God in a mod world

Rowan Williams.
Rowan Williams.


Bloomsbury. 344pp. $35.


The story goes that a former archbishop of Canterbury once found himself the target of outrage in the British popular press for something he had said. One newspaper attacked him under the headline ''The Archbishop Must Go!'' A few weeks later he again attracted the ire of the newspaper and the headline was ''The Archbishop Has Gone Too Far!'' The present archbishop can relate to that experience.

Rowan Williams is the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion which numbers about 80 million people across the world. As he writes in the preface to Faith in the Public Square, he is expected to have comments on the public issues of the day such as the environment, living in a multi-faith society, issues of human rights, sexuality and secularism. Speaking from experience, he writes bluntly that when he does so he is doomed to fail in the eyes of most people.

If he speaks in biblical or theological terms then he will be accused of being irrelevant and out of touch. If he ventures into secular territory, he will be told that he has no particular expertise in sociology or economics or international affairs, so why should the community listen to him? In relating to popular culture he runs the risk of being accused of ''dumbing down'' complex issues. If he gives an academic analysis of such issues, his critics say he is engaged in self-indulgent elitism.

Williams writes that archbishops grow resilient and even rebellious, in the face of all this. He believes that religious commitment in general, and the Christian faith in particular, is not a vague philosophy but an unremitting challenge to express what we think we know about human beings and their destiny. He writes that the risk of blundering into unforeseen complexities cannot be avoided, and even mistakes may stimulate others to work out better responses. This book is a collection of papers first given as lectures on various occasions over the last decade and in various parts of the world.

Rowan Williams was born in Wales into a Welsh-speaking family and was educated at Cambridge and at Oxford and was ordained in 1978. He had a brilliant academic career and became Archbishop of Wales before being appointed the first Archbishop of Canterbury in modern times not to be appointed from within the Church of England. He was consecrated 10 years ago in 2003, and is now retiring. It has been said that he spent much of his decade as archbishop in trying to avoid the fragmentation of the Anglican Communion by keeping various elements talking to each other. Vicious attacks on him by leaders among Sydney Diocese Anglicans have made headlines around the world. Peter Jensen, Archbishop of Sydney, helped to organise an alternative to the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in protest against the views of the Archbishop of Canterbury on sexuality issues.

His essays ask penetrating questions such as whether secularism has failed, should we view multiculturalism as friend or foe, do human rights exist, and the relation between atheism and the world of faith. While these papers are carefully reasoned contributions to public debate they are not easy reading and do not lend themselves to ''sound-bite quotes''.

In chapter two, Williams writes of the whole issue of the secular society and the fact that secularists are troubled and even panicked by the increasing visibility of Islam in historically Christian and/or liberal societies. This came to a head in 2008 when Williams caused a media storm when he appeared to suggest that there was a place for a parallel jurisdiction to the civil law for Muslim sharia law in the British legal system. There were demands for his resignation.

Williams pleads for greater understanding of these complex historical issues and a ''nuanced approach to the supposedly monolithic character of Muslim political thought''. He clearly has been prepared to make a much deeper study of the complex and diverse character of contemporary Islamic belief than his critics give him credit for. The same challenge applies in Australia which has also seen calls for the application of sharia law. In years ahead these issues will become sharper and the Archbishop of Canterbury challenges us to do more work in this sensitive area.

In an essay entitled Reconnecting Human Rights and Religious Faith the Archbishop discusses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and seeks to reconnect thinking about human rights and religious conviction, especially Christian convictions about human dignity and human relatedness. He suggests that the language of the Universal Declaration is unthinkable without the kind of moral universalism that religious ethics safeguards. I was pleased to see that he quotes with appreciation the writings of the Reverend Sarah Bachelard, Canberra Anglican priest and scholar. In a paper published 10 years ago she argues that a sustainable commitment to human rights must have in its background the possibility of love - in the sense of a felt urgency about how human lives matter, how they are unique and irreplaceable.

I found particularly helpful the chapter on analysing atheism in the modern world, the sort of attacks on religious belief made famous by scientists like Richard Dawkins. Williams suggests that ''atheism'' may be a less simple idea than either its defenders or its attackers assume. To understand what atheism means, we need to know which gods are being rejected and why.

Faith in the Public Square is a book both demanding and rewarding. It is, as the author writes, a series of worked-out examples of trying to find the connecting points between urgent public questions and fundamental Christian beliefs about creation and salvation.

Robert Willson is a retired Anglican priest and teacher.

This story God in a mod world first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.