad Rizvi and the Revd Dr Harriet Harris. The programme for the day is attached. 


In his opening remarks, the Archbishop thanked the Principal of King’s College London, Professor Rick Trainor, together with other colleagues at King’s, for their warm hospitality. He also thanked the President of Georgetown University, Dr John J. DeGioia, for generous support of the Building Bridges seminar series, which will now continue into a new phase with Georgetown taking over responsibility for its managing and development. He added that Georgetown scholar Professor Daniel Madigan SJ would be taking over the chairing of future Building Bridges seminars.

Dr Williams went on to describe how Building Bridges arose from Archbishop George Carey's desire, following the events of 9/11, to "draw together as many as possible of the representatives of Christianity and Islam who were willing to engage seriously with each other about mutual understanding and cooperation in a very fragile global situation".  In the years that followed, Archbishop Rowan said, the seminar had developed into an annual dialogue with senior scholars of both faiths, intent on shared study of the Bible and the Qur'an and other Christian and Islamic texts.  

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's opening remarks, watch the video or listen to the audio.


At the end of the day, Archbishop Rowan reflected on the six public lectures and the comments made in response to them.  Dr Williams noted that several questions had been flagged up - such as how death might be approached; the nature of eternal life; whether we are responsible for our own salvation; and the origin of death itself.  The Archbishop said that he hoped these issues would be a source of discussion, meditation and prayer during the rest of the seminar. 

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's reflections following the public lectures, watch the video or listen to the audio.

Opening remarks by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Building Bridges 2012 public lectures, 23 April 2012

Professor Trainor and distinguished guests, it’s a real pleasure for me to be able to welcome you to a share in the work of this Building Bridges Seminar; the 11th meeting under the general title of Building Bridges since the project began just 10 years ago, and the 10th of these seminars which I’ve had the privilege of chairing.

I want to begin simply by expressing our gratitude to King’s College London, from the Principal to the Dean and the Dean’s colleagues and staff to all those who’ve helped to make us so welcome here at King’s. As you said, Rick [Trainor], this is a place naturally equipped for the kind of dialogue that we’ve sought to pursue; we feel confident that the support and encouragement that you’ve given us will help us in our work during this week, and it’s a very great pleasure to be able to have the public part of our proceedings here in this historic setting.  Many have been very generous with their time and their skills in preparing for this seminar, and I want to say thank you very much to all those at King’s who’ve helped to make that possible.

And while I’m saying thank you, let me also say a public word of thanks to Georgetown University, to President DeGioia and his colleagues for the extraordinary support that they’ve given over the years to this project.  Since very early on in the life of this Building Bridges project, our association with Georgetown has been deeply significant in focusing and resourcing our work. That connection has become deeper and deeper over the years, and as the whole project moves into a new phase – next year Georgetown takes a still more leading role in the organisation of these seminars – Jack, I want to say thank you very much indeed, in public, for the wonderful privileges that our link with Georgetown has meant. For me it’s been a great delight to be able to visit on several occasions, to get to know yourself and your colleagues so well, and to feel that we have really creative, imaginative friends there at Georgetown who share our commitments and our passions about dialogue – so, thank you.

There will be more to be said this evening at the reception at Lambeth about how we propose to take forward the work that we’re doing, and the particular kind of role that Georgetown will be playing in the future, but I might just mention at this point that the chairing and coordinating of the seminars will be passing to Father Dan Madigan of Georgetown from this point on – and you have a chance to see him in action during the day.

Not all of you are familiar with the work of the Building Bridges seminars, so I thought I might just spend a very few minutes outlining how we got here, the sort of things that we’ve done, and why we think it matters in the way that it does.

The initial impetus behind the seminar was, as has been hinted, the events of 9/11. In the months following that appalling catastrophe, my predecessor, Archbishop Carey, believed it necessary to draw together as many as possible of the representatives of Christianity and Islam who were willing to engage seriously with each other about mutual understanding and cooperation in a very fragile global situation.

