One of the most significant visits to India by a major religious leader in recent decades is the ongoing 16-day visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. In the following interview given to P Jacob, Senior Associate Editor of The Hindu at the CSI Centre in Chennai on October 18, 2010, excerpts of which were published in two parts in The Hindu on October 20 and 21, 2010, the distinguished theologian and scholar discusses issues facing the Anglican Communion of Churches that he leads, the state of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, Shariah, engagement with Islam and Hinduism, issues that have struck him during the India visit, and himself:
Question: You became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003 at a particularly difficult time in relations among the different churches that comprise the Anglican Communion. There was even talk of the Communion being on the verge of fragmentation. Yet your attempts to keep all sides talking to one another have been notable. Could you tell us how it has been going, and what you see ahead of you?
Answer: I think that after the Lambeth Conference of 2008 many people felt that we found ways of talking to one another, and perhaps exercising some restraint and tact towards one another. And it was very significant that at the next meeting of the Anglican primates, which was in the early part of 2009, all major Churches of the Communion were represented.
Unfortunately, the situation does not remain there. The decision of the American Church to go forward, as it has, with the ordination of a lesbian bishop has, I think, set us back. At the moment I'm not certain how we will approach the next primates' meeting, but regrettably some of the progress that I believe we had made has not remained steady. Alongside that, and I think this is important, while the institutions of the Communion struggle, in many ways the mutual life of the Communion, the life of exchange and cooperation between different parts of our Anglican family, is quite strong and perhaps getting stronger. It's a paradox. We are working more closely together on issues of development than we did before. We have the emergence of an Anglican health network across the globe, bringing together various health care institutions. We have also had quite a successful programme on the standards and criteria for theological education across the Communion. So, a very mixed picture.
Women Bishops & Gay Priests
Q: In your February 2010 address to the General Synod, you warned that infighting over women bishops and gay priests could split the Communion. You even conceded that, unless Anglicans find a way to live with their differences, the Church would change shape and become a multi-tier Communion of different levels – a schism in all but name. Which way are things heading on these two fronts?
A: I think I'll be able to be clearer about that after the next primates' meeting. But at the moment I couldn't say I felt completely optimistic about that. I feel that we may yet have to face the possibility of deeper divisions. I don't at all like, or want to encourage, the idea of a multi-tier organisation. But that would, in my mind, be preferable to complete chaos and fragmentation. It's about agreeing what we could do together.
Q: On both these fronts – the ordination of women priests and then Bishops, and also the ordination of gay and lesbian bishops?
A: I think that the importance of the ordination of women question is much greater in England than in most other parts of the Communion at the moment. Far more difficult for the Communion as a whole because of the deep theological and cultural issues involved is the question of gay clergy. I know because in the last two Lambeth Conferences women Bishops have been present. Nobody has stayed away because of women bishops. So it's not quite the same kind of issue.
Q: May I point out that the first woman priest was ordained 21 years ago in this part of India.
A: I've met a number already in North and South India, yes. Which is why I say: as there are women clergy in Africa too, it's not that huge a question.
Q: After years of debate and threatened schism in the Communion, the Church has taken a decisive and progressive step towards appointing women as bishops, with a final Synod vote due in 2012. How do you see the way forward?
A: I think it's well-known that in the Church of England there is a very significant minority of people who believe that the Church of England and the Anglican Churches generally should not take a large step like ordaining women bishops without more consultation with, or sensitivity to, the other great Churches – the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. That group does not wish to stop the process towards women bishops. I think they know there's a majority, it will happen. What they are concerned about is to find fair and secure provision for their point of view within the Church of England. That's been the most difficult question: not whether or not we have women bishops but what will be the provision made for the minority. Now this last summer the Synod declined to accept the suggestions made by the Archbishops, and I understand their reasons. But it's left us with quite a lot of work to try and do our best for that group as well as honouring the calling of women to the Episcopate.
Q: Archbishop, you have often described a Bishop's role as one that involves holding together diversity. How far have you been able to do this on these two questions?
