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The Guardian Interview

Tuesday 21st March 2006

Transcript of a wide-ranging interview given to Alan Rusbridger, for the Guardian newspaper. Topics covered include views on leadership, the media, the Anglican Communion, faith schools, creationism, homosexuality and Islam.

Alan Rusbridger: Could I begin by talking about the job and then we can talk about the church. To the extent that you imagined it before you took over, what is different? How is it different from what you did before?

Archbishop of Canterbury: How is it different from what I expected.? I think I hadn't really taken on board just how much international work there'd be, certainly, but the quantity of the interfaith involvement has slightly surprised me. It's - I think it's a necessary part of, you know, where - where we are and where the job contributes at the moment. But I don't think I quite expected to be that much involved in that amount of dialogue, and compared to what I was doing before, well, again, the international dimension and the lack of regular week by week contact with the ordinary people of the diocese, that's the biggest difference of all, I think. It's not as if I can, every Sunday, be in two or three parishes. I try to do it every other Sunday, but in practical terms I think that's it. And I think one of the things that means is that there's - there's not a great deal of routine to the job. There are minor - well, not minor - there are daily routines like morning prayer with the community here, and there are the family routines but, otherwise, you never quite know what's ahead one day to the next. And that's - that's a big difference.

AR: What do you think the public role of Archbishop should consist of?

ABC: Should or does?

AR: Should.

ABC: Should. Setting some kind of tonal vision for the church, the Church of England; pastoral involvement and collaboration with the other bishops. And the Church of England being the way it is, trying to - to find, crystallise some sort of - some sort of moral vision that's communicable to the nation at large. I think those - those are the ascensions of it. And I think that - that brings with it the elements of the times being what I once called 'comic vicar to the nation'.

AR: The what vicar?

ABC: 'The comic vicar'.

AR: The comic vicar?

ABC: You are bound to be where a lot of the brickbats end up as well, you may have noticed.

AR: At [your meeting with journalists last year] - and I appreciate that was all on Chatham House rules so you don't have to - are you happy to talk about this? - there was a very striking moment when you said that you didn't see your role as being about moral leadership and the man from the Daily Mail almost fell off his chair.

ABC: Yes, yes. Leadership is - is, to me, a very, very murky and complicated concept. Often, as I think I've said before, what people mean when they say leadership is making the right noises, affirming a particular set of views, convictions or even prejudices. It doesn't always have very much to do with how you make a difference. And I think the question I always find myself asking of myself is 'will a pronouncement here or a statement there actually move things on, or is it something that makes me feel better and other people feel better, but doesn't necessary contribute very much?'

AR: Can you give me an example of something where you have felt tempted to talk about something and come to that conclusion that you can achieve more by not to saying something?

ABC: I think actually, over the Religious Hatred legislation. We had quite a lot of lobbying, you can imagine ,from people who wanted a firm lead - 'this is a piece of legislation that's dangerous to the church' - just as, of course, there's lobbying from other people. I thought it wasn't particularly useful to make loud noises about this, that it was probably more useful to listen to what different groups had to say, transmit what could be transmitted to government, work at it in that way, and see if the dangers were real; and if they were, how you got around them, what sort of drafting would be desirable? So that was an area where I deliberately decided to take a fairly low key. I think where we've ended up actually, is a reasonable enough place.

AR: But can you understand why the man from the Daily Mail almost fell off his chair?

ABC: Mmm, yes I can. I think there is a bit of a picture of it, of a myth if you like, that 'Religious Leaders' - capital R capital L - are by their nature people who make public pronouncements of morals. Now, there's a sense in which every religious leader, and one can understand that, is in a position of making public pronouncements, they're going to be someone with a teaching responsibility. From time to time, they try and crystallise what the Church looks to or believes. The difficulty (in this country I think, possibly elsewhere - I don't know) is that there's a bit of an expectation that you do this for everybody. Whether or not anybody agrees with you, or changes as a result, it's somehow satisfying to have somebody making that sort of public statement. And I'm just a bit wary of the possible seductions of being drawn into the drama of that, if it doesn't actually change things; if it is, say, just to make me feel better or other people feel better.

