The gift of sacramental communion is greater than any issue we face

The vote on the proposed changes to the Marriage Canon at the upcoming General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada should not be seen as a matter of winners and losers, according to Dr. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury.

“If we think what really matters in the Church is to get the right answer on same-sex marriage on one side or the other, then we are actually going to miss some very important things about the identity of the Church”, says Dr. Williams in an interview for the Huron Church News at the end of his three-day visit to London, Ontario in March.

Dr. Williams insists that the Church should not break sacramental communion over this or any other issue.

“The gift of sacramental communion and all that it means is so much greater than any one issue”, explains former Archbishop of Canterbury.

The former head of the Anglican Church visited London, Ontario from March 16 to March 18 addressing hundreds of people who attended his lectures on three occasions.

On Saturday, Rowan Williams gave his lecture at Metropolitan United Church and on Sunday he spoke on Theology and Human Rights Conflicts and Convergence at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral.

On Monday, March 18, Rowan Williams received an honorary doctorate from Huron University in London. Special convocation followed by Dr. Williams’ lecture concluded his three-day visit to London organized by Metropolitan United Church, Huron University and the Diocese of Huron.

Bishop of Huron, Rt. Rev. Linda Nicholls presided over the conferring of honorary degree on Monday, while the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, the Most Rev. Fred Hiltz presented the citation.


Archbishop Rowan Williams with Bishop Linda Nicholls and Ven. Todd Townshend at the convocation at Huron University, May 18, 2019


Baptism takes us into the heart of the human experience

In conversation with Dr. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury on the last day of his visit to Huron, March 18, 2019

Riveting and profound, incisive yet gentle. And, above all, challenging.

It is with these words that the audience in Huron reacted to Rowan Williams’ lectures as if sensing the presence of someone who speaks “the truth in love” and shares his doubts and concerns without fear. That is why we start the interview with former Archbishop of Canterbury with the question on teaching in the context of Church:

Would you be willing to share some of your thoughts on the importance of the renewal of teaching ministry in life of Church, especially on teaching as a Gospel exercise – the reason we teach is to know Christ, to be drawn through Christ into fellowship with God by the power of the Spirit.

One thing that often strikes me if I have been involved in a teaching event is that people will say to me afterwards, ‘I was surprised…’ They realize that they have been living in a larger landscape than they knew. It always reminds me of a character in Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme where he realizes that he has been speaking prose all his life and never knew he was doing anything so clever.

So it’s surprise in this sense, ‘Oh, so this is a bigger house than I thought, there are other rooms, other floors.’ That sense of grateful surprise, and sometimes slightly alarmed surprise is what is going on in teaching. And it is a Gospel activity because if it’s true that the Gospel brings a new creation into being, then there has to be something of the same immense horizon that there is in creation already from the beginning. It’s not just a new set of ideas or habits, but a whole new landscape… And that’s good news, because sometimes people think that nothing about the Church or the faith can surprise them again. I believe that good teaching takes us beyond that…

Watch Dr. Rowan Williams’ lectures in Huron:

Learning To Live: How Do We Grow In Christian Insight, part 1. Metropolitan United Church, March 16, 2019

Learning To Live: How Do We Grow in Christian Insight, part 2. Metropolitan United Church, March 16, 2019

Annual R. T. Orr Lecture. St. Paul’s Cathedral, March 17, 2019

What Shall I Cry. Huron University, March 18, 2019

Doctor of Divinity Ceremony, Huron University, March 18, 2019

Being Christian, as you once stated, means to be affected by the mess of humanity. To say “I’m baptized” is to claim a new level of solidarity with other people.

What I meant by that was that baptism is being taken to where Jesus is. In the traditional imagery of baptism Jesus is taken down into the depths and being within the depths where he is with us, human beings, means that baptism instead of separating us from the rest of the human experience takes us a bit further into the heart of the human experience. So if I encounter somebody who is living with privation, with guilt, with confusion, I can’t say, ‘Well ain’t I the lucky one’. Instead, I should say, ‘Well, I belong with you.’ And it’s that belonging with people who are a bit lost and a bit confused that is the heart of our Christlikeness in the baptized community.

Which brings us to the question of our action in the world?

Our action in the world is not so much that we turn up with solutions, but that we turn up… that we become a sign to people that they are not despised, they are not untouchable, they are not forgotten. I learned this in a variety of ways as Archbishop. For example, in some of the visits I made as Archbishop, whether it was to a school on a Council Estate or to the church in Melanesia, people would say, ‘Well, it’s nice to know we are not forgotten.’ It wasn’t that they were expecting lots of solutions; it did matter that they felt as a part of something. Out of this may come various kinds of change, various kinds of action, but first of all we join them. My great friend Ken Leech used to talk about the story of the prophet Ezekiel going to join the exiles (Ezekiel 3:15), where he says when he got there, ‘And I sat there among them stunned for seven days.’ And that’s what we do.