A: Well, to the extent that the Communion has not fractured beyond repair and the Church of England is still engaged in shared discussion of these things, I don't think I have yet failed completely! But time will tell.
Relations with Catholic Church
Q: Your tenure has seen fraught relations with the Roman Catholic Church. It has seen the all-but-unilateral Apostolic Constitution that the Pope issued last year, creating a new Anglican rite within the Roman Catholic Church that was aimed at Anglicans who were uncomfortable with the ordination of women and gay clergy. What are your comments on this situation? There was the newspaper headline that spoke of the papal tanks on the lawns of Lambeth Palace.
A: Yes, I know. I said at that time that was a nonsensical version of the story. I was very taken aback that this large step was put before us without any real consultation. And it did seem to me that some bits of the Vatican didn't communicate with other bits. Overall it seemed to me a pastoral provision for certain people who couldn't accept where the Church of England was going, a pastoral provision which didn't in itself affect the relations between the two Churches, between mainstream Churches. But it caused some ripples because I think there was a widespread feeling that it would have been better to consult. There were questions that could have been asked and answered and dealt with together. And as this is now being implemented, we are trying to make sure that there is a joint group which will keep an eye on how it's going to happen. In England, the relations between the Church of England and Roman Catholic Bishops are very warm and very close. I think we are able to work together on this and not find it a difficulty.
Q: Last year you touched on this question in an address given in Rome. Isn't it somewhat inexplicable that the ordination of women by Anglican Churches became a deal-breaker in the Catholic-Anglican dialogue, in spite of the fact that the two religions have reached agreement on far more complex theological questions in the years since the Protestant Reformation?
A: Yes, what I was trying to say in Rome last year was that, actually, we had within the last 30 or 40 years achieved an extraordinary level of agreement about how we understood the ordained ministry and the sacraments. And I was still rather puzzled by the fact that this one question – who can be a priest? – suddenly emerged as the only one that mattered, as it were. Whereas, in fact, I think I said the glass is half-full, not half-empty. We have, in fact, dealt with a great deal of substance there and I suppose I really then wanted to remind both my own Church and our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters that we had established a common language for talking about priesthood and about the sacraments. And we shouldn't suppose that our disagreement about the status of women simply invalidated all of the rest of that!
Q: What are your views on the roles of the Christian Church in a plural — in religious terms — context such as we have in India? You made a significant comment in a speech in Chennai on the need to “listen to the voices of other faiths,” but without letting go of the Church's convictions, you said. What will such an approach involve?
A: For me it involves above all the willingness to build relationships through common study and sometimes through common silence. We can't pray publicly together, for many reasons. Prayer follows conviction. But we can sometimes keep silence together. We can certainly look together at the sacred texts of one or another tradition. We can watch how other people handle their sacred texts and their rituals and learn from that. And in that process we become able to recognise some kind of integrity and some kind of depth in one another. It doesn't mean I say, ‘Oh well, you must be right.' But I can at least say, ‘I know you're serious.' And that's dialogue for me – the recognition of the serious. And therefore if we find we can do things together after all in servicing, witnessing, peace-making, then it will come out of depths, not shallows.
Q: In 2008, you visited the Balaji Temple in Tividale, West Midlands, on a goodwill mission to represent the friendship between Christianity and Hinduism. We learn that you agreed to be part of an Anglican-Hindu dialogue in Bangalore later this week. Have you been following up on this relationship?
A: To some extent, yes. For many reasons in the U.K., it's tended to be the Christian-Muslim dialogue that has filled the horizon. It's politically the more pressing in some ways. But I'm very conscious of the way in which a number of Hindus in the U.K. say, ‘ Nobody ever talks to us, everyone's interested in Muslims.' So of course we try to pursue a dialogue as best we can. I made two or three visits to Hindu centres and welcome the opportunity of hearing from well-placed Hindus during these visits. The dialogue with Hindus in this country has of course been going on for a long time. When I was first in India in 1981, I spent a great deal of time in the Jesuit library, Vidyajyoti in Delhi, reading up on some of the background of the dialogue as it had developed then.