AR: You say the expectation you are saying this for everybody, do you mean everybody in the country or everybody in the church?

ABC: Everybody in the country. What I mean is that 'why doesn't the Archbishop condemn X, Y, Z?' Because that's what Archbishops do; they condemn things, they make statements; usually negative or condemnatory statements. And I just wonder a bit whether, when an Archbishop condemns something, suddenly in the bedsits of north London, somebody may say 'oh, I shouldn't be having pre-marital sex!', or in the cells of Al-Qaeda, somebody says, 'goodness, terrorism's wrong, the Archbishop says so. I never thought of that!' I'm not sure that's how it is. But when I was in South Africa 20 years ago, I remember talking to somebody who was very much involved in the struggle in South Africa, about what the Church should or shouldn't be saying about violence - the struggle about apartheid - and he said "I'm not by any means saying the Church should be condoning violence, I am saying that a lot of people have made their decisions before the Church steps in, and you've got to be very careful about just making empty noises." It's not as if people are waiting for the Church to say something before they make up their minds. A lot of the time it's more that the Church has to work with decisions people have made. And I've never forgotten that. It came from a very serious situation where I think people were just being rightly wary of making noises for the sake of it.

AR: Is this something to do with changing notions of authority in society at large? Because presumably your predecessors in this job, you will have expected them to, they were there because they were men of learning or particularly good, or felt they had insights denied to the rest of us, that's why they were there, that's why we wanted to hear from them?

ABC: I'm not so sure. I think people might have expected to hear from many of my predecessors. I think of William Temple, or one of my heroes in this trouble, Michael Ramsay. Actually, I think they were quite sparing in what they said in public; I don't think that they would have identified it in terms of giving a lead, they would have seen it as an attempt to make a responsible contribution to public debate where appropriate, some of it abstract. But it's rather different from just the 'press the button to have Archbishop condemning', or 'Archbishop pronouncing'. [William] Temple's an interesting case, because he engages quite sophisticatedly with the world he's in. He's very clear, he's very visionary, but I wouldn't cast him in quite the role of giving a lead in the sense some people seem to mean it.

AR: And do you think this is true of bishops and clergy as well or is this just the way you see the Church of England? Or is it just your own particular position?

ABC: I think it's probably where the Church of England is, actually. But let me give you one particular concrete case where I think I can talk about someone giving a lead in a sense that matters; a priest I know fairly well, in whose parish a particularly awful murder happened a few years ago. It involved the kidnapping and torture and eventual killing of a teenager by a group of other teenagers. He's written about this and described the way in which he found himself simply landed with the job of trying to deal with a very traumatised family, a very traumatised community, some very confused public services, and to hold it together at various points, in the funeral service, in events, during and after the trial and so forth. At no point during that process did he get up and say "this is very shocking". His task was to accompany, crystallise, draw together, make some sense of it with people; which was a rather slower process than just making a pronouncement. Now I would actually say that that's a kind of leadership, but not necessarily the kind that instantly wins the votes these days. And more than that, I think it's an exemplary and costly and profoundly Christian way of doing it. I know the story of Soham would tell something of the same story. You, or some people, would talk of the leadership exercised by the vicar there. But it's not quite what the word normally triggers in people's minds.

AR: We'll come back to that by a different route, but because you have talked about this and gave a lecture about it, I want to talk about the media, because the media again is a bigger part of your life than William Temple.

ABC: Yes, there is more of it!

AR: Some people sense that you are uneasy, that you don't feel at ease with the media society in which we live and the expectations.

