Simon Barrow

Can Rowan Williams (still) rescue us from idiocy?

By Simon Barrow
March 19, 2012

This article was first published in 2006 and revised in 2008 (see the notes at the end for details). It makes points that I think and hope are still valid. The answer to the follow-up question, "So, has Rowan Williams saved us from idiocy, then?" will of course be, "No, and it would be daft to think that one person could, or that it's finally his responsibility." But along the path of considering the binds we in the churches are in, and the way the Christian message shapes not an escape route but a way through, there remains much to benefit from. This is my excuse for re-publishing the piece (again), anyway...


Sometimes, it must be admitted, journalism is the only thing that stands between the studiously-minded and their endless deferral of opinion. Equally often, however – and perhaps more determinatively in our impatient communications culture – journalism can betray the nuance and care of painstaking thought. At great cost to truthfulness.

Take the case of Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams’ interview with Wim Houtman, religion editor of Nederlands Dagblad ( After it first appeared on 19 August 2006, the Anglican leader’s further remarks on the ‘gay row’ became yet more argued-over ballast in a vitriolic rhetorical war between those who wish for the full inclusion of lesbian and gay persons in the church, and those who would view that as a betrayal of the church’s scriptural and traditional teaching.

At the time most seemed to agree on one thing, however. They thought that this interview indicated a significant shift in Dr Williams’ position – away from his previous personal conviction that a change in the church’s inherited stance against homosexuality would be theologically and pastorally appropriate. Quite clearly, however, it did not. What the Archbishop actually said is what he has been saying for a number of years: “I have to guard the faith and teaching of the Church. My personal ideas and questions have to take second place.” This may be questionable, but it is not new.

He remarked that his now-famous lecture ‘The Body’s Grace’, given at an event organised by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, was received warmly by a few and critically by many. And he had the humility to acknowledge that a number of criticisms of the text were appropriate. He is, after all, a person with the kind of intellectual temperament that is always inclined to revise, qualify and enter renewed caveats. But he specifically declined the opportunity to modify, change or develop his personal approach to the question at the heart of current ructions in the worldwide Anglican Communion, declaring instead: “What I am saying now is, let us talk this through.”

Diversity, disagreement and grace

Much of the rest of the interview, now somewhat buried in history, but still significant, was concerned with how Christian people might learn to handle their differences better and in a way shaped by the loving, gracious and patient nature of the Gospel of Christ. He also noted that this will take some time, given current obstacles on all sides, the intractability of much extant opinion, and the political challenges inherent in matters of church relations and structure.

Dr Williams made a further pertinent point about ‘inclusivity’ which lead his interviewer to conclude (wrongly, if you read what the Archbishop actually said) that he was offering, in Houtman’s words, “a rebuke [to] those who argue it is high time the Church accepted gay relationships.” Actually his comment – if it is to be read as a rebuke of any kind – was surely an invitation to all involved in the present argument to reconsider their attitudes to others.

What he said is: “I don’t believe inclusion is a value in itself…Welcome is. [When] we welcome people into the Church, we say: ‘You can come in, and that decision will change you.’ We don't say: ‘Come in and we ask no questions.’ I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ. That means to display in all things the mind of Christ. Paul is always saying this in his letters: Ethics is not a matter of a set of abstract rules, it is a matter of living the mind of Christ.”

Dr Williams continued: “That applies to sexual ethics; that is why fidelity is important in marriage. You reflect the loyalty of God in Christ. It also concerns the international arena. Christians will always have reconciliation as a priority and refuse to retaliate. By no means is everything negotiable for me”. He then goes on to cite the Christian doctrine of the incarnation of God in Christ as an example of something “[constitutive] of what the Church is.”

What is truly significant here, many would argue, is that the Archbishop did not say that our views on sexuality are a fundament of Christian community, rather that the person and work of Christ is. It is Christ who welcomes all, and bids them be converted to a fulfilled way of living based on reconciliation, faithfulness, non-retaliation and the sharing of life. Moreover, as Paul reminds us, it is not the case that some are pure and others impure as a whole, but that as we become part of the Body of Christ, broken and glorified, we each receive the opportunity to be reformed, both personally and corporately, from that which wounds and kills us and others.