Oppression and justice
Q: While in India during the past few days, you have come across several issues of justice, marginalisation, even oppression within the Church being raised in different fora. The voices that have highlighted the so-called high caste-low caste issues, the Dalit question, have been quite striking. Are you going to continue to engage with these questions?
A: I hope so, yes – the questions that have already been presented in the U.K. from time to time. I suppose my main concern here is that India constitutionally does not recognise caste, except by its provision for scheduled communities. It certainly doesn't recognise any discrimination based on caste or any privilege based on caste. It's part of the great Indian political project, in a sense, of equal access to the law for everyone. And I would hope that the pursuit of that project ought not to be offensive to people's religious convictions. However, I know it is not as simple as that and I think the situation of some communities is a matter of real concern. I have heard a little bit, not only on this visit but from previous contacts, about the condition of manual scavengers, for example, in this part of India as well as elsewhere. That gives me great concern and I shall want to pursue some of these issues.
Q: You were in New York on September 11, 2001, metres from Ground Zero. You were delivering a lecture there, and subsequently wrote the book, Writing in the Dust, offering reflections on the event. What are your views on the controversy on the erection of a mosque there?
A: In an ideal world, the erection of a mosque on the site would be a powerful, positive symbol of what Islam was at its best. In the real world, not everyone is going to see it that way. And I think I would be more encouraging of some real cooperation between the faiths around that site. To make some kind of holy space that everyone could recognise – Muslims, Jews, Christians, Hindus, and others. Because suffering and death are not the preserve of any one community and the response, the godly response, is not the preserve of one community. I would love to see a real cooperation on that site.
Q: You famously made a reference to Al-Qaeda, saying that terrorists “can have serious moral goals” and that “bombast about evil individuals doesn't help in understanding anything.” May we have your views on terror and the “war” against it?
A: Yes, what I was saying on that occasion was that the appalling wickedness and violence of terrorist methods shouldn't blind us to the fact that sometimes, not always, but sometimes, terrorists are working for something which we might think was good, that is the real inclusion of an oppressed community. The methods are utterly indefensible, and as I say, they are evil. But if we simply say, ‘ all terrorists are individuals who are completely evil,' that means I have no responsibility to understand them, I have no responsibility of recognising in myself some of the things that just might push me towards violence or anything, and I don't think that helps us.
So the ‘war on terror' phrase has always been to me a bit doubtful. Because a war is usually something, an event where we engage with a clear enemy, with a clear goal in view. We know when we've won. The ‘war on terror' isn't like that. And the struggle against all the conditions that produce terrorism is greater than a war. It's a struggle against the material conditions that drive people to despair, it's a struggle against the mental and spiritual environment which, in more than one religious tradition, creates extremist positions and hatred about this. That's a struggle worth engaging with, it really is. Because, as I said, I think, last week, bad religion is not the preserve of any one tradition – but bad religion is best driven out by good religion.
Q: You've argued that the partial adoption of Sharia in the U.K. is “unavoidable” as a method of arbitration in such affairs as marriage, and should not be resisted. Did your Sharia lecture have embedded in it a belief, and dismay, that religion has been driven out of public life into the private realm of individual choice?
A: Yes, that was one of the concerns of the lecture – that a mature and healthy society ought to be capable of some degree of flexibility about the legal provisions it recognises in the community's make-up in society. Let me illustrate the point in a more specific way, though. After I'd given the lecture, a Muslim lawyer in the U.K. came up to me at the reception and said, ‘The reason I agree with some of what you say is that there are already Sharia codes operating in Britain but they are uncontrolled, they're not accountable, they're often administered by people with very limited legal skills. I would like to see a real professional engagement between the state and the Muslim community to set standards for some areas where Sharia might operate.' And the comparison, in my mind, is with the way the state and religious bodies work together in education. If I as a religious person say, ‘I will ask the state to cooperate in a religious school,' I'm saying ‘I expect the state to hold me accountable to certain standards. I have to look very hard at my own practices and the syllabus and methods.' I think that's very good. The state agrees to cooperate but the state can quite rightly ask about the standards we set. Now, in the context of religious schools, I think that's a good development. There might be areas of the law – and I say might – where that could be done. We haven't really begun to have that argument properly. I think the reaction to the Sharia lecture slightly showed how hard it was to have that discussion but we have moved forward.
