Rowan Williams often gets a rough ride in the press and is certainly not universally understood in the parish. Neither has he always got it right. Indeed the way he succumbed to pressure and asked his friend Jeffrey John to step down just before his consecration as bishop of Reading may well still give him sleepless nights. However, being flawed and human like the rest of us doesn’t stop him being one of the giants of our generation. He has a phenomenal brain. On Saturday he put that brain at the service of his heart.
He had just returned from the Congo and what he experienced obviously stirred his guts. In a period of unspeakable violence and terror local people told him: “The church did not abandon us.” A sleeping lion in the archbishop stirred. He thought to himself: “If it wasn’t for the church, no one, absolutely no one, would have cared, and they would be lost still. “
In the Congo, he seemed to have rediscovered something often masked by the sheer grey grind of his day job. “It was almost a fierce sense, almost an angry feeling, this knowledge that the church mattered so intensely.”
Back home, the truth is that the church hardly matters at all. At a local level churches produce fabulous stories, but generally the church isn’t even on the radar. The presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, the Right Rev Peter Skov-Jakobsen, Sunday morning guest preacher, pointed out that this won’t change until we sort our internal ethics. Whilst we are seen as discriminatory, racist and homophobic, it is almost impossible to convince folk that we have good news for them.
Many people in this country experience the abandonment Williams talks about as abandonment by the Church of England. The archbishop faced the problem head on. Quoting Bonhoeffer, he called on his church to search for a new kind of language for faith that could have the same revolutionary and liberating force that the words of Jesus originally had. Good grief! If we actually did that it would blow General Synod apart.
Rowan was on fire, but alongside him we met another bishop of real stature, tough and humble, intelligent and grounded – Bishop Victoria Matthews of Christchurch, New Zealand. Beneath the tedious manicured York agenda, the issue of women bishops doesn’t go away. “Do you believe in women in the episcopate? Why, I’ve seen it done, and it rocks.”
This current UK newspaper article, whose provenance I have inadvertently lost in the transcription, describes Archbishop Rowan as having ‘fire in the belly’ in his speech to the York General Synod in the U.K. recently.
Interesting, to readers in New Zealand, is the writer’s reference to our very own Bishop Victoria Matthews (Christchurch) who – by her very presence – challenges the doubters on the validity of women bishops. Good for her!
Father Ron Smith, in the U.K.