Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

ROWAN WILLIAMS Through the Narrow Gate

Former Carmelite nun and Oxford author CATHERINE COLDSTREAM travels to Cambridge to talk exclusively for MONK with poet and former Archbishop of Canterbury DR. ROWAN WILLIAMS on the relationship between faith, spirituality and the life of the imagination.

Illustration: Alodie Fielding

IT IS THE calm after the heavy rainfall of the night before. The city of Cambridge emerges through the mist as I walk in from a northerly suburb, my coat still damp from the previous evening when I’d run for cover at the station. People had scattered, hailing taxis, wrestling with umbrellas, heads huddled under scarves as the weather broke. Now it is a pale January morning, and the city sleeps. I pause and take in the glorious geometric architecture spreading out ahead of me. What staggers is its orderliness and extent.

I am on my way to meet Dr Rowan Williams, one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, now Master of Magdalene College, a man whose image – tall, bearded, slightly grizzled – is as compelling as is his voice, a warm,

 rich bass worthy of any Russian liturgy. There is a touch of mystery too about this scholar-poet, a man who is named after what the Celts called the Tree of Life, symbol of courage, wisdom, and protection. He equally mysteriously bears the title of Lord Williams of Oystermouth.

His personal assistant meets me at the Lodge, and we walk back onto the street and through a wintry garden quad to the Master’s dwelling on the site of what was once a Benedictine hostel. His study is filled with light, a tall room packed with books and icons, I am immediately struck by his warmth and simple generosity, and we get straight down to the business of discussing the theology of creativity.

CC: Thank you for agreeing to share your time today with MONK.  So, I’d really like to ask some questions about faith and the general nature of inspired creativity, including its waywardness, its mysteriousness, and whether the creative impulse and the sense of communion with a Higher Power spring from the same source. In a word, what I would like to talk about today is Inspiration. And I’m guessing you know a lot about it.  

RW: (Laughs) In your dreams!

CC: Well let’s start with something personal and specific. Would you identify foremost as a priest, an artist, or a teacher?

RW: I suppose I would have to say my priestly identity is the basic thing, or rather, I hope I would say I was a Christian. But it’s being a priest in a certain way that has helped me be a writer and poet, and a teacher as well. I don’t know if I could have written as I have, or taught as I have, without being a priest – put it that way.

CC: And was there a memorable first instance when you experienced the creative impulse, and if so did it predate your earliest conscious experience of faith?

RW: It didn’t predate an experience of faith. I’d say my first real experience of creativity came when I was a teenager, when I was already very much involved in the life of the Church. Similarly the first epiphanic spiritual moment I had was as a school boy at a Russian Orthodox liturgy – one of those great moments where I felt completely overwhelmed and immersed in something. 

CC: Was this connected with a sense of vocation?

RW: I was certainly thinking I might offer myself to the priesthood.  But it had a lot to do with a mixture of what I was hearing generally in church and what I was learning in school. I was lucky to have some very gifted, committed English teachers who really encouraged us to think more creatively. So that’s where I’d see it probably starting, aged 16 or 17 … I also had good fortune in having a parish priest, who was a great enthusiast for the life of the mind and the life of the imagination. So that through all these different people in the worlds of faith and of literature one is simply entering a larger world, a larger space.

CC: That’s a beautiful way of putting it.  Yes, one can feel very confined as a teenager by parental or social expectations…

RW: Yes, by social and academic expectations. We were a fairly high-achieving grammar school of the old style, although it was in a rather derelict condition, and in a rather unattractive bit of town, it still saw itself as very much pushing intellectual excellence so there was that, and I think that for a lot of us of my generation there was a feeling that we wanted to push the boundaries at a bit more. We had a succession of teachers who really helped us to do that, so that when I was in the Sixth Form we had a very active debating society, and we had a very active drama society. We had a discussion group for the Sixth Form, which was shared with one of the other schools, and I think a lot of my friends were just routinely engaged.

CC: So you were very lucky with your teachers and your friendship group. That sounds like a rather familiar scenario, a sort of History Boys situation …

RW:  Yes, there’s a touch of the History Boys about it.

CC: So, often very competitive, but also wonderfully inspiring. Many teenagers write poetry but not many cross the line between private experience and public expression of faith.  What do you think makes the difference, in terms of crossing that line? Is there an ingredient that’s needed to push the individual beyond the comfort zone of the interior world of the imagination, and, if so, is this something that the churches can or should be harnessing?

RW: It’s a very interesting question put in those terms, I suppose it is the difference between thinking of poetry as a way of expressing yourself, or of poetry as a way of coming to terms with and exploring something that isn’t yourself.

CC: That’s a beautiful way of putting it.

