The Guardian, October 31st, 2012
I recently argued that Rowan Williams’s time at Canterbury has been dominated by his denigration of the liberal state. But I added, in passing, that there was another side to my view of this complex theologian: he has also deepened my understanding of the ritual basis of Christianity. I want to expand on this.
To put it bluntly, he has helped me to see that Christianity is not essentially a big idea that we must try to spread, by arguing for its truth, but a cultural tradition, centred on the church’s ritual. In other words, he has helped me to see the intellectual strength of Anglo-Catholic tradition.
It took me a while to come round to this view. When I started thinking about religion, in my teens, it seemed obvious that the overlap between Christianity, morality and reason should be emphasised. Christ should be presented as a revolutionary moralist, and supernatural belief should be sidelined, reformed away. So should church ritual – it obscured the radicalism of the gospel with nostalgic flummery. I was a liberal Protestant. Soon I was impressed by Protestant voices that rejected such rationalism – Kierkegaard, Barth, Luther – voices that emphasised defiant faith, and scepticism towards liberal progress. But I remained semi-sceptical about church and ritual. Then I began, slowly, to admit that ritual practice was absolutely fundamental to Christianity, and, even more slowly, that it was time to repent of my late-teenage aversion to church. Williams’s work helped me towards this realisation.
As a young priest and academic, Williams saw his agenda as shaking Anglicanism out of its liberal Protestant assumptions, which had been strengthened in the 1960s. He saw that Anglo-Catholicism could claim the intellectual high ground, by drawing on the ‘cultural-linguistic’ turn in philosophy and other disciplines, heavily influenced by Wittgenstein’s attention to the construction of meaning through cultural practices. This perspective enabled a new claim for the centrality of sacramentalism, understood in anthropological terms as religious sign-making.
In the 1980s, Williams mastered this new intellectual idiom. He presented Christianity as a cultural tradition, the place where a very specific form of meaning is made, shared, passed on; where supreme authority belongs to the ‘central symbol’ of cross and resurrection, which the church performs in the eucharist. When many, such as his Cambridge colleague Don Cupitt, were arguing against traditional metaphysical belief, or defending it in rather dated terms, he changed the subject. The question of what we believe is secondary to the question of what we do, what forms of symbolic communication we participate in, what cultural language we speak. We must rethink our tradition in these semiotic terms. Jesus was ‘a sign-maker of a disturbingly revolutionary kind’, he writes in an essay of 1987. And Christian culture echoes his sign-making. This communal sign-making is, for Christians, the most authentically basic bit of culture. Is it just another bit of human culture? Yes and no: for here, we believe, the true myth is performed, the fullest meaning is made.
This approach to Christian culture gradually grew on me. Despite my issues with the institutional church, I felt the need to be part of this communal ritual event, and therefore the church. I admitted that – despite everything – this is the basis of Christian identity.
His writing on sexual morality reflects this semiotic (sign-making) approach. On what grounds do Christians affirm the ideal of lifelong monogamy (and also the ideal of chastity)? Is it that God dispenses a few non-negotiable rules, one of which is the wrongness of casual sex? No, says Williams, the legal paradigm is inadequate; it doesn’t help us through the inevitable grey areas. The Christian should approach the question of sexual morality by means of communication, sign-making. The sexual impulse invites us to semiotic anarchism: casual sex hints at huge meanings that we don’t mean; it is not safely ‘meaningless’, but is meaning-shaking. Miraculously, the tables can be turned on the semiotic anarchism of sex: a disciplined approach to it (which does not deny but affirms its goodness) is perhaps the loudest communicative tool available to us. Sex is redeemed. The debate over homosexuality has rather overshadowed this profound rethinking of sexuality in general, which is both deeply conservative and strikingly contemporary.
So my verdict on Williams could hardly be more mixed. As I argued in my previous post, I feel that his handling of the post-9/11 religion debate was deeply flawed; he sowed discord between Christianity and the liberal state, and added to the muddle of establishment. And yet I also want to express admiration for his wider theological career: his fresh focus on the ritual essence of Christianity has helped to guide at least one rebellious little sheep back to church.