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Archbishop's speech at Rochester Diocesan Gathering

Saturday 19th May 2012

Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke spoke at the Diocese of Rochester's conference in Beckenham on Saturday 19th May.

A full transcript follows, or listen to the audio [33Mb, 36 mins]


A Theological Perspective - How we make a difference?

‘Beyond the Big Society’ Conference
Diocese of Rochester Gathering
Beckenham, Saturday 19 May

Thank you for your kind words and for your welcome here this afternoon.  I count it a real privilege to be able to share with you for this afternoon, and reflect with you about our Church and our society in the framework that you have given – particularly in the context of the work that I know you are doing as a diocese to look again at what is possible for the church with all the challenges that are being presented to it at the moment.

The text that comes to me is from Revelation: "Behold I have set before you an open door which no-one shall shut." (Revelation 3:8) I want to share that with you this afternoon because I think that is, in the context of what we are looking at, very much the challenge that God puts before us at the moment in the society we inhabit.

God has set before us an open door; and the way that has come home to us is that suddenly all sorts of really quite extravagant expectations have been landed upon us by government and society at large.  Suddenly we are being taken seriously in at least some bits of government and society at large, and we are expected to rise to the challenge of deprivation, austerity, fragmentation -  all the things currently facing our society.  As I hinted in the remark you quoted just then, Nigel, there is just a little bit of a suspicion that we are being asked to pick up the pieces from somebody else's train crash. 

That being said, an open door is an open door.  An opportunity presented is a call.  And I think possibly the most important thing churches can ever reflect on is: what is the nature of the call before us today?  A church is a called community.  It can't be repeated too often, but the word ‘ecclesia’ simply means an assembly called together.  That is who we are – we are here because we are called.  And we discover who we are in every generation by discovering afresh what our call is in that setting.

So I am framing what I have to say in that broad context, and I promise you at least one more quote from the Bible before I finish.  But that does seem to me one of the most potent images that the New Testament gives us, one of the most powerful, transforming and hopeful words that the risen and ascended Christ gives to his Church then and now: I have set before you an open door and no-one is going to be able to close it.  It is a door into the presence of the Father; it is a door into the heart of creation at one and the same time.  That is what we have to hold in our minds as we ask the question, "What is the vocation, what is the opportunity here and now?"

But let me stay for a moment (to start with) with that question of the nature of the church.  “We can make a difference”, it says up there, but if we are who we say we are as a church we had better have some idea what kind of difference we want to make.  And to be clear what kind of difference we want to make, we have to be clear what it is that makes us different as a church.  What is it that sets the church as a voluntary community apart from Oxfam, the Rugby Club or the Amateur Operatic Society?

If I were asking myself, reading the New Testament, what is the real ‘distinctive’ of the church as a community, then I think the answer that leaps from the page is: this is a community where people take responsibility for each other.  A community where everybody knows that their own humanity before God is going to depend on the love and solidarity of their neighbour.  I am dependent upon you; you can trust me to be there when you are dependent on me.  Where everyone knows that we are here in this community to nourish one another with what we receive from God and from each other.  A virtuous circle – mutual responsibility, mutual nourishment.  Giving ourselves into the life of the neighbour in the name of God, so that we may receive from the neighbour what God desires to give us.

All of that, of course, is what St. Paulis talking about in terms of the gifts of the Spirit.  No gift is given me for myself alone.   I think that has to be the bottom line of everything we can say about material and spiritual life in the church.  No gift is given me for me alone.  And (I can't remember where I came across this image but I really love it) the gift given is like an extremely lively, squirming little animal put into our hands that wants to leap out somewhere else.  As soon as I have nestled it in my hands it starts leaping off somewhere else.  That is how God's gifts seem to work.  Not for myself alone, but always seeking to land in the life, the nourishment, of someone else.

