Tag Archives: Rowan Williams

A six-year-old girl writes a letter to God.

A letter from Rowan Williams answering a little girl’s question: “God, How did you get invented?”

Dear Lulu,

Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lors of love from me too.

+Archbishop Rowan

via A six-year-old girl writes a letter to God. And the Archbishop of Canterbury answers – Telegraph Blogs.

This is excellent stuff. Written in a way that she (and everyone else could understand and written in a way to heightened her awareness about who God is and where he is.


The stable door is open

On Christmas Eve last year the Times published this article by Rowan Williams. I’ve just found it again in my files as I was looking for illustrations for talks. It is so good that it’s worth reproducing in its entirety.

The Stable Door is Open. Anyone can come in.

Year after year, church attendance at Christmas continues to defy the trends. Disconcerted clergy find themselves putting on an extra carol service or Christingle. Cathedral deans start worrying about health and safety regulations as the number of people standing at the back is still growing five minutes before the service starts. And in spite of all the high-profile antiGod books published this last year, I suspect it’s not going to make much difference to these swelling numbers in church over Christmas.

So what’s going on? I don’t think it’s that people’s doubts and uncertainties are all magically taken away for a couple of weeks in December. But once in a while people need a chance to face up to the bits of themselves that they cheerfully ignore most of the time – a chance to notice what might be missing in their lives.

And Christmas gives us just this. It gives us a story to listen to. It gives us a sense that what matters most deeply to us matters to God too. And it gives us a moment of stillness in a more and more feverish environment.

It gives us a story. If you go to a carol service, you’ll notice that it isn’t just about the story of Jesus’s birth. It starts right back at the beginning of human history and tells us that everything started well and then everything went wrong, and we got so tangled in habits and attitudes that trapped us and damaged us that we couldn’t get out again.

So the question stares us in the face: “Is this your story?” Did you start well and then find yourself snarled up in things that drain your life and energy? There won’t be many people for whom that doesn’t ring a bell or two.

And then the story goes on to say something quite strange and surprising. God steps in to sort it all out. But He doesn’t step in like Superman, He doesn’t even send a master plan down from heaven. He introduces into the situation something completely new – a new life; a human baby, helpless and needy like all babies.

And it’s by that introducing of something new that change begins to happen. Like dropping a tiny bit of colouring into a glass of clear water, it starts to affect the whole glassful.

The Christmas story doesn’t try to explain how it works. It just says: “Now that this story, Jesus’s story, has started, nothing will be the same again.” So we’re not being asked to sign up to a grand theory – just to imagine that the world might have changed. And most of us can manage that for a moment or two. Christmas lets us hold on to that for just a bit longer.

And it tells us that what matters to us matters to God. Most of us have deep-rooted instincts about all kinds of things – about our families and children, about the need for fairness and forgiveness, about honesty and faithfulness in private and public. A great deal of the world we normally live in seems to ride roughshod over many of these instincts.

We get panicky about what our society seems to be doing to marriage and families, about the forward march of a technology that doesn’t ask the moral questions, about the cynicism and brittleness of a lot of political talk and the celebrity culture.

Christmas reminds us of a God who is completely committed to the weakest, who uses power only so that human life can be fuller, more peaceful and generous, who gives us the help we need to make our relationships stable and faithful – and who requires of us a complete honesty about ourselves, and gently, steadily, chips away our self-deceptions. Christmas tells us that our best instincts about human nature and what’s needed for a healthy world and society aren’t just things we’ve made up. They are rooted in the way the whole universe is shaped by God.

Often people demand “moral leadership” from religious figures. Confession time: like others, I suspect, my heart sometimes sinks when I hear this, and I think, cynically, that it’s just about people wanting religious leaders to tell them that they’re right.

But there’s more to it than that: it’s not that folk simply want bishops or vicars to lay down the law all the time. But they do want sometimes to be assured that their hopes aren’t empty and their fears aren’t stupid, in a world where things change so fast and so disturbingly.