So the first, relatively brief, meeting was held just 10 years ago. And on the basis of that, it was thought that this ought to move to a rather more regular, and perhaps rather more searching, level. That is, that it should be longer, more extended conversation; that it should be a regular conversation; that we should seek to draw together as many scholars and people of intellectual influence in the Christian and Islamic worlds as we could on an annual basis, to explore themes of common interest.

And so, just nine years ago, the first extended Building Bridges Seminar was held in Doha, in Qatar. And throughout the history of the seminars, we’ve sought to alternate our meetings between a Western, academic setting - and more than once in Georgetown - and a setting more obviously in the midst of dialogue on the ground, so that we’ve been twice now to Qatar, we’ve been in Sarajevo, we’ve been in South East Asia. So it’s been quite a varied pattern.

In the last 10 years, of course, dialogue between Christianity and Islam has become, one might almost say, fashionable. And the question is bound to arise: what is distinctive about what we do as this particular seminar? I want to note two things. The first is, simply, that we have not sought to make public, coordinated statements, we’ve not sought a high public profile – because there are plenty of people who work at that level, and there are plenty of people who address the political and geopolitical issues.  There are perhaps fewer groups that seek to build lasting and quite intimate relationships among themselves, and that seek to give priority to the study of each other’s scriptures. So we’ve not sought a high public profile. We’ve not sought to make statements and issue communiqués. We’ve sought understanding of a particular kind. And by keeping a very strong, regular component in our meetings throughout, so that we get to know each other quite closely, we’ve attempted to model, I suppose you could say, a patience in dialogue that is fundamentally oriented towards getting to know one another’s hearts.

And that takes me to the second distinctive point, which I’ve already noted in passing. We’ve focused our attention very, very strongly on shared study, both of our sacred texts, the Bible and the Qur’an, but also texts of our tradition. And, to use a phrase that I’ve frequently used in this context, we’ve tried, therefore, to watch each other engaging with our own sources. It’s easy enough to comment at a distance on how other people use their sources; easy enough perhaps to make a sketchy survey of other people’s sources and texts and think you understand. But what actually changes things and moves us forward is watching somebody else engaging at depth with their own sacred texts and with their own tradition.

So we have modelled our meetings on that principle. We engage with what we believe God has given us to engage with, in holy text and in tradition. And we invite our neighbours and friends to watch us doing that, and to learn a bit about how to share in that as best they can. That focus on sacred texts means that a great deal of our work together in discussion is text-based. So we’ve tried to avoid large generalities, so that we can come back again and again to the specifics of what we believe God is saying to us in the texts that our tradition engages with. And I think that has been, all the way through, a distinctive thing about Building Bridges; you will see it in action in the lectures today.

The mode in which we have operated, certainly for the last six or seven years, has been essentially that part of our discussion is conducted in public – and that’s what’s happening today.  We invite distinguished scholars to speak about themes and texts; we invite a larger audience to overhear that; and we, the members of the seminar, have a very strict self-denying ordinance to try not to ask too many questions or to hog the discussion afterwards, so that the wider public has an opportunity to engage with our discussion. We then go into our more private sessions, where we exchange, as I’ve said, our comments and our reflections on texts together and pursue that study in smaller groups. So over the next two days we shall be doing that side of our work – on this occasion in Canterbury, I’m happy to say.

So that’s the method – the philosophy if you like – of the Building Bridges Seminars. And all of the seminars so far have issued a publication, several of which are on sale at the back of the hall.  So I’m permitted to issue a brief commercial on behalf of what has come out of previous seminars, because I believe that there is a very rich resource there of shared reflection.

We’ve sought, as I’ve said, to address matters of shared interest and concern for Christians and Muslims. That is, we’ve sought to come at contemporary, pressing geo‑political questions, not from the point of view of headlines but from the point of view of those concerns that are deeply rooted in our hearts as people of faith. So that, over the years, we have looked not only at the definitions of some of our key terms – what prophecy means, for example – in our different traditions. We’ve also looked at issues of poverty and justice; we’ve looked at questions around tradition and modernity. Last year we had a particularly searching, and, I think, enriching, series of sessions on prayer in our two traditions. This year we turn our attention to eschatology: death, resurrection, and human destiny.