Jean Vanier has said that L’Arche communities are not so much called to be a solution, as they are called to be a sign?

Jean has been a very important person in my life and L’Arche has been a very important sign for me. What it teaches is that it’s never just this asymmetrical doing good to somebody. Jean’s immense patience and graciousness is quite extraordinary, quite transforming. At the Lambeth Conference in 1998, he had the bishops wash one another’s feet. I stayed with him once at Trosly and my memory of the Eucharist there was one of those moments where you see what it is all about. The image that stuck with me was of a young man with very severe learning difficulties going up to receive communion. After he received communion, he just put his arms around the priest and gave him a wet, slobbery kiss. And I thought, ‘Well, the sacrament works both ways’… It’s as if the world is a set of concentric circles. There’s the human community at large, sometimes wonderful, sometimes not so wonderful; there’s the Church which is committed in a very special way to be a sign of God’s idea of community; and within the Church there are communities like L’Arche and good monastic communities which say to the Church, ‘This is what you ought to be doing and thinking about’.

A rights culture alone just keeps putting all the threads back into where I sit. The idea that my right is my right to give, to be active, turns it around

Part of what we have all learned from L’Arche is simply to be open to the unexpected gifts of people we don’t pay attention to. What am I going to learn from this person, who on the surface might look as if they have got nothing to give me?… A rights culture alone just keeps putting all the threads back into where I sit. The idea that my right is my right to give, to be active, turns it around. If you look at human rights in terms of L’Arche, it’s not that here are some unfortunate people who have a right for us to be nice to them; but rather, here are also a people who have a right to be set free, to be.

Often the decision-making structures of the Church function in such a way that we invariably create winners and losers – the ‘zero-sum game’ as you mentioned. What changes in our decision-making structures involving laity, clergy and bishops can you imagine happening, which would help us address the complex issues we wrestle with?

We became very aware of this in the Church of England as well. One of the things we tried to do in my time was try to make sure that at Synod, we sometimes (not often enough) had a guided Bible study session, for people in smaller groups so that there would be more personal interaction. I can recall that before the first vote on women bishops, I suggested that every member of Synod should seek out somebody that they were at odds with and commit to praying with them regularly over the course of the Synod.

A lot depends on two things. First, it depends on what we vote for, how we actually frame a motion – people became very impatient with our toing and froing on how to frame the motion for the vote on women bishops in England. But I think it was right to take that time, so that when we got the motion to vote on, it was a little less scratchy than it was at the beginning.

To me, one of the basic questions about democracy is how we deal with people who are not going away…

Second, it depends on what we commit to do in the aftermath; in allowing it to bed into, to be realized in a way which doesn’t ignore the minorities. Again, we had a lot of difficulties in setting up the systems to look after the minority in the vote on women bishops. Many people thought we shouldn’t have done that. At the same time, I am very loathe to think that we operate as simple winners and losers.

Those two aspects, how we shape the motion and how we actually listen to the minority in the implementation of it, gets us a bit away from the ‘We are the masters now’ stance. There were some who after the vote on women bishops said ‘Well, you can go now.’ To me, one of the basic questions about democracy is how we deal with people who are not going away…

Bishop Linda on Rowan Williams’ lectures in Huron

It was a joy to hear Archbishop Rowan Williams engage people across the spectrum of church life from parishioners and parish clergy to academics in reflection on the nature of Christian life and of God.

The Archbishop spoke about the life of discipleship in a way that all could find their baptismal call reflected. He spoke at the Cathedral with an intellectual rigour that kept a filled cathedral spellbound for a full hour as he gave us confidence in the necessity for a theological grounding of any discussion of human right(s).

He speaks with a passionate tenderness of the love of God and a humility and honesty about human life with all its frailties, including and especially in the Church. What a privilege to be able to hear him in person in our own diocese!”

The Anglican Church of Canada is facing this challenge with the vote on the proposed changes to the Marriage Canon. People are not of the same mind when it comes to this issue. How to continue together, as one Church?

One of the requirements for this is that everybody has some common language for what really matters in the Church. If we think what really matters in the Church is to get the right answer on same-sex marriage on one side or the other, then we are actually going to miss some very important things about the identity of the Church. It’s why in the book Being Christian, I said that it’s the acknowledgement of the sacramental structure, the reference of everything to the Bible, the reality of shared prayer and shared silence. These are the things we can go on affirming. I’ve never seen why we should break sacramental communion over some of these issues. The gift of that sacramental communion and all that it means is so much greater than any one issue.