RW: I suppose when you say lots of teenagers write poetry, it’s to do with the self isn’t it? It’s to do with: who am I, what’s my unique experience?   But you are immediately opening it up to something much bigger. It’s that conviction that there is a process that you give yourself to in writing poetry.  You are not completely in control of it, by which I don’t mean you are having some sort of ecstatic inspiration, but you know that this is going to take you somewhere, which you’re not quite sure of.  I have sometimes said that that’s one of the things that happens if you try to write in strict verse forms.  You have to deal with what is being given to you.  

CC: The restrictions of the form?

RW: The restrictions of form, yes, and because of that, you are under pressure. You do not quite know where it’s going and you discover things when you are under the pressure, even if it’s only discovering that this word rhymes with that, and you think – ‘well now what? What would be the connection there?’ – and you’re into something fresh.

CC: So the ‘narrow gate’?

RW: Yes, the narrow gate.  You see obviously the spiritual parallel there. That in – well let’s put it bluntly – submitting yourself to a certain kind of discipline for the sake of a certain kind of discovery, you are actually, paradoxically, set free from everything having to express what you already know.

CC: Gosh. I wasn’t expecting this. I was somehow thinking of, you know, that writing poetry was this kind of freeing open space, and you sort of wade into the water. You are bringing me up short by reminding me that often the most fruitful things are the things where you are really confined, and you just have to deal with it, in that monastic sense of stripping.

RW: Yes it’s a really good analogy because – there’s a sonnet of Wordsworth’s which I remember we did at A-level, beginning: “Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room, and hermits are contented with their cell”…   But it’s actually about writing poetry. Writing sonnets in particular.  So of course you get young people writing poetry, and very often saying, yes just let it out, learn to manage the language to express yourself, but that’s only the beginning. If you want something to happen in the language you are using, it’s got to go beyond describing just what you are.  It’s got to take its own energy and become an exploration, and that’s why I think there is a real analogy between spiritual discipline and the discipline of creation.

CC: What you said makes me think of music as well. Writing an even half-convincing piece of music requires a certain level of technical ability, before you can even put a note on the page. It doesn’t have to be a 12-note row, but it does need some sort of harnessing device. 

RW: Yes, I think there of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, where you start with this extremely simple fugal subject, and Bach is almost like a computer running through all the options, saying, ‘I could do this, I could do this, or I could do this,’ all within the terms of the relations. The mathematical relations and proportions…

CC: Much of the church music Bach inherited is so foursquare, and actually – although it reminds one of his chorale style – it is so dull compared with Bach, and maybe this is why had to do it. He just had to make it more interesting!

“Poetry has to make it strange. It has to make us see something afresh.”

RW: I think it’s exactly that ‘knife edge’ thing in Bach, the fine line between the observance of really mathematical relationships, and the sheer energy and joy that infuses that.  He’s somebody who, as you say, has mastered the technicalities of counterpoint to an exceptional degree, and can see how more and more relations are generated as you go on, and somehow makes it sing.

CC: It is amazing how composers arrive at that transcendence in such very different ways, but with Bach it is definitely through the narrow gate. So, going into the nature of poetry a bit more, if we see faith as pointing to the Ineffable, does poetry do the same? And, if so – that is, if ultimate truths can’t be articulated – why do we write?  Is it a doomed enterprise? 

RW: Well, let’s see. It’s a sort of commonplace that the nature of the sacred, the nature of God, can’t be captured in words. But when you say that you are already saying that’s a discovery you can only make when you have tried the words. So that’s why religions don’t settle down just in silence.  No religion is completely silent, but what they are after is finding the words that’ll take you to the edge, to the point when you can say, ‘now I can see I’ve got to be silent, now I’ve come to the point where – ah yes. This is it.’

CC: As does Job at the end of his time of testing.

RW: Yes. And there really is something like that in poetry. Great poetry and great music bring you to that point where you say, ‘now I see why I can’t do this’.

CC: Yes, but perhaps people, long after they’ve reached that point, still experience the urge to create something that can be shared.

RW: Yes because it’s about the moving in and out of that silence. When you have recognised that, right I can’t go any further, you might feel that when you have stepped back for a bit, now, let’s see if I can get to that point by another route, as it were. Now, let’s go back and start again, and see whether there’s another set of connections and ideas and that again brings me to a sort of fruitful silence. So, rather than just coming up to the cliff edge and stopping and sitting down, you retreat from the cliff edge, and you find another route up to the cliff edge, and – the view is just a little bit different from there. And so on. There are different ways of being silent, and different points at which to start being silent.