Both Islam and Christianity have a distinctive approach to issues around death and resurrection. They share the vocabulary of death and resurrection; the vocabulary of judgement. They share a sense of human destiny as historically shaped; shaped around the address and engagement of God the creator and God the redeemer. So it is to be expected that we will have something to say to one-another about these questions of death and destiny.

And we believe, as do, I think, all people of faith, that in a culture which is still uncharacteristically reticent – shy, you might say – of addressing questions of death and destiny, the more we talk to each other with honesty and with openness about our mortality, the better we shall contribute to the health of the society and the world around us. We are living in a culture in which, strangely, mortality is still one of the subjects least easy to discuss and think through in public. We behave and we speak as if we were not only individually immortal, but corporately, or socially and politically immortal. We behave as if not only our individual lives were somehow magically protected from hurt - ideally anyway - but as if our human environment were magically protected from hurt.  The religious conviction that we are not only mortal but answerable for what we do with our mortal span, is one of the things which gives us a due sense of proportion and humility, in our relation not only to our own lives and aspirations but to our entire material environment.

So I don’t think that we are just, in these few days, discussing matters of a narrowly religious import, but something about the health of our human race in its environment.

We shall be recording our discussions this week; in due course another volume of reflections will appear. But we are always particularly grateful for the opportunity on these occasions, not only to meet one another, but to share with a wider public something of the friendship and mutual understanding we’ve developed over the years. And it’s with that in mind that once again I welcome all of you who are here today as participants for the public part of this seminar, in the hope that today will be a stimulus and an enrichment for those who call themselves people of faith and those who don’t; that from this we may emerge with a fuller sense of our humanity, and how that humanity is to be transformed by the touch of God.

Thank you for being part of this seminar. I’m very happy at this point to hand over to Dan [Madigan], to introduce our speakers for this morning.


Closing reflections by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Building Bridges 2012 public lectures, 23 April 2012

Thank you very much indeed, and I'd like to echo the thanks that have already been expressed to everyone who has spoken today, and who has asked questions during the course of the day. I have six themes that seem to me to have emerged during the course of today's discussion, which I hope may be explored a bit more fully in the days ahead by those participating in the seminar, and I hope may suggest some further forward thinking for those who've joined us just for today.

I'll begin with the issues that have been in our minds this afternoon: the more practical and pastoral questions around death and dying. It struck me very strongly, listening to both our speakers this afternoon, that there was a question about how and whether we own our death. We live in a culture where ownership is often seen as the most significant relationship we ever have to anything, and I suspect that some of the passion, anger and pain around discussion of assisted suicide, for example, has to do with the feeling that we are somehow by religious prohibitions being denied ownership of our own experience - ownership of our death.

And yet, that being said, we've been introduced in much of this afternoon's discussion to two very different ways into that. There is a way of approaching our death, or someone else's death, which focuses very strongly on the taking of power – either the medical power to prolong life by a kind of flexing of scientific muscle, or the moral power to 'end my life when I choose'. But they are both, in a sense, about taking control.

Part of what we've been hearing from both of our traditions is about what it might mean consciously, graciously, to relinquish control – a challenge both to the dying person and to the medical carer. It is often assumed that religious attitudes to end-of-life questions are all about prolonging life at all costs, which is an absurdity. But we only get past that particular sterile standoff, I think, if we address this question of whether we're approaching our own death or the death of someone else basically in that spirit of 'wanting control' or in the spirit of 'creative letting go'.

So that's one thing which has come into focus for me very strongly in this afternoon's excellent presentations. And we've also been reminded this afternoon of that particular cluster of questions represented by the idea of dying before you die – Sufi undoubtedly, Christian undoubtedly, and they're already in the New Testament in the form of the language that we find, in St Paul for example, about dying every day. Notions are expressed there of how the Apostle's ministry to the community involves a kind of 'dying' so that life may come into existence in the other, in the neighbour.

