Thanks for Rowan

Rowan Williams

It’s good to be grateful for one’s elders and teachers. The 14th of June 2020 is the 70th birthday of Rowan Williams — The Rt Rev. and the Rt Hon. Professor Rowan Douglas Williams, Baron Williams of Oystermouth, PC, DPhil, FBA, FRSL, FLSW. His writing and ideas have been my constant companion for nearly twenty years and will be food for study and prayer for the rest of my life. [Photo credit: The Times]

An Agenda for Joy

My PhD is done, and my degree was conferred yesterday. My thesis, “An Agenda for Joy: Rowan Williams’s Theology of Conflict, Unity, and Solidarity,” is available from Charles Sturt University’s open access portal at

TestamurMy study seeks a theological understanding of disagreement and conflict in church and society through a reading of the work of Rowan Williams. Williams’s theology of church and his understanding of its unity are closely interrelated. The church itself and its unity are God’s gift. Williams argues that conflict and unity are not opposed but are essential parts of the struggle for mutual recognition and solidarity. Thus I propose solidarity as a category through which to understand the oneness of the church and its relationship with society. According to Williams, God creates and sustains a universe of immeasurable difference within itself. Williams employs Gillian Rose’s reading of Hegel to introduce a metaphysical understanding of such difference and our response to it. The communal work of truth-seeking requires unavoidable negotiation, self-dispossession and loss, without which there may be tragic misrecognition of our interests and those of others. I critically examine situations of conflict that exemplify and test Williams’s theology. Looking beyond the church, I then explore Williams’s theologically grounded proposals for solidarity in a pluralist society oriented towards the common good.

I am immensely grateful to those who have helped me achieve this happy outcome. My supervisor, Dr Benjamin Myers, gave unfailing wisdom, enthusiasm and valued friendship. I was helped by Ben’s careful perception of what I have been on about and workable ways to get there. He challenged me with penetrating questions and exposed muddled language and thinking.

My closest teacher and friend is my husband, James Kim, to whom I have dedicated this work. His love, courage, and care made it possible.

Years ago, my undergraduate mentor, Dr Graeme Garrett, told me that the greatest value of a doctoral project in theology would be whatever it did within the depths of my own soul. So it has been. Thus, in his doctoral thesis, Rowan Williams wrote of Vladimir Lossky’s insistence that “to do theology is to engage in an exploration of one’s personal encounter with God in silence.” I also echo Williams’s submission that “anything of value in the pages that follow belongs not to me but to the catholic communion of minds in Christ, mediated to me by my teachers and friends.”1 Without that, I would not have undertaken this study.
. . . . .

  1. Rowan Williams, “The Theology of Vladimir Nikolaievich Lossky: An Exposition and Critique” (DPhil. thesis, University of Oxford, 1975), xi.

Why “Pride”?

In the Northern hemisphere Summer, it’s “Pride” month. It’s important politics and good fun. But the name “Pride” has always grated on me. Isn’t pride a sin, after all?
My friend Dan Sloan has an answer: “Well, actually in the Koine Greek of the New Testament, the sin of Pride is either ὑπερηφανία (Mark 7:22) or ὕβρις (2 Cor 12:10) which mean ‘arrogance’ or ‘hubris’ respectively. The way we’re using ‘Pride’ is closer to πεποίθησις (2 Cor 3:4) or παρρησία (Phl 1:20) which mean ‘confidence’ or ‘courage/bravery’. Gay Pride started because gay people found the παρρησία to fight back when the police tried to raid a gay bar simply because it was a gay bar. If you read the New Testament carefully you’ll see that πεποίθησις and παρρησία to face adversity are consistently depicted as good traits rather than sinful.”
I’m a passable theologian but hopeless Bible scholar, so that’s helpful, thanks Dan.

A past redeemed

Father Michael Lapsley SSM (now leader of the Institute for Healing of Memories is a remarkable teacher. He was an anti-aparthied campaigner and chaplain to the ANC when his hands and one eye were destroyed in 1990 by a letter-bomb most likely in a covert operation of the apartheid regime. [He has prosthetic ‘hands’.) What follows is from a conversation he had with Rowan Williams at”>St Ethelburga’s in London:

"In our Christian faith, we say, ‘By His wounds we are healed,’ and of course we often speak of the wounded healer. Let me tell a personal story which, while amusing, speaks to the issue of how we perceive woundedness and whether we see it as incapacitating or enlivening.