CC: And ‘going out’ to that point that Promontory is perhaps like being ‘ driven out into the wilderness’, to the place where you can get that perspective, and then those few drops of Manna, or dew, and then you go back into the humdrum. You have actually spoken about your poems coming to you ‘unbidden, which I suppose is a form of being ‘driven out’ in that way. But have you ever sat down and said, Okay, I’m going to write a poem? Or it is always a case of being pushed to do it, driven out into the creative space?

RW: Well sometimes I have said Yes to an invitation to write a poem about something. Recently I was commissioned to write a poem for a music festival in Swansea, to be set to music, and that was quite a challenge. I have done one or two commissions like that and that’s the nearest you get to just sitting down and writing a poem on demand.  You can’t just say, right, I’m going to write a poem. You have to say, right, I said yes to that invitation, so when I have another moment let’s just see … let’s see what settles, and I don’t know. I don’t think they necessarily come out very different in the end from the ones you write in other contexts. And there have been other of occasions, for example when I was once asked would I just write a formal sonnet for an occasion and you write a moderately polished little piece which doesn’t amount to very much. It’s just a sort of jeu d’espirit.

CC: Talking about music, I came across an extraordinary thing recently. Somebody had set some of your poems to music, very beautifully. Robert Hugill, I think? 

RW: That’s right yes there are actually a few settings. Half a dozen or so of my poems.

CC:  How do you feel about somebody taking your poems into their own creative process? Does it feel like an invasion, or like somebody else is imposing their own personal musical agenda on your work?

RW: Well it’s fascinating I’m always very honoured that people should do this, and I listen to see what it is they have heard in the poem. When you write a poem and it’s ‘out there’ you’re not in control of what people will make of it.  So, a musical response is like other kinds of response, you think – well I can learn something from that. Because that’s what they see, that’s what they hear. Just occasionally I’ve heard settings where I think I’m not quite sure that’s in the right register, but on some other occasions I heard the setting of something I had written and have thought – my word, yes they really have got it.

CC:  That they’ve somehow brought something important out even more?

RW: Yes, and I thought – yes that does body it out.

CC: I often feel sorry for poets when their music is set, because I think the poem is already itself musical, perhaps.

RW: Yes, the poem is itself musical, and some poems are musical in such a way that almost any musical setting is somehow going to distract you from the musicality of the original. I think here of Vaughan Williams’s setting of George Herbert.  Now, I love George Herbert, and I love Vaughan Williams, and the Five Mystical Songs are wonderful, and they’re wonderful to sing. But when you get to Love Bade me Welcome, something in me says – look don’t even try.

CC: You can’t beat it can you? Even the rap-rapping-on-the-door rhythm …

RW: So, for example, with the first of them – Rise, Heart, thy Lord is Risen –  I think Vaughan Williams does a wonderful job.  It really harnesses it, and is beautiful.  Then I Got Me Flowers, and Let All The World even.  But with Love Bade me Welcome, I feel Vaughan Williams, bless him, has just not known what to do with it.  The ending is just a bit sentimental, and yet it’s utterly unsentimental in the poem. It’s so ‘hammer blow’ monosyllabic: ‘And I did sit and eat’. You can only spoil it. I read it once to a young Muslim friend who was utterly overwhelmed by it, and totally understood it.

CC: It’s universal really, isn’t it – the image of a deep communion. Your poems are obviously (or perhaps not obviously to you) not the easiest to decode.

RW: I do realise that!

CC: There are a lot of levels. One senses the strata underneath go very deep. And then there is the odd phrase that really jumps out.  I particularly love, for example: ‘Split the wood and I am there, says the unfamiliar Lord’, and I just thought ‘the unfamiliar Lord’ is such wonderful way of putting it. Unfamiliar: it is such a left-field choice of word.

RW: I can’t remember the process of writing that but I can remember the circumstance of it, and I know that there are certain cases where you put down something then think not quite, leave it to stew for a bit come back and see if it has come to the boil yet – and then perhaps another word will bubble up.  As for ‘unfamiliar’, well, I think behind that is Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Love is the unfamiliar Name/ Behind the hands that wove/ The intolerable shirt of flame/Which human power cannot remove.” Reading the Quartets when I was twentyish I guess was one of those moments when I thought, it is worth trying to write poetry even if you’re not going to get to that point. It’s worth trying. 

CC: I suppose that ‘unfamiliar’ is something that poetry enables. It enables an encounter with something we can’t actually name.

RW: Yes. Poetry has to make it strange. It has to make us see something afresh. When I think of Craig Raine and the poems of the 1960s, making things strange, you know, it’s a very genuine strand of poetry writing, and
although not everybody could or should write like that, it is an important element in a good poem, that element which makes you think:  I never saw that. Or even, I never heard that.  Because part of the art of poetry is really hard listening, and that’s quite difficult to boil down, but it’s important. It’s about the music that it makes, the echoes it sets up – you really have to listen very hard to get the chime of spoken words, and not what’s just on the page.