My second cluster of themes has a bit to do with all of that. There was a question this morning about how our talk of heaven, hell and the resurrection impacts upon our experience here and now. And, of course, to talk about dying every day is one way in which it impacts. The experience of the community of faith has something about it which encourages us, nurtures us, in the practice of letting go. Letting go so that the neighbour may live; not in a self-hating or (in the wrong sense) self-denying way, but in a way which acknowledges that part of the providence and purpose of God in the community is achieved by my learning to make room for the neighbour – and therefore saying no to my urge to control and contain the neighbour. And that is all part of the daily 'dying' that is involved, and which is enabled by our fundamental relationship to God – the sense in which we relate truthfully and constructively to God only when we learn to make room for God, at the expense of what we feel comfortable with and what we can control.

And the answer to the question about the impact and relevance of our talk about heaven, hell and resurrection, and where we are now, I think lies here. Are we now living our way into that relationship which will make heaven a joy? That's what it means to say "Heaven begins here" – to say, as Christian scripture says, that our citizenship is in heaven. Because, after all, what are we going to do in heaven (assuming we get there!)? The answer for both the Christian and the Muslim is: we are going to enjoy God for God's sake. And if that is, by the grace of God, how we spend eternity, we'd better start getting used to it.

And I think it's as simple as that really – the question of the present impact of our talk about the last things, is to do with what we do in heaven. It's to do with the relationship we begin now – the quality of our looking at God, and looking at our neighbour, which begins here and now. And to speak of hell is, in the broadest possible terms, to speak of a condition where we are no longer able to look at God with joy. And that is, in a sense, a terrible enough thing to say, without going into any science fiction about hell. What would it be to be confronted unambiguously with love and not look at it with joy?

That takes me to my third area. One of the areas of possible controversy, possible tension, between our theological traditions that was emerging this morning had to do with justice, with whether we were responsible for our own salvation, whether we could rely on the merits or the prayers of others to do something for us. And I suspect that, in the immortal words of the psychiatrist in Fawlty Towers, "There's enough material there for an entire onference." But what we're thinking about in this connection, I believe, is something to do with acts and consequences. What I heard this morning was a very powerful and very lucid statement from our Muslim participants, that there is nothing in the universe that can prevent acts having the consequences that they have. Our acts change us. Our acts make us the kind of people we are. And it is a painful, tempting illusion to suppose that there's something vaguely religious that can stop that being the case.

There is undoubtedly a religious sentimentality which says that God works by magic – that is, God works in disregard for what we have made ourselves. And I think there's scope for some exploration there. We are who we have made ourselves, but for the Christian the question there is, I believe, have we yet made ourselves people incapable of asking for mercy? Asking for one another's help? Asking for one another's prayers? Because to open oneself to the idea that mercy transforms us, that that transforming mercy can come through the prayers of others, is not to say "Let somebody relieve me of the consequences of my actions", but to say "I'm willing to act, to relate differently - to grow in a new set of relations".

A complex area, but I think it is quite important for us not to be seduced by the idea that notions of salvation, theologies of salvation are only about having all responsibility lifted from our shoulders. I defer to Tom [Wright] here, but I don't think justification by faith means magic.

But that then pushes us on to a fourth area which I think is worth reflecting on a bit. Quite often when I'm asked questions about the theology of eternal life or the theology of death and resurrection, they're couched in terms of surviving death: "Do you believe there is something in you that survives death?" And I don't believe that survival is the issue at all, for either of our traditions. I frequently find myself saying that, for me, issues around eternal life have to do with God before they have to do with humanity. It's because we believe in a God who is faithful to his creation that we believe we are not discarded – rolled up and tossed away – annihilated. God is faithful to what he has made, and therefore the relation we have with God continues.