That means of course that the church's community is not simply a community called to ‘give good things to neighbours’ but a community much more than that where everybody, in and out of the church, is drawn into the dignity of being a giver.  God gives me the gift to give, the gift of being a giver.  And my second scriptural text is "Freely you have received; freely give”. (Matthew 10:8)

God gives us gifts to empower us - that again seems to me an absolutely ‘bottom line’ New Testament insight.  God gives us gifts to empower us, to empower us to be givers.  And if in the church we are taking responsibility for one another, nourishing one another, what we are nourishing, nurturing, helping to come to birth by the power of the Spirit in the name of Christ, is that dignity of being a giver.

I think here of an incident in the life of St. Teresa of Avila in the 16th century when she says that her conversion really happened when as a youngish nun she saw in the cloister of her convent, as if for the first time, a statue of the suffering Christ.  And it flashed into her mind "He needs me.  He has condescended in his omnipotent power and splendour to need me."  Suddenly she saw herself afresh and knew that she was called to be a giver – a giver to her Lord and Saviour who had given her everything, a giver in her service of her friends and her sisters and her society, a giver to Christ in them.

I begin with that because I think that helps us clarify just a little what it is that is different about the church.  We are absolutely committed to nourishing in one another the dignity of being givers, and thus committed to receiving from one another what God wants to give.  God doesn't simply distribute his gifts to individuals in isolation; his gifts are given in and for the community.  Because the Spirit from whom all those gifts flow is the Spirit of communion.  This is our business as church.

So let's build one stage further onto that.  Once again in the New Testament, gradually coming into focus, is, it seems, the awareness, the recognition, that the church is what God would like to see the human race looking like.  This is such a colossally counter-intuitive claim most of the time, that it does need to be underlined quite toughly.  The church, in the sense of this community where everybody is being nourished into the gift of giving, that’s what God wants to see the human race looking like.  That’s what has been made possible by the death and resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit.  God desires communion for all.

So, this core business of the church, the nourishment of the grace and freedom to give, this is the direction in which God wants to see human society moving.  Having said all we have said about what makes the church different, the next question is: so what does that say about our relationship with the rest of the human community?

I think the obvious answer on the basis of this is that we are called (called, once again) to try to move and lure and prod the society around us into something just a little bit more in tune with that gift and vision that we find in the life of the body of Christ.  Because that is the direction in which God seeks to move and lure and prod the human race itself.

So what we are seeking as church to do is to ask questions of ourselves and of the society immediately around us, questions about how far the structures and habits we live in the middle of help or hinder that work of nurturing one another into Christ-like humanity through the gifts of the Spirit.  Part of our task, if we are seeking to be faithful to our calling, must be, surely, in the light of this, to look and listen in the world immediately around us for whatever it is that’s making it a little bit more possible for human beings to live in that dignity of being givers.  We are here to encourage whatever around us is moving in that God-ordained direction.

So we look and we listen for whatever it is in our setting that seems to be shunting people a bit closer to mutuality, taking responsibility for each other, the empowerment that comes from that, and the dignity of giving.  The criteria we apply, as we look around for what we think we can, in a godly way, cooperate with have to do with some of those issues around mutuality – around building the capacity to give.

I think that helps us to see, or ought to help us to see, why some of the polarities and oppositions that we occasionally encounter in discussing these things really won't do.  Is Christian goodness, or holiness, a private matter?  So that we are allowed to get on with what we think is a right set of moral priorities on our own, but doesn't make much difference more broadly – and shouldn't?  Well no, that doesn't sound quite right in the cosmic perspective of the New Testament, especially in Paul's prison letters.  Are we then seeking to exercise what the social scientists call ‘hegemony’ – are we trying to control and dictate to society what it ought to look like?  Well no, the church has occasionally tried that and it has been a bit of a train wreck. 

So we are neither talking about trying to take over everything, nor about withdrawing to our corner.  We’re talking about witness, engagement, partnership.  I put witness first because unless we begin to get some of this right in our own life together we are not going to have very much to share.  But engagement and partnership, because we are called to look for the signs of God's work and God's kingdom wherever they happen to be.  And prominent among those signs is human beings beginning to grow into that mutual responsibility, that nourishment of each other's human dignity.

