When I meet Rowan Williams at the Southbank Centre in late October, there is much going on. The Church of England, of which he was once Archbishop of Canterbury, stands accused of trying to close churches to save cash; a famous bishop has converted to Rome; and Williams is waiting for his daughter to give birth (the boy, his first grandchild, will arrive a few days later).
Although he’s been lampooned for being wishy-washy, I find Williams’s language to be economical and exact, and though he is thoroughly loyal to his successors in the clerical hierarchy, buried beneath his metaphors is a cutting critique of where we’re at. “There was a loss of nerve in the 1960s,” he says of Anglicanism. “Like St Peter walking on the water”, the Church seemed to “look down at the wrong moment” and lose its footing.
Now, Williams believes, we are seeing the legacy of that “pervasive and paralysing anxiety about the role of the Church in society”. Amid “a general cultural tide flowing away” from Christianity, we have to ask: what if the Church “is no longer a given….”?
Information has become abundant, he says, yet “the process of acquiring that information” – ie scrolling through one’s phone – “has disabled us intellectually… We are increasingly forgetting how to learn. We assume that knowledge can be distilled and communicated and transferred just like that… a tick box approach which is found in clergy training.” What knowledge we inherit, we take for granted, yet “the absolutism of some modern social morality” – the idea that right and wrong are obvious – “did not drop from heaven. We learnt to see things this way.”
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