ABC: I think they wouldn't be wholly wrong. It depends a bit on the medium, and the down side of it, or the negative side of it is that academic habits die hard, and the urge to qualify and complicate dies hard and I don't congratulate myself on that; that's just one of those things that makes it a bit more difficult sometimes. The other side is I'm just - just a bit cautious of the fascination of our culture with personality, making yourself an object in a particular way. And I'm not very comfortable with that. I just feel that the centrality of highly individual drama, individual struggles, individual views, is not a comfortable place for a Christian to be, or perhaps for anybody to be. So I guess the unease is recognition of the fact that a lot of my professional background has been such as not to make me feel very confident in this and, underneath all that, I've got lots of genuine worries.

AR: I mean, on the first you were ambiguous about whether you thought the academic qualities you brought were necessarily good or bad. Again people might expect of someone who is the Archbishop of Canterbury as somebody who can speak clearly and unambiguously when it comes back to moral certainties.

ABC: Yes, it's not just moral certainties. I think, believe it or not, there are some times where I can speak clearly and unambiguously, or even have done. I suppose one of the things I find is that I'm most at ease speaking with a particular audience, a concrete audience, and less at ease when there's a vague sense that anyone and everyone is listening and, therefore, I'm not quite sure what's getting through or how, or what the response is. One reason I quite like speaking without notes or without a fully prepared text at times, whether at the pulpit or elsewhere, is that it does give me some capacity to pick up the feel of an audience and try to respond to that. There are all sorts of intangible ways where I think an audience or a congregation helps you on. Sometimes, of course it challenges you; you find 'I meant to say that but, you know, this isn't making sense, I've got to find other ways through here.' And that's a challenge I quite enjoy and I feel is important. It's harder than when writing a text for a lecture or a sermon, where I'm not quite sure who's listening - anyone or everyone? And that breeds a certain self-consciousness, and that can sometimes breed a certain over-elaboration, a fussiness.

AR: And have you been burnt by your exposure to the media?

ABC: Burnt? Singed maybe, from time to time.

AR: Is it hurtful?

ABC: It can be. But there's not a lot of point in dwelling on it; that's the world we're in. And I don't think there's any point in moaning.

AR: But most people in public life, they are either very strange people who are oblivious to it, which is like [lying] in the sun, but most people are...

ABC: Well, you can't be oblivious to it. You just have to live with it, and try and put it in perspective. And the perspective is twofold: at the risk of sounding horribly pious, you always have to ask if somebody makes a criticism, 'well, what's it about? Is it about me? Is it God's way of telling me something?' Sit with that, just sit with it for a bit and see. And as often as not you can say, 'yeah, okay, there's something there I've got to listen to', however unpleasant or unwelcome. That's one bit of putting it in perspective. The other bit, I'm sorry to have to say, is the awareness that a certain amount of media comment comes and goes a bit, and it's not the case that absolutely everybody will, 18 months on, have a complete file on what was said about me.

AR: What response did you get to the speech you made?

ABC: Interesting, some of it I thought was fairly predictable, I mean: here's somebody else in public life whinging about the press. Some of it I thought was very helpful. People saying - 'well, okay, yes, there are problems here, and although the Archbishop hasn't got it right in every respect, it's fair enough to make the point.' Some of it I felt was a bit, pre-packaged, as if you look for the words, "some aspects of our media culture, are trivialising" and so forth, and 'right! - The Media's Trivialising Says Archbishop'. Or famously, what I said about the Internet. I talked about the atmosphere of "unpoliced conversation". 'Does the Archbishop want to police the Internet?' Well, no, no, that's not quite what I'm saying. Parts of the Internet are the preserve of bigots and maniacs, but that's not to say the Internet, as a whole, is. It's as if there's a sort of script of "the Archbishop condemns" kind, which is absolutely ready to rush into action. And I found that a bit depressing in a way, and I would wish that somebody would read to the end of the sentence.

AR: And have you got a strategy for going forward as to how, given the media is always with us, what is your strategy for engaging with it in the future?

ABC: It's a big question to ask really and I know that I'm not the world's greatest strategist for thinking forward, but I think I need to take more advice on what makes sense or what sounds alright. There's a great temptation to try and do everything, or be good at everything you can't be. I think some of the things that I've done, although they haven't had a huge profile, have been worth doing and worth doing because I felt reasonably at ease with them. That little series on Channel 4 a couple of years ago I thought was useful, partly because it was a way of modelling conversations about certain things, but it also opened up a number of profoundly valuable contacts for me, which I've been able to take forward more privately since then.