St. Augustine, in his great work on the City ofGod, says at one point that it is really important that Christians see and appreciate whatever degree of peace or justice there is in the society they happen to inhabit.  It is not going to be perfect and it is probably not going to be lasting, but make the most of it while it is there.  Don't look down on it.  “These things are God's and are God's good gifts”, saysSt. Augustine.  So you had better appreciate it and you had better see if you can run with the grain of it, because it is not something alien to what the church is there for.

We neither seek the space to be privately holy, nor the liberty to tell everybody what to do.  We seek to be faithful to what the church really is, the body of Christ in which the gifts of the Spirit circulate.  And we seek to find those areas in our shared life as a community, as a society, where we can work with the grain of God's purpose building that sense of responsibility for each other's human dignity.

Moving on a little bit from these realms of high theory, or perhaps to be a bit more polite, vision, because I hope it is not just theory – how does it all flesh out?  Staying with Augustine just for a moment – he is very insistent that there is a scale beyond which this begins not to work.  You have to learn this and practice this in small particulars, in localities.  That is whySt. Augustine says, rather boldly for a man of the lateRoman Empire: huge multinational empires are not a good idea in the sight of God.  There is something you can only learn in the local and the face-to-face.  That has to be affirmed.

That suggests that a healthy society, a really functioning society, is going to be a living network of small communities of mutual service connected up with one another in ways that prevent those small units just turning in on themselves and becoming competitive.  That is why it helps us to have, in our theology of the body of Christ, a strong sense of belonging to a worldwide Christian body, a worldwide catholic church – but that is another lecture or two.

But it remains really important that where we learn is in the hands on, face-to-face settings.  That also suggests that a healthy and functional society is actually not one that sees the State as the universal provider, universal solver of problems.  A healthy society is one which is enabling, nourishing, giving space for vital, small-scale, primary communities to work. 

It is very odd that in the 20th and 21st centuries, again and again, from both the left and the right, this fantasy that ‘the State’ must be the prime provider and problem-solver has come back again and again.  As if we somehow didn't trust the smaller scale, the more local, the more face-to-face.  I think that is worth pondering.  The 1980s mythology which suggested there were only two things that mattered, the State and the individual, is just a rather extreme version of that.  But we do have to ask, very carefully: what is the proper role of the State in relation to the local?  Not to sweep it aside so that everybody is reduced to a flat level, and government just doles out to all of us what it thinks we need.  Not a State that takes away the reality of the local, the difference, the crucial diversity of local communities and their convictions.  But a State which allows societies, communities, to flourish, to do what they do best, to grow as they can.  And which also seeks to minimise the possibility of the clash and rivalry between them.

Although this is a much bigger subject, that is why I am very wary of those who, again, either from the left or the right, would like the State to solve some of the church's problems.  I don't think that will happen or ought to happen - another story!  But if a healthy and vital society is one in which government is equipping and empowering, different kinds of smaller-scale community then I think we can understand something of the balance that we need to draw between the local and the national, the voluntary and the statutory, and so on.

The State helps to maintain the conditions in which active, vital communities of mutuality can flourish, so, in very practical terms, I think it is entirely right to hope and pray and work for the State helping to prime the pumps for local and voluntary activity.  My ‘half-cheer’ for the Big Society had something to do with the fact that this vision had come across the horizon at exactly the moment when it seemed government was less willing than usual to do that pump-priming.  And that is one of the real challenges we have at the moment.  I actually accept the good faith of those who have advanced the Big Society agenda as a good thing in itself, but it is pretty unfortunate that it came along at just the moment when the actual equipping and capacity-building of the local by the national was so much under threat because of financial stringency.