This is the Gospel, and it applies to people of whatever condition and background, though it will impact them differently. As the relationships Jesus forges in the Gospels make clear, for example: the dispossessed will find dignity, the sorrowful will be comforted, and those who have arrogated themselves through wealth or status will discover that the company of Christ liberates them through sharing and humility.

Beyond ‘inclusivity’?

The insufficiency of the language of ‘inclusivity’ (which we are then required to be for or against) is that it may blur this edge, suggests the Archbishop. As a signatory and supporter of the Inclusive Church statement (, I still think he is right. I argued at the time that another epithet might have been chosen. Jesus, to be sure, opposes all the ways human beings (especially religious ones) try to exclude people from his company, touching the supposedly ‘impure’ and dining with those of ill-repute. The community (ekklesia) that he creates on the basis of God’s uncontainable love is therefore graciously demanding in character. And this means that if we are to be one with it we will need to learn tough habits and counter-cultural skills: like enemy-loving, for example.

From my perspective (and from that of Rowan Williams’ personal statements before he became Archbishop, I would suggest), these implications of Jesus ‘love command’ apply to all, whatever their gender, race, nationality, ability… or sexuality. This means that the Church needs to exclude, not people, but behaviours such as violence, hatred, contempt, infidelity and abuse. And there is nothing in his Nederlands Dagblad interview – or in his wider writings and statements since – which suggests that Rowan Williams now thinks otherwise.

I would add another question about ‘inclusivity’ (as distinct from welcome) as the dominant Christian virtue for our times. And that stems from a meeting I once attended about the problem of homelessness. There church leaders and others were making extravagant statements about the need to ‘include’ everyone in the community. Until a single homeless person got up and said: “While I appreciate your desire to include me, can I just ask two questions? First, what will make this home you are offering better than the companionship I find on the streets? And second, will I be included in what you are building, or have you already decided that for me?’

Ouch. I took the point to heart, and have been concerned about the theological and practical weakness of the doctrine of ‘social inclusion’ ever since. What we need more than this is shared justice rooted in expanding love.

This takes us to another major challenge Dr Williams is issuing to all in the Christian community. We are too willing to couch our concerns in terms which fall short of what the Gospel offers and requires. If that is so of ‘inclusivity’ (which doesn’t signal the kind of thoroughgoing transformation needed to make our personal and corporate lives really fulfilling) it is also true, the Archbishop says elsewhere, of the language of ‘rights’. This is because, while rights speak of obligations towards each other which need to be enforced by law, the Gospel goes a step further and speaks of gifts which derive not from our human attempts to accommodate one another but from the unfathomable (and un-manipulatable) depths of the divine.

It follows, therefore, that if lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people are to be welcomed alongside others into the Body of Christ (as I believe they most definitely should be), it should not finally be out of duty imposed by legal obligation, but out of love which recognises that the Church is incomplete without them (us) and what they (we) bring. Similarly, all who are freely baptised into the Church will recognise that their human fulfilment comes from One whose sacrificial love can re-unite us beyond compulsion, not from an uncritical inclusion which leaves unchanged that in each of us which divides and destroys. This might include chunks of ‘queer’ or ‘straight’ lifestyles.

Faithfulness not tribalism

What Dr Williams seems to be saying, therefore, is that self-styled ‘liberals’ often forget the transformational core of the Gospel and substitute for it a message of rights and inclusivity which underplays the Gospel’s further gift and impact. And that what self-styled ‘conservatives’ often forget is that Jesus’ toughest opponents often deemed ‘scripturally faithful’ certain ideas of purity and rightness which turned out to be human barriers against those who God especially loves – people deemed unacceptable within the established social order.

If this is so, then there is more in the Anglican Communion’s ‘gay row’ than many activists on both sides are currently able to acknowledge. What is at stake is not a simple matter of rights or a simple matter of scriptural fidelity (both of which are deeply contested), it is the integrity (and out of that the unity) of the Christian Church as a subversive, levelling and creative community within the world.

“I just know that I have been given the task to preserve what unity and integrity there is”, Dr Williams told Nederlands Dagblad. He may, as his many critics aver, have thereby underestimated the ploys of the warring parties, or the distinction between unity and conformity. He may be holding out for more than polity can deliver. He may be subjecting his own perspective too readily to inherited understanding. He may also be elevating unrealisable principle over the actual pain and injustice faced by lesbian and gay people – a very serious charge indeed. All this may be the case, and may weaken his position.