AR: Moving on to the Church here, is it in good nick?

ABC: Actually, I think it's not bad. There's always the danger of kidding yourself a bit about this, but I genuinely think that the Church of England has huge opportunities at the moment, many of which it's taking quite effectively. Last night we had a dinner here to report on progress with one of the schemes I launched a couple of years ago, and raise some more resources for it. This is the Fresh Expressions Initiative, which is about how we get resources to foster new styles of congregational life, but not on a Sunday morning; a modern church building based sort of Outreach. We had a DVD shown last night which has about 14 stories of things going on across the country - a cafe in one northern city, set up by local churches as a welcoming project, and it is just a cafe, but also there are events laid on there regularly throughout the day, volunteers from the churches to a Sister of the Pastoral Care and discussion, and worship events. That's the kind of thing which is happening quite a lot in the nearly 18 months since the project really got under way with the team it wanted. We've had over 400 of these registered, so there's a lot out there. That doesn't always come on to the public radar very much. I think it's one of the really, encouraging signs. I think there's also a sense, even in the most "ordinary" parishes, the ones I see in rural east Kent and the ones I see elsewhere in the country, in London and south London particularly, a sense that the Church's place in the community is frequently still a lot more central than people might be led to believe by comments made in the public arena. It's still - to use a phrase that I rather like, it was given to me by a former student of mine - it's still the place that people take the things they can't put anywhere else; whether it's the extreme experiences of murder and trauma, which I referred to a little while ago, or just some - some hope that the Church retains enough integrity genuinely to work for the interests of the whole community rather than a party within it. Which is why the Church is an important presence - a vast important presence in community regeneration across the country. We're about to publish, in a couple of months' time, the report of the Commission on Urban Life and Faith, which is a sort of follow-up to Faith in the City in the mid-90s; and that lays out the kinds of involvement in community regeneration that the Church is committed to across the country. And when we laid some of this out before a couple of government ministers just before Christmas, I think there was genuine surprise at the level and the sophistication of the Church's involvement in this. So I feel that those are hugely hopeful things. I don't feel glum at all about the Church on the ground and its engagement. I mentioned rural east Kent, and we're not talking there about picturesque curtain counties, we're talking about some fairly strained, stretched communities, the decaying seaside towns of east Kent, the old coalfield of Kent. And I feel quite proud of the Church in the diocese of Canterbury. I think it has exactly the kind of profile that a Church ought to have.

AR: At St George's you tried to pitch the Church , but you said (well the minutes record you saying), the Church is not an interest group but it is more than a forum for the negotiation of other interests. And you talked about it brokering the interests of other interest groups. I mean you and I have slightly different...

ABC: About the Church being an interest group in itself?

AR: Whether it was purely a neutral cause.

ABC: There are bound to be things where the Church is more than a broker, and I think we talked about the assisted dying debate, particularly with that. Yes, I think that's right. And in that sense, no, you can't ever say the Church is just a neutral 'keeper of the ring'. All I'd want to claim is that that's one of the roles that the Church has for quite a lot of the time. There are certainly bits that you bump into and principles that arise in regards to the mental conundrum, and the assisted dying case is an obvious and a difficult one. But in terms of the Church being more than an interest group itself or more than a broker of interest groups, I guess I'd want, at some point, to talk a bit of theology and say that I can't see the Church as a movement or a sort of quasi-political party, it's not like that. In the very old fashioned language that Roman Catholics particularly used to use, it's a 'supernatural society'; that's to say it doesn't exist because of human decisions, but because of God's decisions. Which means that the muddle or the failure of the Church, generation by generation, doesn't invalidate the whole thing. There's an action, an invitation that's coming from outside, and just continues. And when I get extremely pessimistic about the capacity of the Church to square the various circles that it's involved in, that's actually what sustains me. It's about an invitation issued to the world from somewhere else. And an invitation whose purpose it was to create a community that, as the New Testament suggests, is meant to be a sort of pilot project for the human race; it's meant to show what human relations can be. So that all helps a bit, and that's why talking about a movement or an interest group is never going to be adequate to, at least what Christians believe, the Church is.