What I am talking about is expressed much more simply by a fascinating Catholic writer of the last century, a Frenchman named Pierre Maurin, who was one of the inspirations of the Catholic Worker Movement in theUnited States.  He was a great Christian anarchist and a man whose own life and writings were a model of utter simplicity.  He summed this up by saying, simply, that what he wanted to see was a society in which it was easier to be good.  The laws of the State didn't compel virtue and couldn't.  They didn't decide all the moral problems that needed deciding.  They might at least provide an atmosphere, a climate, in which communities of mutual generosity and mutual nourishment were that little bit easier to construct and maintain.

That I suppose is where this afternoon's title begins to come home to us.  ‘Beyond the Big Society’ is the title that you have taken.  And I take it that that means: how do we move away from this just being a slogan, which is for some purposes quite a useful alibi for those who want to see everything handed over to the voluntary, and for others quite a good stick to beat the Government with.  How do we move beyond all that, and ask what kind of difference we want to make and can make?  How do we move towards a situation where we as a church can both try to hold government and public authorities accountable in a sensible way by asking the question "How are you building the capacity for us to live in this mutually responsible way?” and where we ourselves are also modelling this mutuality, this face-to-face engagement and service.

There will be different judgements about where you draw the line; different judgements about the degree of involvement, the degree of support the State can sensibly be asked to give.  But I think emerging from it is a clear sense that the State does have a role, but it is not the role of problem-solving.  It is a role of capacity-building, and, sometimes, brokerage between different groups.  And that, I think, is what is meant by those who have often talked about the ideal society as being ‘a community of communities’ – a phrase that I very much like.  A community of communities, with the State keeping guard over the broader community in which the local, the face-to-face can flourish.

Meanwhile, we go on trying to model God's ideal: “freely you have received, freely give”.  Trying to model what it means to be the Body of Christ, taking responsibility for one another, taking responsibility as well for all those in our neighbourhood who are being drawn towards that same ideal.  Our own criteria remain, as I said earlier, in terms of our cooperation with what is around us, are these projects, are these visions, moving in the direction of real mutuality and the empowerment that goes with it.

But before I sit down, let me just finish with two little glimpses of situations where I feel personally I have seen all this at work.

I want to take you first to Kenya, where last year I was privileged to spend a week travelling around a number of rural Kenyan dioceses and being introduced to some of the really exceptional work that is done by the Anglican Province of Kenya's social development department.  It is an exemplary case of how to engage in this way.

The priority for the Kenyan church seemed to be a very simple and a very consistent one: how do we restore to our people and their neighbours, some capacity to take responsibility for their own lives and their communities?

The two little glimpses that stay with me from Kenya are of a visit just as it was getting dark – I remember stumbling over the grass in the semi-darkness as we went into a village in deep country – where they had, encouraged and capacitated by the church, a programme which was essentially about how you grew sustainable food for yourself and your neighbourhood.  The church had helped people develop new styles of engaging with agriculture, the church had helped people set up cooperative arrangements within the village and the neighbourhood which allowed people to take some control over their own lives and develop their own skills.  It was very very moving to hear, especially, one or two of the younger people in that village talking about what it had meant to them and their sense of themselves to be drawn into this work. 

And a day or two after that, visiting a bio-gas project in another Kenyan village.  You may not know this, but cow dung is a crucial element in development.  Cow dung, properly treated, produces bio-gas, and with three cows you can actually equip a medium-sized village.  It is not the kind of thing which probably comes to the fore all that regularly in Beckenham, but I’ve seen the cows, I’ve seen their products, and I have seen how a smallish to medium community can have its cooking fuelled by bio-gas – how the self‑sufficiency of a community (again, very serious about sustainable agricultural methods) can be supported by this means.  It is something which, in one or two of the Kenyan dioceses, is a major priority.

It just seems to me that that illustrates many of the points I have been trying to make.  It is about a restoration of dignity; it is about exercising the choices that you can have to make things work; it is about a sense of responsibility that doesn't stop at the boundaries of the church but has its roots deep within the reality of the church.  I look back with enormous gratitude to God for what I learned and experienced in that wonderful visit to these Kenyan dioceses.

