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 on Easter - Article for the Mail on Sunday

Sunday 12th April 2009

The following article by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was published in the Mail on Sunday on 12th April 2009.

One news item you don't expect at Easter is a story about students demonstrating to be allowed into a cathedral. But that was the story I read in the local papers when I arrived last weekend in Canterbury. One of the local universities had announced that their graduation service would be held in a local television studio instead of Rochester Cathedral. The students protested, marched and lobbied - and at last the university gave way.

Of course there were practical issues involved. The university wanted a place big enough for all the students in one go, but the ones who'd been studying in Rochester wanted to graduate in the city they knew best.

But I doubt whether that was all there was to it.

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that Britain was still 'haunted by religion'. We certainly don't look like a society that couldn't care less about it.

We're still fascinated by the debates around Darwin and the Bible, as this year's anniversary events and programmes show. We still visit churches in our millions through the year, even if we don't go to services.

And even if, according to the polls, a worryingly large number of folk don't seem to know the Easter story of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, the same polls indicate that the majority still think religion – and specifically Christianity – ought to have an influence on our politics and public life, and we still support church schools. At the local level, the overwhelming majority of people recognise that a great deal of what we value about community life just wouldn't happen without the churches.

If we really were as secular as some would like to claim, none of this would be true. We're more diverse than we used to be, of course. Other faiths and cultures are part of our everyday experience. But the truth is that in the greater part of the country, saying that people couldn't care less about the church or the Christian faith would just not fit the facts.

And whatever nervous or silly bureaucrats may think, it's nonsense to say that some vast percentage of the population will be traumatically offended by someone using Christian language, asking them if they want to be prayed for and so on – or that people of other religions are offended by public recognition of Christian festivals.

The fact is that while many may be confused about what exactly Christians are supposed to believe, they want a society (even a government) that takes Christian values seriously. And they rely on the Church to give them space – literally, like the students in Rochester Cathedral, but in other ways too. Church is somewhere that connects them with things they don't experience in other settings.

At an obvious level, churches connect us with our past. We can't understand who we are in this country without knowing a bit about how Christianity is woven into the story. It gave us a treasure house of language and images that are everywhere in our poetry and drama. It gave us ideas about justice and human dignity that shaped our laws.

Without a Christian view of human dignity, we should never have had some of the basic protections against tyranny like the prohibition of torture or the law of habeas corpus – let alone the great campaign against slavery two hundred years ago. It's given us a system of government in which absolute power is reined in and the monarch is the servant of the people's welfare, responsible to God.

And churches connect us with each other. In locality after locality, the church is a place that belongs to everyone and can be used by a huge range of groups, from mothers and toddlers through to English classes for migrant workers. The growing use of church premises for local post offices is just one clear example of how this becomes more not less important as our society gets more fragmented.

Perhaps most important, churches connect us with aspects of ourselves that get forgotten or sidelined. At times of crisis, when people are in hospital, for example, going through times of real struggle and fear, the Church offers the support of hospital chaplains who are there for everyone and anyone. Hospital chapels are spaces of quiet where people of all faiths and none can start to make sense of birth, death, loneliness and anxiety.

We are able to remember for a moment that even in a society where everyone seems to be insanely focused on getting and winning, there are times when we need to stand still and just face ourselves quietly.

When everything around us seems to say that failure is unthinkable and we must never be seen to be at a loss or out of control of the situation, the Church says that failure is normal and happens to everyone, and that we don't have to succeed in order to be loved.

In the light of the financial crisis, most of us would agree that we should be looking at our priorities and our desires. We've had a few decades of being told that we simply have a right to get whatever we want – cash, status, pleasure. Fair enough, if what's been normal before is oppression and unfairness. Not so sensible if what it means is a system that sets everyone against everyone else and tells us that we can be as angry as we like if we don't get exactly what we think we want.

Few people would deny that we're much angrier than we used to be. At the extreme, this means road rage and knife crime and unmanageable levels of aggression in a lot of our public spaces. More generally, it means that we live all the time with dissatisfaction and resentment rumbling away in the background of our lives. And this is a recipe for consistent unhappiness. Not getting what we want is a sort of failure - and we know that failure is just not acceptable ('You're fired!').

Christianity takes it for granted that whether you succeed or fail, you're valuable. God's view of you doesn't depend on how you do, it's always the same love, always giving you a second chance. And once you let that sink in, you can face failure without fear and rage. You'll still try your best, but you're also free to see that if you can't do or get just what you wanted, you still have your dignity before God and so you still have a future.

This is the sort of thing that the Church gives space for – a realistic picture of who you are, based on a vision of who God is. You may not know exactly what if anything you believe about God. But the presence of this building and this community of people simply reminds you – it could be different, you could find a new perspective on who you are and a new connectedness with other people and the world.

'Haunted by religion'. Yes, in the sense that no-one seems to want these possibilities to be outlawed or forgotten. They need that space as much as the students need Rochester Cathedral or a little village in Norfolk or Lancashire needs the local church for its postal services.

Haunting, of course, isn't the best word for this; it's about ghosts from the past. But one thing that the Bible says about Jesus when he has been raised from death is that he tells his friends that he isn't a ghost. He is simply fully alive again. It could be that this Easter you realise that what felt at first like no more than a ghostly – if friendly – presence turns out to be alive here and now. And that's when Christian memories and sympathies turn into faith.

© Rowan Williams 2009

Back · Back to top