AR: You are about to speak about faith schools?

ABC: That's right, yes, next week.

AR: In favour of them?

ABC: You'd be unsurprised to learn, yes. Because actually, that...

AR: You've got reservations?

ABC: Why am I in favour, first. And then what might be the questions. I think the sort of pattern that most Church of England schools have worked their way into in this country is a very good illustration of the sort of thing I've been trying to talk about. In spite of what seems to me sometimes as a particularly metropolitan mythology of church schools as a selective order, the fact is that the majority of them (I think that's fair to say the majority - certainly the majority of the most newly opened ones) are in areas of deprivation, with very clear commitments and admissions policies to the local community. They represent not an attempt to indoctrinate or control but to say 'here is an educational environment in which certain specific values and beliefs are assumed in the landscape, you may or may not make them your own, but they're there, and they may help you orient yourself', whether or not they fully adopt them. On the whole that's been a success story and accusations of indoctrination become a little bit less plausible when you look at the effects on the ground. And the fact also, of course, that in many parts of the country you have church schools with hundreds of Muslim pupils because they serve areas where Muslims live. That's true even of some Roman Catholic schools, increasingly. There was a case in Glasgow recently, which was discussed in The Tablet some weeks ago. So I'm in favour and what I say next week will spell out a bit more of that.

AR: But that must go for Muslim schools as well?

ABC: Yes, and one of the things which I've argued a bit in this respect, is to have Muslim schools in partnership with government as Christian schools - Catholic and Anglican - already are, ought to be a way of engaging Muslims more fully in the ordinary civic discourse of this country. It's not, as it were, a state franchising religious indoctrination, it's saying to religious communities 'come and negotiate with us for what will count as a plausible, public, accountable method of education'. I think that's what's happened with Christian schools; I think it could happen with Muslim schools. It could be a hugely important step, therefore, in what you might call the normalising of Islam in many of our communities. And, by that normalising, reinforcing those elements in the Islamic spectrum which can cope with modernity, plurality and so on. I've seen enough to encourage me about that. As for reservations or questions, one is I think, that in the last 20 or 30 years the Church identity of church schools has often been a bit nominal; people have not made the best of it. And it's perhaps slightly encouraged that complaint which you often hear among the columnists - it encourages people to hypocrisy. You go to church for 6 months in order to be able to sign up your child for a church school, because you think it's better. I think where you have a tradition of church schools - and in general its not a tradition - where you have a period in which church schools have not thought very deeply about their mission or identity, there may be risks in that. The paradox is that the more clearly a church school thinks about its mission and identity the better it'll be able to develop policies of inclusion (and deliberate intentional inclusion), the less it may be victim to the 6 month meal ticket approach. So yes, there are challenges. I think some of the charges and accusations can be met, but in a competitive educational environment it's always important to monitor the degree to which competition may be skewing admission and selection and so forth. We, in other words, in plain language, we have to ask are we, even with the best will in the world, producing selective education by covert means? Although I don't think that's a fair accusation; there's just enough there to make it a fair question and, therefore, to make it absolutely crucial. And I'll be saying this next week: to have nationally agreed admission criteria that are completely unambiguous about inclusion as a goal.

AR: Are you comfortable with teaching creationism?