My second context and my final picture takes me back to my days as a bishop inSouth Wales, and to the experience of one particular community there.  One or two of you, I think, may have heard me talk about this before but I make no apology - it is a good story.  Penrhys was a council estate on the top of a mountain in theRhonddaValley.  It was where all the major problem families ofCardiffwere exported.  There was one road up the mountain and one bus service a day.  It was a little bit like a prison, and as you approached it coming up the valley what you would see on the hilltop was something rather like a walled city: a ring of concrete, rather badly built council houses, sitting up there in isolation.

The churches were a bit slow catching up with what was happening there, until the Moderator of the United Reformed Church in Wales, John Morgans, decided to take early retirement and move into the Penrhys Estate with his family.  He built the church on that estate in every sense.  He and his wife took over a couple of middle-sized council houses and developed them as a worship centre, a drop-in centre, a café, and eventually a clinic as well.  They worked for 17 years on Penrhys.   Seventeen years in that context is a long time.  I used to feel after a few hours on Penrhys that it had been weeks.

The results were not dramatic in terms of conversions to Christianity, but they were dramatic in terms of what I would have to call a steady pressure towards theKingdom ofGod in the lives of people around, especially young people who learned that they were worth taking time with.  As those years evolved, more and more people were, in different ways, drawn into the life of Llanfair Penrhys, the church community on the estate.

John was somebody, is somebody, who had very little patience with church politics and very little patience with denominational wrangling.  He invited the Cistercian Monks of Caldey Island to get involved with this project, and they sent a bell from the monastery to Llanfair Penrhys.  They invited teenagers from the estate to go on retreat in the monastery, and John's memoirs have some very vivid descriptions of what it was like for teenagers from a council estate inSouth Walesto experience the life of a Trappist community.

They developed a relationship with the Reformed Church of Hungary so that theological students from places like the great Calvinist seminary atDebreceninHungarywould come over and do placements on Penrhys, and young people would travel acrossEuropeto build this relationship.

I can't begin to tell you what Penrhys meant to people there, and more broadly.  I can only say, to use an expression I have often used of it, “I have seen the church and it works”.  It looked like the Body of Christ doing those things that I began by sketching.  It looked like a community where people were profoundly invested in taking responsibility for each other, and where their willingness to take costly responsibility for each other's dignity and growth had irresistibly spilled over into the wider community.  Not just in the estate, or in that particular region ofSouth Wales, but right across the world.

The estate is currently still being demolished, and in some ways thank God for that.  But thank God above all for what the body of Christ was able to be and do there for those many years.  It was a community where it was quite clear that people were being nurtured into the dignity of being givers to one another.  Those desperately deprived young people, especially, were given the dignity of being listened to, being taken seriously, assumed to be worthwhile.  A message which they didn't hear anywhere else in their lives.

And John, in his diaries, describes a bit of what it was like to exercise the discernment I touched on – looking at projects around and at various things happening in the community, to be able to say "Now that is the direction we ought to be encouraging.  That is the kind of project we have to be alongside.  That is what we have to help to grow."

When God calls us into the life of the body of Christ, into the church, he doesn't just speak in the imperative voice.  He speaks in the indicative, as he does in the fact of Jesus.  He speaks in the fact of Christian communities that can do this sort of thing.  We can as a church, of course, harangue and berate the Government on any number of subjects, or our neighbours, or our colleagues, or other Christians.  But the imperative alone doesn't change a great deal – the indicative does.  That God was born in our midst in Christ; that the incarnate God suffered, died and rose again; that the Holy Spirit was given; that the church exists; is where we begin.

God reminds us through these gifts, through these examples, that it can be done.  And, to use the language I used earlier, moves and lures and prods us to be what we are equipped and graced and called to be, as we seek to move and lure and prod the society around us in the same direction – God's direction.

© Rowan Williams 2012 

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