Following his address to the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican on Wednesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gave a brief interview to Vatican Radio.
In the interview, the transcript of which is below, he speaks about the ordination of women bishops within the Church of England and his hope that "we’ll find something which allows us to go forward honouring everybody within our fellowship" at the Church of England’s General Synod next month.
He also reflects on some the challenges which he has faced during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as offering some positive advice to his soon to be announced successor, urging him to "Visit lots of schools and parishes. Make sure that you’re there constantly, faithfully, regularly, with people who are doing what matters."
"For all the difficulties that beset many parishes, I can’t think of any parish I’ve visited, in 20 years as a bishop, that hasn’t in some way made me go away feeling ‘It’s all worthwhile.’”
Archbishop Rowan Williams, you’re here in the Church of St Gregory the Great, the place where it all began, in a sense, for the English Church. Yet this place is an increasingly important place of encounter today, isn’t it, beyond its historical significance?
Very much so. I think one of the great things that’s happened in the last few years is how this place has opened up to Anglican pilgrims. I know that the hope is that the Chapel of St Gregory will be somewhere where Anglican pilgrims will want to come and remind themselves of their origins.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in the library of Corpus Christi in Cambridge, holding in my hands again the Augustine Gospels; the gospels that came with St Augustine in 597 to Britain. That was another really vivid recollection of how things began here.
It’s also a place where you’ve had a number of meetings with Popes, isn’t it?
I was privileged to be with Pope Benedict here earlier this year to celebrate the millennium of the Camaldolese, for a very moving service of Evening Prayer. The friendship that we’ve developed with the community here has become very important to me.
You’re also here marking the Synod and the 50th Anniversary of Vatican II. How important do you think was that Council for those outside of the Catholic Church?
It was enormously important. I was a teenager as the Council began, and an Anglican, a practising Anglican. What had been apparently a very self-contained, rather remote, exotic, fascinating, but slightly strange body, suddenly opened up. I think that was the effect that it had for me and for others.
We could see the workings. Instead of looking at an institution that was very visibly confident that it was sufficient to itself, we saw people beginning to say, “Does it have to be like this?” We saw a transparency in the Roman Catholic Church. Which of course, because it was so deeply connected with the personality of Pope John XXIII, which was a gift to all Christians, became something yes, deeply stirring.
It’s because of the Second Vatican Council, I think, that other churches began to rethink some of their own ways of doing things. It’s because of the liturgical reform there that I think liturgical reforms accelerated in other contexts. So yes, hugely important for the rest of us.
It was, of course, also a watershed moment for Ecumenism. Yet despite so much progress, the deepening of relationships, new friendships, that journey seems to be struggling today in a way that was hardly imaginable a few decades ago, especially the Anglican-Catholic dialogue. Are you in any way disappointed that there hasn’t been more in terms of tangible results for the dialogue during your time here?
Sometimes of course, yes, I feel that disappointment. But on the other hand, I look back at the ‘60s and remember, of course, we believed anything was possible in the ‘60s, whether in church, or in politics, or in international relations. There was a certain haste and a certain naivety about all that.
What abides of course, and what we can’t go back on, is the fact that we pray together in a quite different way now. In the ’50s, when I was a child, it would’ve been quite unthinkable to pray alongside Roman Catholics. Of course in those days, even saying ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ together was frowned upon.
The gain in terms of simply understanding ourselves as in some way belonging together, that’s irreversible. Of course, it would’ve been wonderful if we’d been able to take rather more steps towards something really visible, really concrete, in terms of mutual recognition.
But both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican families have changed, have developed in that period, in ways that have sometimes made that more difficult, and that’s reality. We don’t, when we change, always wait for one another. That’s a fact of our community life, I think.
Would you say though that Ecumenism is still a priority for the Church of England today, with so many other apparently more pressing problems and internal divisions?
I’m tempted to say, “Unity is indivisible,” which is a ridiculous logical statement. But what I mean is if we’re interested about the unity of our own Church, which we certainly ought to be, then there’s no way of not being interested in unity more widely.
The real issue is what does it mean to be The Church of God? Not to be this or that little religious society, but what does it mean to be The Church of God? That’s the question we’re asking within the Anglican family, that’s the question we have to ask across denominational boundaries.
That’s why even if Ecumenism in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ’70s sense, of lots of institutional meetings and negotiations, doesn’t always feel like the same level of priority, unity has to be, has to be a priority.