But if that is so, it is because the Archbishop of Canterbury also believes passionately and rightly that there can be no communion without transformation, no acceptance without faithfulness, and no beneficial change which does not involve the long, hard task of patient listening – rather than the self-righteous ‘rush to judgment’ frequently required by our modern media and governing cultures. Christ-likeness, in other words.

To put it another way, Rowan Williams is resisting all those who wish to collapse a difficult-but-life giving mystique into a convenient-but-deadly politique (Charles Peguy). So whatever we think of his proposed ways forward – I have a range of questions about what is currently on the table myself – we should welcome the fact that they are based on three important things. First, a deeply prayerful (de-centred) and theological (God-centred) mindfulness. Second, a willingness to talk and to listen widely, even as many within the ‘debate’ refuse to do so. And third, a vision of communion (rather than contract, chaos or conflict) as the only sufficient basis of transformational community.

These are subtle and demanding starting points. They have problems and challenges about them which, unlike many of his critics, the Archbishop is willing to debate and consider. But we should never overlook the fact that they concern a possibility of change which goes well beyond the insistent demand for ‘victory’ on each side (even mine!) and resides instead in an invitation to a Love much deeper than a flawed ‘Hegelian dialectic’ (Giles Fraser) and nothing like the ‘spinelessness’ (Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association) that some detect in his gentle words.

Staying thoughtful in an idiocratic age

Which leads to one last, important, area of questioning. Why is Rowan Williams’ approach to Anglican divisions so readily misunderstood and mocked across the spectrum? Why are his consistent attempts to reframe our arguing regarded as so obscure or infuriating? When he was appointed as 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, few had a harsh word about him. Now he is frequently characterized as bumbling, weak and ineffectual.

This, I suggest, happens for two main reasons. First, Dr Williams has a vision of the church as an exemplary and life-expanding company of Godward people which many both within and without the institution have lost sight of or hope in. Second, he chooses his words with great care and nuance in a media culture which is ill-adapted to see either as a virtue, and in the midst of a dispute where complexity and ambiguity rapidly become political irritants. We do not want to hear what Rowan is saying, because it does not fit the mould of ‘power leadership’, and because we just want him to say what we are saying. If he doesn’t, we are quick to accuse him of naiveté or betrayal.

This angry impatience with painstaking thought worries me. It is an early symptom, I believe, of the developing social condition identified and lampooned in an American movie called (without any attempt at pulling its punches) ‘Idiocracy’.

‘Idiocracy’ is about a future where we have grown obese and lazy on consumption, immediate gratification and easy solutions. It portrays a culture in which loud-mouthed people with guns resent and despise disarmed, caring intelligence. They throw clumsy punches at the articulate and call them (ironically) “fags” for disturbing the know-nothing and change-less equilibrium.

Of course this is satire, far too black-or-white. And we are not quite there yet. Similarly, we need to recognise that in the Gospel’s topsy-turvy world it is the good-hearted (not the self-selecting ‘wise’) who are blessed. Nonetheless, if we too readily dismiss the attempts of humane, spiritual and thoughtful people like Rowan Williams to point out that our difficulties are not just about someone else’s blockheadedness, we may be nearer the idiocratic realm and further from the hoped-for realm of God and of reason than we think.

Especially if we haven’t yet quite figured out what he is really saying because we are frankly too busy shouting and judging. As Jesus said to us all (not just ‘that other lot’): “Let those who have ears hear.”


1. This article first appeared as a feature (‘How Rowan Williams can rescue us from Idiocracy’) on Ekklesia in September 2006. It was then published as a chapter in the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow, with a Foreword by Desmond Tutu (Shoving Leopard, 2008).

2. Wim Houtman’s interview with Dr Williams, rather unhelpfully entitled ‘The church is not inclusive’, was available in English on the website of Nederlands Dagblad. It has now disappeared, but is helpfully archived on Fulcrum's website:

3. Information about the film ‘Idiocracy’ (script and screenplay by Mike Judge, 2006) is available at the Internet Movie Database -

4. Shortly after the announcement of his resignation as of 31 December 2012, I wrote 'Rowan Williams: People before politics?' -

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.