"I was bombed in Zimbabwe and then was moved to a hospital in Australia. Before I left for Australia, my bishop came to visit me and prayed for my recovery. Seven months later and now recovered, I returned to his office in Zimbabwe and said, ‘Here I am, Father.’ The bishop looked startled. At first I imagined perhaps he wasn’t used to God answering his prayers, but then he said, ‘But you are disabled now. What can you do?’ So I said, ‘Well, Bishop, I can drive a car.’ Then he looked frightened. I think he thought he might be on the same road with me. So I said, ‘Father, I think I can be more of a priest with no hands than I ever was with two hands.’ When I inquired of Archbishop Tutu, I got quite a different response. He said, ‘Come and work in Cape Town. I have one priest who is deaf and one who is blind, and now one with no hands.’

"Wow! So, for one bishop I was a liability but for the other I was an asset. The first bishop wasn’t a bad person, but his vision was narrow. Archbishop Tutu, on the other hand, had a different pair of spectacles and he was able to see that my woundedness could help others to heal. So it is fitting that Archbishop Tutu has written the foreword for my recent memoir Redeeming the Past, for he saw immediately that what happened to me was also an opportunity.

"Of course, none of that means that what happened to me was right. Sometimes people say, ‘It was God’s will that you were bombed.’ Now what kind of nonsense is that? Does that mean that God makes letter bombs? I am not interested in that kind of God. Rather, I believe in a God that gives us the strength to bring good out of evil, so that I can sit here today and say that in the bombing I lost a lot and that I have gained a lot.

"I know that I’m a better human being because of the journey I have travelled. For me, God’s grace worked through the prayers and support of people around the globe who also saw the possibilities of healing and continued to believe that I had a life ahead of me. That didn’t happen solely by my own efforts but through the collective power of love."
—Rowan Williams and Michael Lapsley, "The Journey toward Forgiveness: A Dialogue," The Ecumenical Review 66, no. 2 (July 2014): 191–213.

Immaculate misconceptions

For Roman Catholics, 8th December is the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Anglicans do not need this event to have been "immaculate", but in a minor festival today, do note that it happened.

In The Bite in the Apple on 3 December 2015, Nancy Rockwell wrote on "No More Lying About Mary."

It’s Advent, and the same old lies about Mary are slipping over pulpits and out of parish letters, Christmas cards, public prayers, TV holiday movies, and late night comics’ jokes.

The subjugation of Mary, the maligning of her as meek, mild, and mindless, has been harmful to millions.

Hiding within the wonder of Christmas are a thousand years of doctrinal female subjugation, doctrines that, like tinsel, are dripped all over the season of Christmas. In the midst of the celebration of Wonderful Life, these malicious ideas keep women from feeling empowered, invited to be strong, and urged by God to imagine new ways to live, as Mary of Nazareth did, who mothered God’s redemption of the human world. [&hellip]

Mary, wanted by God, according to the angel, for her bold, independent, adventuresome spirit, decides to bear a holy child—for a bold agenda: to bring the mighty down from their thrones; to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away. This is Mary: well-spoken, wise, gritty. […] She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive. She beckons women everywhere to speak out for God’s justice, which is waiting to be born into this world.

Indeed so.

Why, then. I wonder, is so much other silliness, heresy, delusion, tackiness and downright untruth about Mary? The “Immaculate Conception” and the “Assumption” are at the peak of this card-castle of foolishness. A 2005 joint statement by the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ, helpfully shows that the two communions have much in common in their appreciation of this remarkable woman.

"Roman Catholics, however, are required to believe the teaching defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950: ‘that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.’ [para. 58] and that, as determined in 1854, "the most blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Christ Jesus the Saviour of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin."[para 59]. "The particular circumstances and precise formulations of the 1854 and 1950 definitions have created problems not only for Anglicans but also for other Christians." [para 61] — an understatement indeed.

Massive and glorious cathedrals are devoted to these heresies: The glorious Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres is an eminent example. Travelling through much of Europe, one finds places littered with depictions of Mary: much more so than of Jesus himself. People flock to shrines where she is supposed to have appeared, such as the National Catholic Shrine of The Basilica of our Lady of Walsingham in England, and the nearby Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham — which has connections even in Australia.

The Shrine is where in the year 1061, a Saxon noblewoman, Richeldis de Faverches is reputed to have had vision in which was taken by Mary to be shown the house in Nazareth where Gabriel had announced the news of the birth of Jesus and to have been asked by Mary to build replica of that house in Walsingham.