They want to know that there is a “home” for their feelings and ideals, that the universe has a shape and a purpose. And yes, religious leaders will be failing in their job if they can’t meet this need.

But as I’ve hinted, it’s not just a need for words. It’s a need for space where you don’t have to struggle, to fight for your place at the table.

You’re just welcome for who you are. It’s a bit of a paradox.

We usually spend the weeks before Christmas in a feverish nightmare of anxiety and driven busyness, as if we were going to celebrate the festival by making our normal situation even worse! But then there comes a moment when we really have to take time out if we’re going to stay sane. That’s the moment when people start thinking about church.

We still have this half-buried conviction that church is a place where, at least at this time of year, we ought to be able to feel at home. We turn up, tired and overwrought, perhaps, still thinking vaguely about what we haven’t done and need to do before tomorrow. And then the story unfolds. Yes, this is our story, and yes, we can for a moment believe that this birth makes a difference. Yes, God cares about the kind of world we want to see and his faithful love is the basis of what makes a really liveable life. And no, we don’t have to do anything for this time except take it in. There are no entrance qualifications. The door of Jesus’s stable is open and anyone can come in and sit down.

None of this – I can hear the atheist protesting – means it’s true, surely? Not in itself, no. But it suggests that, if God is a “delusion”, as some would like us to believe, then quite a lot more of our human life is a delusion as well, including many of our deepest values and our hopes for forgiveness and peace. All sorts of things will make up your mind about whether it is true or not – and naturally I want people to believe it is and I’m happy to have the arguments. But you will never understand why it might matter for it to be true unless you can take in what the Christmas story is saying to us about who we are and the world we live in.

So, arrive early! There are millions who still want to ask these questions and hear the story. And there are millions for whom it’s not just a piece of our “heritage” – a stately home to visit – but a place to live. God is for life, not just for Christmas.

Every blessing to you all for a very happy Christmas.

Rowan Williams is Archbishop of Canterbury

Find the article here – originally publisher Dec 24th 2007.

Have we created a substanceless world?

A few months ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, got into a bit of a media tangle over comments about making arrangements for religious law systems to be accommodated within UK law. His comments were quite detailed and in depth, and took a bit of listening to, had to be heard in context, and took some work to understand exactly what he was meaning. Unfortunately much of the media didn’t get that far. They heard one word. Sharia. And the media frenzy that followed seemed to focus on this word and soundbites.

Now, was Rowan right or wrong to say what he said? Perhaps using the word ‘sharia’ was unwise – he might have forseen the difficulties it would cause. Perhaps Rowan might learn to communicate in shorter sentences. But either way, my point is that the media at large did not take the time to understand what he was trying to say, but instead opted in favour of a sensationalist headline. Bound to get attention, but not necessarily reflect Rowan’s opinions.

Alex Kirby of the BBC wrote this about him, a few days afterwards:

The first is his inability, or refusal, to say everything in the neatly-packaged soundbite most of the media now demand. It’s hard work understanding an archiepiscopal speech or sermon these days. But it’s always worth the effort, which has certainly not been the case with all his recent predecessors.” (from an article by Alex Kirby on the BBC website)

More recently, Barack Obama has been in the news. This time, not over things he said, but over things his pastor said. Pastor Jeremiah Wright was accused of being unpatriotic in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost”. This quote was used as an example of what a bad pastor he must be, and hence what a bad President one of his congregations will make. However, once again, the soundbite does not do justice to the context. Without looking deeper, the intent of the quote is mistaken, and his real meaning is missed.