ABC: Ahh, not very. Not very. I think creationism is, in a sense, a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories. Whatever the biblical account of creation is, it's not a theory alongside theories. It's not as if the writer of Genesis or whatever sat down and said 'well, how am I going to explain all this.... I know '"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"'. And for most of the history of Christianity (and I think this is fair enough) an awareness that a belief that everything depends on the creative act of God, is quite compatible with a degree of uncertainty or latitude about how precisely that unfolds in creative time. You find someone like St. Augustine absolutely clear God created everything; he takes Genesis fairly literally. But he then says 'well, what is it that provides the potentiality of change in the world?' Well, hence, we have to think of - as when developing structures in the world - the seeds of potential in the world that drive processes of change. And some Christians responding to Darwin in the 19th Century said 'well, that sounds a bit like what St. Augustine said of the seeds of processes.' So if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories, I think there's - there's just been a jar of categories, it's not what it's about. And it - it reinforces the sense that...

AR: So it shouldn't be taught?

ABC: I don't think it should, actually. No, no. And that's different from saying - different from discussing, teaching about what creation means. For that matter, it's not even the same as saying that Darwinism is the only thing that ought to be taught. My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it.

AR: We can't get through this without talking about gays -

ABC: There comes a point in every interview where someone says...

AR: Well, let's try and find a way to talk about it that doesn't, sort of, end at a cul-de-sac. I suppose what puzzles people about you, is that people think they know what you truly think because you talked about it fairly openly before becoming Archbishop. And so it comes back to where we began, it's a question of leadership. It feels as though you are not being true to yourself, that you are being forced into a role of politician and people say 'why should anybody care what your beliefs are, if you can't stand up for the things that are assumed to be your beliefs?'

ABC: Yes, I understand that and hear it repeatedly. But I don't think it's a matter of being a politician here. This is where I want to go back to what I think about the Church. I've been given a responsibility to try and care for the Church as a whole; the health of the Church. That health has a lot to do with the proper and free exchange between different cultural and political and theological contexts: people are actually able to learn from each other. And it's got a lot to do therefore, with valuing and nurturing unity, not, as I've often said, as an alternative to truth, but actually as one of the ways we absorb truth. That means that, structurally speaking, in the Church as I believe it to be, it really is wrong for an Archbishop to be the 'leader of a party'. In a polarised and deeply divided Church it's particularly important, I think, not to be someone pursuing an agenda that isn't the agenda of the whole. Now, on this question of what the agenda of the whole is or should be, it is a long job to decipher or untangle. And I suppose what I'm therefore saying, (and it's not something new) is if the Church moves on this, it must be because the Church moves, not because, rather like getting rid of Clause 4, a figure of leadership says, 'right - this is where we go.' My conviction, my views, my theological reflections on this, and indeed on other matters, they are things which I have to bring to that common process of discernment. It's not as if I can say simply, 'I know this is right, this is where we've got to go, come along, whatever the cost.' And if you ask 'is that a comfortable position to be in?' No, not particularly. But I think it's part of what's intrinsic to the role of any bishop and, therefore, a priori, Archbishop, which is to try and make sense of people to each other in such a way that whatever movement there is, is just one bit running ahead with its agenda.

AR: Don't we get back into this danger of being, sort of a ring holder, appearing to...?

ABC: Sure. Not having any convictions except being able to hold together, as it were?

AR: Yeah, again. None of this is news to you but looking from outside, it seems as though you haven't made any fuss in public about the recent pronouncements of Archbishop Akinola, or the Archbishop of Central Africa and yet they seem to be equal participants, of equal weight in this debate, as the people on the other side.

ABC: Again, what is or should be said in public is something I would (see previous remarks) weigh very carefully; what actually moves things on? I don't believe that all of this should necessarily be conducted on the Internet, as some do. I think the situation in Central Africa is dismal and deeply problematic. I wish I knew how to resolve it. It doesn't mean ignoring it.

AR: Right, so we can take of that, that it's a situation where you are saying things privately?

ABC: The correspondence continues.

AR: And what about Akinola and his troubling statements about Muslims (not being allowed to bear arms), which was followed by 80 people being macheted to death?

ABC: Hmmm. I think that what he - what he meant as, so to speak, an abstract warning, you know, 'don't be provocative because in an unstable situation it's as likely the Christians will resort to violence as Muslims will.' It was taken by some as open provocation, encouragement, a threat. I think I know him well enough to take his good faith on what he meant. He did not mean to stir up the violence that happened. He's a man who will speak very directly and immediately into crises. I think he meant to issue a warning, which certainly has been taken as a threat or an act of provocation. Others in the Nigerian Church have found other ways of saying that, which have been more measured.

