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Archbishop's interview with Canterbury's 'Outlook' magazine

Monday 10th December 2012

In an exclusive interview for Outlook magazine, Amber Stark, Lianne Carpenter, Jack Cheeseman and Chloë Wallace, journalism students at Christ Church University, asked Archbishop Rowan Williams about the challenges and successes he has encountered, how to engage an atheist, the Royal Wedding and what he’ll miss about Canterbury.

A video of the Archbishop's interview with the students follows, along with the full article as published in Outlook, the magazine of the Diocese of Canterbury. 

Outlook Magazine, Issue 12 Winter 2012

We were so focused on our preparations for the Archbishop’s interview, moving furniture and panicking about his robe clashing with the purple wall behind him, that we nearly missed his arrival. As Dr Rowan Williams headed down the corridor we frantically got into position; turning on cameras, checking levels and connecting his microphone. When it was finally time to sit down and begin the interview we started with the one question on everyone’s lips: ‘So what did you have for breakfast today?’ “Muesli and an apple”, he answered.

As the Dr Rowan Williams prepares to step down from his position as Archbishop of Canterbury, he reflects on the last ten years with great modesty. He attributes many of his successes to the help of those around him and admits that it is impossible to succeed one hundred per cent in his role.

“It’s quite difficult to know what success looks like in a job like this. The main thing is to just keep going.”

However, he is particularly proud of two initiatives he has tried to push over the last decade, the first concerning Fresh Expressions, new congregations in unlikely settings and the second regarding the development network for the Anglican Communion.

“Fresh Expressions has been going for about eight years and something like 2000 new, small congregations have been created.

“The Development Network for the Anglican Communion, is our sort of umbrella organisation that puts together the grassroots work on relief and aid that’s been done by Anglicans across the world. That’s taken off so well and with such enthusiasm around the world, so that’s something to be proud of.”

“But of course, you don’t try to be successful. You do what’s right. You try to serve as best you can, remembering that it’s not as if you have one great shining task to do and once it’s over can say ‘yes I’ve done it, I’ve succeeded.’”

As Primate of England and leader of the Anglican Communion, Dr Wiliams has secured his place in history, not least for his work keeping the Anglican Communion together, which he says has been ‘undoubtedly one of the toughest parts of the job’.

“There has been a huge debate about sexuality in the Anglican Communion; with some people deeply opposed, often very aggressive towards each other.  Whatever one’s own convictions are, somehow you have to try and bring everybody along with everybody else, and keep as many people at the table as possible.  Again and again, that’s been massively frustrating.”

But the Archbishop’s ministry has included some special moments too, including his involvement with the Olympics and conducting the marriage ceremony between Prince William and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey in April 2011.

“It was really quite a privilege to be able to have a private conversation with a very appealing and open young couple. I don’t imagine that I gave them any advice they haven’t heard before, but it was just special being able to have that personal contact.”

With humour he adds: “The event itself was a bit like the Olympics, another of those occasions where cynicism can’t cope. Eventually people say ‘Ok, it worked, it was wonderful. Damn it’”.

Over the last decade, Dr Williams has tried to maintain contact with the younger generation as much as possible. He believes that a good school has the potential to be a nurturing community.

“I enjoy working with children. I like the sheer fact you can never predict what questions they will ask, whether it’s a six or sixteen year old. They ask all kinds of embarrassing questions!”

Dr Williams has been particularly fond of visiting schools in deprived areas, seeing how the dedication of good teachers can really make a difference.

“When you see the amazing difference that a good school can make, you get a sense of excitement and of discovery and imagination. I’ve been able to witness so many of these cases and it’s wonderful.”

We asked the Archbishop what he thought about children being taught religion from a very early age?

“You don’t try and force it, you just keep the door open and try to answer the questions that arise as honestly as you can.”

So what does Archbishop Rowan think of all the recent controversies about the wearing of crucifixes at work?

“I find it really extraordinary that people worry about these things, because most of the people I know in other faith communities don’t worry about it.

“The fact is that part of the cultural furniture of this country is provided by Christian history and I think there’s such a nervousness about that as if somehow you’re committing yourself to more than you want to be.

“Denying it suggests that somehow you live in a place without history and that’s a very dangerous place to be.”

Leading on from this, we wondered whether Dr Williams felt faith had become less relevant to society than it did when he took up his position ten years ago.

“That’s a very good question, because at one level it does indeed look like faith has less of a role. Secular perspectives get quite a lot of airtime, so to speak.

“Of course the assumption that everyone is Church of England, is one you simply cannot make in this day and age - we are more diversely religious.

“However, at the same time the number of people who still identify themselves as belonging to faith communities of one kind or another is enormously high. If you put all the religious communities together we’re still talking three quarters or more of the population who still feel they’re connected even if it is very distant.

“So you have a bit more public interest, and sometimes public anxiety, about faith. You have a drop in the number of people who are really active, and a rise in the other people who are openly hostile, and yet it doesn’t go awaySome people can’t live with it, can’t live without it, can’t leave it alone.”

Dr Williams admits that you cannot force religion on to anybody but when asked how he would change an atheist’s view, he had the perfect answer.

“I’d say try and find the best art, the best writing and the best music that’s come out of the religious context and ask where does it come from?

“It doesn’t come from nowhere: so the poetry of a George Herbert or a T.S. Eliot, the art of a Rembrandt, the music of a Bach or Mozart, or even, Arvo Pärt, or modern composers. That’s the world that religion helps to create, and I think I’d just say: ask whether that’s a bigger or a smaller world, a richer or a poorer world and start from there.”

Once his role as Archbishop of Canterbury comes to an end, Dr Williams will be moving up to Cambridge to begin the next chapter in his career. In a city in which he has studied, taught and worked in a parish, the Archbishop will become the Master of Magdalene College, a very different role that he is excited to tackle.

“It will be a challenge,” he said “but I think it’s the kind of challenge where you are able to create a sort of ethos - a common feeling and a common spirit. A good head of college does that and it’s obvious that my predecessor has done it too.”

Although keen to start something new, Archbishop Rowan admits that he will be sad to leave Canterbury, a city that has played a big part in his life for the last decade. We were curious to find out what he would miss most about the city.

“I’ll miss the cathedral itself and I’ll miss going there in the very early morning when there’s nobody else around. I’ll miss the great Christian festivals here and at Christmas the mixture of things we do, like having parties for the choir boys and their families and lunch at the homeless centre and preaching to the prisoners in Canterbury prison on Christmas morning, all of that.

“In Canterbury Diocese it’s a different kind of work. I’m more in touch with people here.”

With the next Archbishop still yet to be announced, we asked Dr Williams what advice he would pass onto his successor.

“Apart from don’t even think of taking the job?” he jokes. “No, I always say to clergy when they are starting a new job ‘just remember you’re a human being and you need to feed your human life as well as your church life’. One of the sad things about religious institutions is that they do sometimes squeeze the humanity out of you.

“However, I would say keep in touch with the parishes. Go and visit, go and, you know, stick your nose in - just to get a sense of what life is like.

“Those are two of the big ways of just keeping your feet on the ground and remembering the church actually goes on... Archbishops come and go but something much more important carries on.”

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