In one of your addresses here you said that you wonder if in fifty years time our great-grandchildren will wonder why we weren’t out on the street over the environmental crisis we are facing. One of the perennial temptations is for us to become an ‘issues’ church – which can flatten us. In Being Christian you link the environment with the Eucharist, advocating for the sacramentality of all things. Do you have any thoughts on how we as individuals, as communities of faith, as a diocese pray, think and act more prophetically on caring for creation?

It ceases to be an issue when it is seen as a discipleship question, when it is seen as a matter of virtue in old fashion language. In other words, it is helping people into the habits of responsible action towards the environment, not because this is absolutely necessary for the campaign, but because it is a good place to be, it’s a human place to be. It comes down to all the sort of boringly granular things like recycling, car-pooling… daily practices. This is discipleship, the raw material of discipleship, just as much as our family ethics or whatever.

You advocate the role small groups have to play in our learning to pray, think and act. For many of our communities of faith, this can seem like a significant shift. Do you have anything to say about how we can foster small group life in our respective faith communities?

One of the things which matter is do people feel safe in a small group. I don’t just mean the safeguarding question. I mean do they feel safe to express what they don’t understand? Do they feel that other people are to be trusted? If you can establish that, it is half the problem.

Sometimes one way of doing that is to start just by gently suggesting partnerships between people for prayer and reflection. ‘Why don’t you go and call on [name] one evening next week and have a look at the Gospel together and see what comes out of that.’ So often people will say, ‘I am so nervous about coming here… I don’t know anything about Jeremiah.’ If they know that everyone else is in much the same boat, that nobody else knows much about Jeremiah, then it helps…

Archbishop Rowan Williams at St. Paul’s Cathedral on March 17, 2019 with (left to right): The Very Rev. Paul Millward, The Rev. Canon Marion Haggerty, The Rt. Rev. Linda Nicholls, The Rev. Michael DeKay, The Rev. Deacon Pat Henderson, Matt Gillard

The Church did not begin in the New Testament as a mass movement. It begins as a very tangible, local community of transformation,

I do see this as way forward for the Church; in fact, I don’t see much happening without it. The Church did not begin in the New Testament as a mass movement. It begins as a very tangible, local community of transformation, which is why I am a bit wary of the megachurch as a model which is for everyone. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The megachurches that have real health in them are the ones that understand how to work with cells.

To be within face to face distance from people – that does make a difference. In my times as Archbishop, we had a number of interfaith initiatives. The one that was very effective was the Christian-Muslim forum in the UK which was meant simply to build friendships between churches and mosques within local settings. So, if there was a local issue – something as simple as having speed bumps on a road beside a school, or something related to local youth crime – church and mosque would be able to work together. It humanizes the issue and opens the appetite for action.

I am sometimes inclined to think negatively about where we are as a culture, and whenever I do that, we should think that an awful lot of people simply need permission to do the right thing. And sometimes even politicians need that kind of permission.

Finally, as someone who had spent quite a lot of time in discussions with Roman Catholics and with Orthodox Christians, could your share a few thoughts on the subject of Church unity?  

There is a part of me which does get deeply impatient with our confessional divisions simply because it feels like a luxury in a world that’s hungry for what we want to say and for what we want.

We sometimes treat the sacraments in particular as if they were our property rather than Christ’s

We sometimes treat the sacraments in particular as if they were our property rather than Christ’s and that’s what worries me. But we are in the world we’re in, and inherited Christian cultures separate us quite often.

We have one Lord. The Primate was talking the other day about receptive ecumenism, the notion that no one strand of the Christian Church has all the answers. And to say that is not to minimize the importance of the visible unity of the Church. It’s simply to say that as our history has unfolded, different bits of the Church have developed different skills and focii, each one of which has something Godly and life-giving about it. But if we try to take them on their own, they become less life-giving.

The Venerable Tim Dobbin

Davor Milicevic

Archbishop’s impressions of Huron

“Two things struck me about the Diocese and the Huron College. One is the immense challenge of changes in agricultural life in this area. So much of what I was hearing from a couple of clergy on Saturday is what I used to hear in my diocese in Wales. So many people have been chewed up in the works because of that, losing traditional ways in approaching agriculture life. Younger members of community do not want to stay. It’s heartbreaking because some of the human values and human skills are being lost. And if you end up with this hugely mechanized, consolidated, homogenized business, something about our whole relation to environment does get lost. I see that as one of the big challenges in Christian ministry in this diocese.

What struck me about the college – talking to the president – was how much he emphasized the significance of the small size of the college, not wanting to grow beyond a certain number. Again there are values and skills which human scale makes possible. It is something that matters when you are talking about, as the College does, leaders with heart. You cultivate that heart, you educate that heart in the human size community.”