Q: Archbishop, you voiced your objection to the French law proposing a ban on the wearing of the hijab in French schools and stated that the hijab and any other religious symbols should not be outlawed.
A: Yes, because I think when the state tries to determine what is unacceptable expression of religious faith, a door is opened into a rather dangerous territory. The human rights legislation speaks of freedom to express one's faith. I think that needs to be thought through carefully and honoured, and I think, as I said the other day in Nagpur, the state perhaps has better things to do than legislating about what women wear!
Church, Market Capitalism, and the Poor
Q: You are seen, among other things, as something of a social radical. You wrote in The Spectator that placing too much trust in the market had become a kind of “idolatry.” You have highlighted the need to have an ethical economy. How do you see the Church's role and mission for the poor and the disadvantaged across the world who have been growingly squeezed by the effects of the global economic downturn of the recent years, coming as it did in the time of globalisation, the primacy of market capitalism? This is a point you also made in your MDG sermon at Kolkata Cathedral last week [http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/3010].
A: The Churches can do two things, I think. One is of course what they always do in the circumstances and try to rally around in practical ways to assist those who are most vulnerable. And that may be through working community regeneration, may be through education, it may be through microfinance, which is a great interest of mine. Always might you give power and capacity to poor communities. The Church does a great deal, it will probably have to do a great deal more. The second way in which the Church has to act, I would say, is in keeping before the people the question what is wealth for, what is the nature of real prosperity. And does prosperity demand an endless spiral of material economic growth? In Britain there was recently published a report called ‘Prosperity Without Growth?' I referred to it a few times. And that seems one of the questions we have to keep asking.
Q: Yet people often wonder how your social radicalism could co-exist with your reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy.
A: (Laughs) Well, I'm glad to know I have a reputation for doctrinal orthodoxy. I think I'm orthodox but not everyone does! The answer, I think, is that for me the doctrines of the Christian creed state that God is transcendent, God is not simply an aspect of how the world works. The doctrines of the creed state that God acts so as to create a community in the world, the Church, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. And this community exists to reflect not the nature of the world around but the nature of God. So for me the creed says the Church ought not just to be another aspect of how society works. The Church will always be asking awkward questions. And the Church, because it is based on the idea that we live with and for and from each other, the Church is bound to have a radical element in it. It may not express that always in the same way but there will always be that question.
Iraq War and Threats against Iran
Q: Your opposition to America's and Britain's war against Iraq has been well- documented. You have also spoken out strongly against any move to attack Iran, in terms as strong as “criminal, ignorant and potentially murderous.” Yet do you believe you have done enough within your power to oppose the war during these seven years that you have been Archbishop?
A: When war was declared in the Iraqi context, I decided that there was no point in going on speaking about the war once the decision had been made. And my emphasis moved to questions of what was going to be done on the far side of the war, what would we be doing to plan for the future, and for a sustainable future. I agreed very much with one British politician who said we could win the war in six weeks – and lose it in six months. And, well, I don't think we are entirely out of the wood there, as we say. So I made a decision not to go on talking about the war itself but to try and move people forward towards a vision for the future.
In the whole region of the Middle East, whether I've done or said enough, I can't say. But I'm engaged fairly regularly with issues around the Holy Land, with the political questions around Syria and Lebanon. We have a lot of contacts there. And one of my concerns, I suppose, there is that we, I mean the international community, find a way of avoiding Iranian dominance of the region without creating yet another war – which will unleash chaos for decades. So all this is a matter of ongoing, and sometimes quite intense, discussion. Next year I'm convening what I hope will be quite a high-level meeting at Lambeth Palace to discuss the situation of Christians in the region, which I hope our government and others will help support. It will be primarily focussed on the Christians in the Holy Land but of course involving people from other faiths…
Q: Where is organised religion going? How do you see the direction that organised religion as a whole is moving globally in terms of practising numbers, rigour, and faith? Including in India?
