Published by Qmunicate
Taking a coffee break from the mammoth task of pasting together the largest split in the Anglican Church for centuries, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered a free public question and answer session in Bute Hall last month.
The format of the evening also included an open discussion with British Muslim academic Mona Siddiqui, a Professor of Theology and Religious Issues at Glasgow University. The Archbishop confronted a range of topics, witnessed by 700-strong audience.
2008 has been a struggle for the Church of England and Williams himself – his comments on Sharia law in February created a prolonged media hysteria, and the historic Lambeth Conference was marred by a boycott by conservative bishops over the issue of homosexuality in June. “Anything I say here tonight isn’t just to the audience sitting in front of me,” he recognised.
In spite of this, Williams was composed during the whole event, and his input to the discussion was remarkably frank. He spoke candidly about sectarianism and secular politics, and a sense of realism washed over everything he said. Any form of sermonising was thankfully absent; the Archbishop certainly proved his worth as an intellectual with a broad understanding of modern life, as opposed to a one-dimensional religious zealot – leaving points of intrigue even for a militant atheist like me.
One notable point came when Williams admitted that, “religious language often seems hollow in the context of great human suffering,” and that, as any human being would, he questions his faith amid the worst of natural and political atrocities. However, he affirmed, “I’ve never thought of giving up, as I’ve never felt that nothing’s out there.”
The Archbishop even dared comment on Islam, despite the controversies in February, when provoked by Professor Siddiqui. “I think more Christians need to understand Jesus in the context of Islam. There are certainly many similarities.” Referring to Muslims and Jews as “our brothers and sisters”, Williams also stressed the importance of seeing his job as a pragmatic “listening process”.
Questions from the audience were mixed – one man wanted him to come up with a solution for religious divisions between Catholics and Anglicans, to which he responded by saying that he couldn’t do anything but to “hope to foresee a unity one day.” Another woman wanted to know if Williams be supporting Barack Obama or John McCain at the then-imminent Presidential Election. “I know better than to give you an answer to that,” he joked.
I left the room with a profound respect for the Archbishop. He demonstrated a deep theological and intellectual knowledge that made him appear more in touch with modern life than you’d probably expect. Yet, his affiliations with the ‘liberal wing’ of the church certainly don’t render him less religiously passionate as his conservative critics.