One of the big difficulties, of course, that has been a stumbling block between the two communities is the question of ordaining women bishops within the Church of England.
Last time we met, you were optimistic that there would be a solution on this before the end of your mandate. Do you still hope that within the next couple of months that you can find a solution acceptable to everybody within the Church of England?
We won’t find a solution acceptable to everybody in the Church of England. That would be a real miracle of the last days, I think. But what the bishops have been working at, with a good deal of blood, sweat and tears in the last few months, is trying to find that point of balance which is just generous enough to the minority, and just clear enough about the principle, not to alienate more than we’re bound to.
I’m very struck by the fact that the bishops, in their recent meeting, were almost unanimous in finding this, what they wanted to recommend to the Church. It’s for us now to commend it to the Church of England at the Synod next month, and we’ll see.
But a great deal of work and prayer’s gone into this; I’m certainly hopeful still that all that work won’t be wasted, all that prayer won’t be wasted; that we’ll find something which allows us to go forward honouring everybody within our fellowship.
Archbishop Rowan Williams, here in the Vatican you’re talking to the Synod of Bishops about the importance of contemplation, if we want to be credible witnesses to the world. You talk about it as the key to prayer, to liturgy, to art, to ethics. Why do you see this as so central to the New Evangelisation?
If Evangelisation is just rallying the troops, or just trying to get people to sign up, something’s missing. What’s missing is the transformed humanity that the Gospel brings to us.
As I see it, contemplation is the centre for our understanding of what the new humanity is. That is a humanity that is unconditionally receptive to God, unconditionally receptive to grace, and therefore profoundly open to what God is giving. Willing to live with the darkness and risk that that sometimes entails, conscious all the time of being anchored in the Son’s contemplation of the Father, and the eternal mystery of the Trinity.
That’s the new humanity, and that is what excites me about the contemplative vision. If we’re going to talk about a transformed humanity, I think we will need that element in it.
Somehow, this focus on contemplation sounded a little to me like a sign of relief that you’ll be able to have a little more time, perhaps, for contemplation now than you have had over the past decade.
What would you say have been the hardest challenges, perhaps, that you’ve have to face as the Archbishop of Canterbury? And what are you most looking forward to as you step down from the post?
I could take a long time talking about moments of challenge. I think just the awareness that with almost every significant decision in the Church of England and in the Communion, you are going to alienate certain people; you are going to lose friends, literally lose friends.
There are things that have to be done which may be right or inevitable, but don’t feel particularly good at the time. It’s watching the cost to others of decisions that have to be made.
We were discussing just this week the Lambeth Conference of 2008, and the decisions made not to issue invitations to certain bishops whose consecration had been against the direct counsel of the wider communion.
That felt like both an inevitable thing, to honour commitments we had declared together, and also a very, very hard and un-kingdom-like thing to be doing. It’s those things that are the tough memories.
I don’t imagine that what lies ahead will be conflict free or straightforward, but I do look forward to the chance of doing a little bit more joined-up thinking and writing, and seeing what service to the Church I can give in this new environment.
You famously said that your successor “Needs the constitution of an ox and the hide of a rhinoceros.” What positive, practical advice would you like to give to the man who’ll be shortly stepping into your shoes?
Visit lots of schools and parishes. Make sure that you’re there constantly, faithfully, regularly, with people who are doing what matters. One of the great illusions you can have in a job like this is that what you do in the office is what really matters.
God deliver us from an illusion like that; what really matters, of course, is lives evolving in faithful discipleship at the grass roots. So go and see that happening, go and encourage it, go and learn from it; go and be vitalised by it.
I’ve enormously appreciated the time I’ve spent, especially in schools, because being with young people who are questioning about their faith and their life is always invigorating.
For all the difficulties that beset many parishes, I can’t think of any parish I’ve visited, in 20 years as a bishop, that hasn’t in some way made me go away feeling “It’s all worthwhile.”
Finally, you’ll be having a private meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, to say your goodbyes to him. Can you share with us anything of what you’ll be talking to him about?
I imagine we’ll talk a little bit about the Synod, about the New Evangelisation, and I hope that we can look back a little bit on where we are as communions after the last 10 years.
Doubtless, some of the questions that we’ve touched on here will be around, but I think mostly it’ll be an occasion for me to express gratitude for the welcome and the warmth I’ve always received here.
Thank you very much indeed.