A: Modernity in general brings with it a strong strand of individualism. And consumerism. And consumerism fits very badly with traditional religion. People look for what makes them feel better and they don't particularly like to think of long-term belonging. I think that's one of the major issues we have in the U.K. about younger people and religion; and I think with the more educated and sophisticated in India it's probably much the same, actually. Now this isn't overcome overnight; it has to be addressed through a constant appeal from religious bodies to, as I sometimes like to say, to the imagination. And appeal to people to discover an extra depth to their life, which is not just their possession but which involves them in this mutual relation with others – this sense of being involved in and affected by the sufferings of others.
The trouble is that the reaction that seems easiest is what we call fundamentalism in general. That is a reaction towards an imagined past, a certain absolutely watertight answer to everything, and a real bitterness and venom towards outsiders. The great danger that faces every religious tradition, and I mean every religious tradition here, is that it can seem a quick way out. Christians do it. Muslims do it. Hindus do it. Buddhists do it. For all I know, Jains and Zoroastrians do it and Sikhs too. But we do see this strange attempt to outbid another religion. ‘I feel threatened by the extremism of another religious tradition. All right, so I will create my own extremism!' And so we go on piling up. That's the danger. And that's where it matters enormously for trust and respect and patience to be generated among religious leaders and teachers and communities. And that's work which deserves every ounce of effort and goodwill we can give it.
Playing Many Roles
Q: You are an academic who has 11 languages, a theologian, a thinker, a poet, and also a perceptive translator of poetry. Mainly from Welsh, is it?
A: Welsh, and also from German and Russian.
Q: Do these different facets and roles intersect as you go about the difficult task of being primate, pastor, and poet?
A: Well, it may seem to be some distance from the work of translating Welsh poetry to the work of chairing a board of finance! But I don't think there's a gap, because what you bring to the office of a primate or a bishop is who you are. The skills, the interests you have, and an interest in different languages and cultures can sometimes be very instructive as you sit around the table. An awareness of the extraordinary possibilities and varieties of language can perhaps sometimes make you listen a bit harder to how other people are talking. And maybe that feeds into the ministry. Essentially it is about who you are.
Issues of Continuity and Change
Q: Your choice as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury was a considerable departure, many people have said this, from your predecessor and his views. Would you like to comment on issues of continuity and change here, going back perhaps to at least the time of Archbishop Robert Runcie? At the end of his tenure, he actually spoke of the pain of having to lead a Church which at times did not want to find a united way forward. How would you see your own tenure in relation to the tenures of your immediate predecessors?
A: I think it's possible to exaggerate the discontinuity. A great many of the projects that have been most central and valuable for me have been things that my predecessor initiated. And I have to acknowledge a grateful debt to that. But of course the style of each Archbishop is going to be different. Every Archbishop, I think, since the beginning of the 20th century has faced the challenge of a diverse Church. I read the life of Archbishop [Randall Thomas] Davidson who had a long tenure as the Archbishop at the beginning of the 20th century, and I smile occasionally to see him saying some of the things I might want to say about the difficulty of the job. And it's difficult because the Archbishop is not a chief executive, he is not someone who makes all the decisions that matter. The Archbishop presides over a global family with rapid communication and what goes with rapid communication very often is limited mutual understanding! That's got a lot more marked in the last two or three decades. So it's not surprising that there is a continuity of challenge there at least. I think everybody who comes into the office sooner or later does find this is the heart of it: can you hold people together in relationship? It's the job of every bishop. It's the job of an Archbishop of Canterbury in a special way – and there's continuity there. Holding together diversity, not in order to have an easy life or a quiet life, but because of this conviction that we need each other. And when somebody walks away from the table, everyone is the poorer.