Anderson Cooper of CNN has quoted the relevant parts of the sermon here, and the youtube of the actual sermon can be found here. (The gist of the sermon was a call to social transformation and to examine your own life and society)

It takes time and investigation to discover the context of peoples’ statements. Life cannot be summed up in media soundbites or editorial comments. In trying to do that, we lose a lot of the depth, insight, and subtlety that is essential in thoughtful comment. We lose a lot of life’s substance and we are reduced to sensationalism

Prophetic Bishops – John Sentamu

There’s an excellent post over on Maggi Dawn’s blog about prophetic actions speaking louder than words. Near the end she relates it to the media’s desire for soundbite – something that contributed to the misunderstandings over Rowan Williams’ comments about Sharai law in the past week. Prophetic actions get people’s attention, speak louder than words and leave people open to hearing what they are about. Her full text follows…

The Archbishop of York and Jeremiah’s underpants

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, has developed something of a public image as a man of prophetic action. A few years back he was made Bishop of Birmingham, but during the ceremony, instead of sitting on the Bishop’s Chair himself, he invited twelve local schoolchildren to come forward, gave each of them a golden crown to wear, and then as each of them sat on the Chair in turn, he washed their feet. He then preached about the ministry of a Bishop being that of a servant, not of a Lord. After moving to York, he set up his own prayer tent in the Minster and spent a week publicly fasting and praying. Then three months ago, Archbishop Sentamu appeared live on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show, and talked about his objection to Mr Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe. He said Mr Mugabe had “taken people’s identity” and “cut it to pieces”. He then removed his clerical collar – a symbol, he said, of his own identity as an Anglican and a priest – took a large pair of scissors and cut the collar to pieces. He declared that he would not wear a collar again until Mugabe is out of office. He has been a critic of Mr Mugabe for long enough, but it was this visual act on the TV which, though it may have seemed a little bizarre, caught the national imagination.Last week, speaking in Synod on the meaning of Covenant, Dr Sentamu gave the Archbishop of Canterbury a gift – a four-foot ebony “chief stick” he had brought back from a humanitarian visit to Kenya. This symbolic gesture of respect for Dr Williams’ authority and leadership was all the more powerful after the row in recent days over the “sharia law” lecture and interview (a row which, incidentally, has been reported in blogland to have been largely a media set-up).

So what’s with all this dramatic action? Is the Archbishop of York just playing for media attention? Cynics might think so. But there is a long history of prophetic action in the Jewish-Christian tradition, perhaps its most colourful exponent being the prophet Jeremiah, who once took off his underpants to make a point. In the thirteenth chapter of his book, Jeremiah tells a bizarre story of how he went to buy a new linen loincloth, wore it for a while, and then went down to the riverbank, took it off and buried it. Some time later he went to dig up the underpants, only to find that they had gone rotten. This he used as a sign to show his community how they had become distant from God. They should, he said, have been as intimately close to God as a pair of underpants. But separated from God, they had become rotten and useless.

Jeremiah could, of course, have delivered an elegant speech, using sophisticated religious, political or philosophical language. Or he could have preached a fiery sermon, or written a poem or a song – he could have got the idea across in a number of ways. But it seems that Jeremiah was talking to people who had stopped listening to his words. Jeremiah’s book is littered with stories like this – stories of prophetic, visual actions that take everyday objects and turn them into pictures of what was happening in his world.

There have been a lot of words written and spoken about the other Archbishop in the last ten days, some of them in a fearful and angry response to a taboo subject, many more in a cynical way, apparently planned for media effect. Instead of engaging with the issues, many of the arguments were reduced to nothing more than taking sides. “Are you for the Archbishop of Canterbury, or against him?” a visitor asked me in my Vestry last week. Once last week’s row had reached a pitch where words were no longer being heard, still less change anyone’s mind, the Archbishop of York’s gift of a chief-stick was a moving, visual image that transcended the argument, instead simply placing himself in solidarity with his brother and colleague. Sometimes actions do speak louder than words.

I for one am glad that we do not have dumbed-down Archbishops. The last thing the Church needs is mere symbols of power; what we have in these two leaders is two people who refuse to be tamed into mere institutional bureaucrats; they set the tone for Christians who want to engage properly with thoroughgoing thinking and appropriate action, not simply reduce everything to a soundbite.

Come and hear both Archbishops speak in Cambridge this week on the relationship between faith and society. A World To Believe In, Cambridge, 20-22 Feb