What that means theologically, philosophically and so on is, as we've already seen today, a vastly complicated question. But I think it is important to keep it anchored in what we believe about the character of God's faithfulness rather than tying it down to speculation about some insecure bit of us that somehow manages to survive the annihilating experience of death. This is about God, about a faithful God – about a God who has a character; a God who is loyal to what he himself has done and been for us and in the universe.

And the question about 'universalism' (is everyone saved?) is one of the questions that comes up in the light of that. If this is the character of God, then can we suppose that God abandons any creature? And yet if this is the character of God, can it be the case that God overrides the free decision that he has given to his creatures? Somewhere in between those two questions, we are all of us stuck. And I think it's a very good place to be stuck, actually, because were we blandly secure about universal salvation a great deal of our theology would look and sound very different; were we blandly confident about exactly who was going where in the eyes of God, then that'd be even worse perhaps. So I think that particular knife edge is a good place to live for Christians, Muslims or indeed anybody else.

There are two other questions, neither of them small, but perhaps falling outside the clusters I've already identified. I'll just mention those briefly before I finish. One is the question already hinted at in this last area: the relation of the individual and the corporate. The question of what it means for a Christian that we die as part of the body of Christ, part of a cosmic community in which our mutual relations make us who we are. What is it for the Muslim to die as a member of the ummah, as a member of a community again conceived as universal and transformed? What do those relationships with our community actually mean at the point of our dying, at the point of our transition into some different kind of relationship with God? We've sometimes, certainly as Christians, tried to be extremely precise and exact about what that might or might not mean, and we have on the whole made ourselves look rather foolish with those speculations. And yet, that we do not die alone remains important, I think, for both for our traditions. Again, this afternoon has filled out some of the more general and abstract discussion that we had this morning. It's Hebrew scripture that says that "No one can answer for anyone else's life or death" and that is clearly a fundamental theme in Islam, and in a different sense, a different flavour, I think fundamental in Christianity. And at the same time as the author of that psalm in Hebrew scripture would probably have admitted, while we do not answer for one another's life or death, nonetheless our life and our death are bound up with the neighbour. So there are some questions there.

The very last issue is one which we've barely begun to touch on, but which seems to me to be a very interesting one indeed, theologically speaking. And that is the origin of death. There is a deeply-rooted Christian tradition which sees death as bound up with the fall, with what Cardinal Newman called 'the great aboriginal catastrophe' that overwhelmed the human race. In other words, that mortality is in some sense not quite part of God's original purpose. And yet, as we've been told once or twice today in passing, that's quite a difficult doctrine to maintain not only in scientific terms but even in theological terms – where the sense of embracing our finite character has been so important an aspect of our learning human maturity. Where does death come from? Is human death part of God's original purpose? Is it the result of a catastrophe? Or is it, as some more modern Christian theologians have suggested, something rather more in between? Is the death that we speak of in these terms that conscious awareness, that fearful awareness of our mortality, which comes with a particular sense of self, which evolves at a particular stage of human history or evolutionary history? Is it a problem? Is death a problem for the self-aware being, in a way that it isn't for the animal creation? I don't pretend to have an answer to that, but I think it's an interesting question to put into the mix so that we think a little bit about whether we are essentially seeing death in terms of punishment and threat, or in terms of something that becomes punishment and threat because of a certain quality of human awareness and self-awareness.

That's certainly a problem for Christians. How far it's a problem for Muslims I don't know, but I'm hoping to learn in the days ahead. Those are six issues and sets of issues which seem to me to have been flagged up today which will give us, I suspect, ample opportunity for discussion and reflection and, I hope, meditation and prayer in the days ahead. I know that you'll all agree we've had an exceptionally stimulating and rich set of lectures to reflect on today, and many of you in your responses to these lectures have enriched the diet of today still further. I'm profoundly grateful to those who've attended the lectures, as well as those who've given them, and, once again, very grateful to King’s College for their kind hospitality and their generous administrative cooperation in the work we've done today. I'd like also to thank those who've chaired and moderated the discussions and I look forward to - let's say - things 'coming alive' in the next few days in the discussions we hope to enjoy together. 

© Rowan Williams 2012

Back · Back to top