Engaging with Intelligent Unbelievers
Q: Archbishop, it was interesting to hear you being described (this was mentioned yesterday at the public reception) as a figure who could ‘make Christianity credible to the intelligent unbeliever.' Believing that you took that as a compliment [ the Archbishop laughs] … is this a role that you have considered an important one for the leader of the third largest denomination of Christians in the world? Do you believe you have succeeded in this sense?
A: Well, apart from a growing sense of incredulity as I listened to what was being said about me yesterday, I think the answer is ‘Yes, I do think it's important.' Every Christian leader and teacher these days has to be, in some degree, an apologist, has to be able to have enough understanding of the language of the non-believer to find ways of moving across the frontier. Now some people do this very effectively as Christians witnessing in the world of science. I'm not a scientist, and I make no claims there. I know a bit about the world of the arts, and sometimes I really engage in conversation about the world of the imagination. The world of poetry or fiction can open doors for a deeper understanding. I believe it's worth working at that.
Dealing with Immigration
Q: You contributed to the debate prior to the 2005 U.K. elections, criticising assertions that immigration was a ‘cause of crime.' This is a very sensitive issue in the U.K., isn't it?
A: It is. It's troubling to me that we still seem in the U.K. to have a kind of memory of the language that was around in the 1960s – ‘Oh, you know we're being swamped by the immigrants from other cultures.' The fact is, at the moment, that migrants in the U.K. come from a very wide variety of backgrounds, including Europe, not just the old Commonwealth. The fact is also that they contribute economically to the country; without their services a great many things would collapse. And often they will do jobs which British people won't do. And I believe that culturally they help to keep Britain the lively and varied society that it is. So I am distressed that that suspicion and resentment is still around.
We as a Church have taken a fairly consistent stand on this. We are very concerned too about the status of asylum-seekers and refugees. I try to make it a point to visit detention centres for asylum-seekers whenever I can and to deal with refugee camps in Great Britain – to make sure that people remember that a great many migrants are definitely not in Britain simply from their choice, but because of nightmare situations they're escaping from. When you sat across the table from a woman who has been multiply raped in an African country in time of war, who has seen a family destroyed, who has with great difficulty found her way to a safe place, then it's quite hard to listen to others saying, talking about ‘bogus asylum seekers' and ‘ parasites'! I think Britain ought to do better than that. There's more nobility in the British tradition than that.
Who Really is He?
Q: Archbishop, it is often said that you are hard to label: orthodox or liberal, diplomat or dissident. It has also been said that you consider yourself to be a ‘radical traditionalist.' What are you, really?
A: (Laughs) Really I'm Rowan Williams, a child of God, I hope. I don't like party labels, I really don't. And I don't see any contradiction in saying that I owe everything to the tradition of the Church in a very old-fashioned way. That all that shaped me in my prayer and in my thinking has been the great mainstream tradition of the Bible and the early Church. And that, as I said earlier, that gives me a sense of why it's important sometimes to be a critic or a questioner – and doesn't incline me to think that blanket conservatism was the answer to everything. But essentially, as I say, you bring to the office who you are, under God.
Q: You would have noticed the different senses of the word secularism here and there.
Q: It signifies equal respect for all religions and a certain neutrality in religious terms here while in England it signifies the principle of separation of matters of Church and state. Is there a point there that's worth elucidating?
A: Yes, what I've suggested in a couple of interventions over the last few years is that we in England need to be much more careful distinguishing between what I sometimes call Procedural Secularism, which is, the state steps back but allows debate to go on and the state itself stays neutral, and Programmatic Secularism, where the state drives an agenda to push religion out of the public sphere. India is a very good example of Procedural Secularism. That was the burden of my lecture in Delhi [the Archbishop's Chevening Lecture at the British Council, New Delhi, October 15, 2010, that can be accessed at www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/3014], and I hope to take that back into the British discussion.