AR: Can you hold all this together, realistically? And is there a point where it is better to admit you can't?

ABC: I can only say that I think I've got to try. We have now such a level of mutual mistrust between different bits of the Communion, certainly accentuated by the sort of heightened rhetoric that's encouraged generally these days - and certainly happens a lot on the net - such a culture of mistrust that, for us to break apart in an atmosphere of deep mistrust, fierce recrimination and mutual misunderstanding, is really not going to be in anybody's good in the long run. So I'd rather try and see what can be done to recreate or reinforce trust. And I think it's worth doing, because the Anglican Communion as a multicultural, an international body, is, I dare to say, more important, more significant than an Anglican Communion fracturing along the cultural lines which is unable to relate to, work with, even in different sorts of contexts. And you know, coming back from Sudan, that's clearly much underlined for me, it matters a lot to a Church in vulnerable situations, to have partners elsewhere.

AR: You could do that if it was a loose federation?

ABC: You could do it if it was a loose federation, you couldn't do it if there'd been a rupture in circumstances of deep bitterness. That's when people say 'we're not taking your tainted money, we don't want your help', or 'we can't support a Church which tolerates this or that'. And that's rather what I fear - an atmosphere in which it becomes impossible even to hold on to that minimal federal loyalty to each other.

AR: These are questions that the secular society is asking itself as well in relation to Islam in particular - at what point do you eventually stub against your irreducible, small "l" liberal principles and say actually 'well there is an irreducible bit I can't negotiate over'?

ABC: I haven't got there yet. And if I could speculate about where those were, then it would be rather simpler now. It's a dangerous comparison, because it sort of ups the stakes a bit, but I'm very struck by what Bonhoeffer writes in the middle-1930s about the division of the Church over the Aryan laws in Nazi Germany, where he says that it's extremely important not to try and work out in advance every circumstance in which it would be necessary for the Church to break. Equally, it's important to have the freedom and the clarity to know when the moment comes, and there just isn't a formula for that, I think he's saying. He felt in 1935 the moment had come and that he was faced with a context in which he just couldn't see a common Christianity between himself and the German Christians who accepted the racial laws; he just couldn't see what it meant for them to think they were a Church at all. And that's pretty drastic, but he says you've got to have the ability to say that at some point. But once you start saying in advance 'well, I think it will be this that will be the moment where it would all crack', that he says is trying to find large-scale reinforcements for your present positions before you're actually entering into the moment of crisis. I wrestle with that text constantly, I must say. This year, which is Bonhoeffer's centenary, it's particularly poignant. And when I was in Germany and Poland a few weeks ago, got to take part in the centenary celebrations. These, I must say, were the texts that were sort of pounding in my head.

AR: And this would be a personal dilemma for you?

ABC: Of course. And for lots of other people.

AR: So there might come a moment at which you thought -

ABC: There might come a moment where you say we can't continue, we can't continue with this? I don't know when or if.

AR: Ill ask one big question about Islam. What is the problem with Islam?

ABC: There are lots of Islams for one thing, just as there are lots of Christianities. One of the stories that comforts us at the moment is that there is one big thing out there called Islam, which is getting at us. If you brought together a Sudanese Sufi, a Shi'ite from Iran, an Indonesian, a Tunisian, a Bosnian, a Jordanian, never mind immigrants from all these communities elsewhere, you would not have one agenda. Part of our problem with Islam is that we, because of a history cultural ignorance and alienation, we tend just to see the bit that comes at us, and it sometimes comes at us violently. And we assume 'well, that's the Islamic agenda'. A stage further though, I think the problem with Islam in terms of geopolitics, would be something like this - there's a kind of watershed in the 1950s when a project of Islamic based democratisation and modernisation in the Middle East (the age of Nasser particularly) somehow sort of fails, loses momentum, and there's a whole loss of nerve about engaging positively with modernisation and democratisation in the Arab world particularly, which is of course, where a lot of the most fierce expressionists come from. So I think we're still living with the knock-on effect of that in a way. Work that in with the oil business with regards to the Middle East and the geo-politics that go with that, and you've got a recipe for a very complex and unpleasant situation, which is what we're in. So in terms of Christian/Muslim engagement which, as I said earlier, is a big part of the agenda now, I would see the priorities as recognising and engaging with the range of 'Islams' that are there, trying to help give voice to and listen and converse with those bits that not simply locked into opposition. And the Building Bridges seminar, which happens every year, the meeting of Christian scholars and Muslim scholars from across the world, that's been, for me, quite an important annual learning experience where you can draw together the Indonesians, the Bosnians, the Egyptians, the Pakistanis with Christians from different denominational and geographical contexts to talk about common agenda. I chair these each year and we've spent time looking at each other's scriptures on various points, and doing fairly intensive Bible and Koran study together, just to see what it feels like to read your Holy Book. Last year we moved on in Sarajevo to discussions about the common good and faith in society as seen in both contexts. This year we are grasping an even more difficult nettle, which is human rights in the two traditions. And I think what has been valuable about these is that there hasn't been any kind of agenda to get to an agreed statement or some sort of compromise between two faiths which both believe they are answerable to God's revelation and not negotiable. It's not about that. Its about recognising and naming the issues that we can't avoid facing together and its about the perfectly straightforward, ordinary, learning, respect, understanding, which enables that first question to be addressed better.

AR: In the one minute we have left, is there anything else that is absolutely burning on your mind that you wish you'd had an opportunity to talk about?

ABC: I mean one of the things that has been running around my mind this week, this is sticking my neck out a bit but I can't miss it, is the reaction to the prime minister last weekend and how very difficult it is for us to, culturally, for us to understand what people mean by talking about the judgment of God. I think he was trying to say something which I hope any religious believer would say, which is when I make a decision, particularly a really appallingly difficult decision, I know that finally what makes right or wrong is not what I think or even what the general public thinks, but God. I struggle, I pray, I weigh it up, I do the best I can but I know it is not infallible and I have to lay myself bare finally to judgement. That seems to me 'bog standard religious conviction' and I am glad to hear it; but its very odd how that was processed immediately into a crude 'God tells me what to do' story. Years ago I heard a lecture by a very interesting American sociologist called Robert Beller in which he pointed out that Lincoln in one of his Inauguration addresses had said something like "on both sides of this conflict we all alike stand before the judgement seat of God." Robert Beller had said that if he had said that in the mid to late twentieth century he would have been slaughtered because people would have either said he is importing religious language where it is not appropriate or he would have said the north and the south are both equally likely to be right in the civil war. Whereas I think what Lincoln said, and this is what Beller argued, was, 'well at the end of the day neither party in this conflict is simply God's party', and while Lincoln would have undoubtedly said 'I think we have got it right about slavery and you have got it wrong', and this is not a trivial or a secondary matter, believing that does not mean you have got to believe God just rubber stamps who we are, what we do and what we think.

AR: Do you think the reason that it was processed in that way, using another remark you made at the media dialogue, was about religion coming up in society's agenda, but not harmlessly?

ABC: Yes, that's fair enough. I think the perceptions of religion as a very alien, very mysterious, rather malign force, which gives people ideas above their station, whether it's prime ministers or terrorists. It just gives people that conviction of rightness, which is dangerous. And what I heard the prime minister trying to say was it's not about convictions of rightness. And St. Augustine once said, most sins are committed by people weeping and groaning. Most decisions are made by people weeping and groaning, decisions that matter; and to say that you make them in good faith and hope they are right is a very different thing to saying 'God tells me what to do' and that helps a bit in a much lesser way in the Archbishop's eye.

© Rowan Williams 2006

The published article can be viewed here on the Guardian website.

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