CC: Yes, I love the idea of listening.  For some mystical traditions, of course, that’s what at the heart, isn’t it? In the Western apophatic traditions, for example the Spanish mystics such as John of the Cross, it’s all about what you don’t say, isn’t it?

RW: Yes it is.  And again, it’s not about beginning with negation, but getting to the point where you know you’ve got to shut up from now on. Not an abstract silence, but a silence that comes at that point when you have exhausted all the words, but exhausted them in a good way.

CC: Yes, or perhaps there is just a single word that can resonate, or a short repeated phrase or mantra, such as the Jesus Prayer in the Orthodox tradition?

RW: And when, particularly early Christian writers, or Eastern Christian writers discuss the language of doctrine, quite often what they will say is, in effect, not that the doctrine is untrue, but that this is as true as it gets.

CC: I like that. Do you think we need to recover that openness in Western Christianity?

RW: I think we do, yes. We get stuck in this awful binary of  – well, it’s true or it isn’t. Either it describes ‘what God is like’, so that when you get to heaven you say, Oh yes, or it’s just wool-gathering. But you try to get it as true as you can, and then you say the measure of its truth is that it has got me to a point where I know I can’t say anything else.

“I don’t know if I could have written as I have, or taught as I have, without being a priest.”

CC: What about icons. I know you are interested in icons, and I’m not at all surprised to see a lot of icons here …

RW: It’s exactly a parallel, in the same way that the icon is not meant to be a picture of what it’s like. The transfiguration of Jesus did not try to ‘look like that’ because people don’t look like that. Skies don’t look like that, and rocks don’t look like that.

CC:  So, we know straightaway that it is not realistic.

RW: So what it is, in effect, saying is, let’s give you a kind of diagram, a schematic picture of what that event is giving us. What the energy or movement is, and in that case – (indicates an icon of the Transfiguration) – it’s a movement in which, out of the depths of that dark blue in the middle, Christ emerges as a light against that particular kind of darkness. The light is framed by the Law and the Prophets, on the mountain peaks (where revelations happen) and scattered round to the bottom are the baffled, alarmed, surprised disciples who, as you see, are thrown headlong by it. This is typical of the Orthodox way of depicting it. They are just overwhelmed by the light coming from that centre, the sprawling disciples are coming out towards you, so that the perspective is opening out towards you …

CC: Yes, so a picture can say more than words can ever encapsulate.

RW: It’s a representation of the meaning and the force of an event or of a person.

CC: Did icons develop because people couldn’t read the Scriptures? In Roman Catholicism you’ve got visual depictions such as the rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the use of images and statues as a way of telling stories?

RW: It’s a more complicated question than it appears, actually. In the Western tradition you have Gregory the Great, I think, saying: ‘These are the books of the illiterate’. In the Eastern Tradition it’s never been quite so functional, because the icon is painted by someone who is engaged in prayer and contemplation, as they paint, because the idea is that you depict the energies or forces of the design coming through the material, there is something about the icon which is more than just a picture to remind you, as with that icon of Transfiguration.  You are in a place where that energy, or that force concentrates. 

I said that from one point of view the three disciples are sprawling out. But from another point of view the perspective opens the other way. If you are the point where the perspective lines start, actually the movement of the picture is outwards into infinity. People often write about the ‘reversed perspective’ of icons. The immediate impression of the single point in the middle, from which the lines are radiating, is that it is Christ. From anther point of view you are the single point and all the energy of the picture is converging down into you.  

CC: It is not meant to replace the verbal? It is a completely different level of apprehension and learning…

RW: Yes, which is why I have often found it helpful to think of biblical texts like the Gospels as being a bit like icons. I don’t think the Gospels are meant to be Victorian biographies as somebody said. Instead, you’ve got four very different pictures of the force and impact of this personality. You have stories which are differently placed, differently told, with different elements underlined, as if to say there is never going to be just one way of receiving this mystery, and what we’re giving you is not the definitive version of the life of Jesus, but here are four complementary perspectives, which will give you something of that iconic sense.

CC: Yes, and more than four, if you go non-canonical…

RW: Indeed.  What’s interesting about the non-canonical Gospels, like Thomas of Philip or whatever, is that they don’t have narrative. They are a series of aphorisms, whereas the four canonical Gospels we have are very definitely narrative controlled if you like, so you can see there is definitely a claim being made about a set of events, genuinely located, just like the Transfiguration.  There really was and is a mountain called Tabor.

CC: Yes, but I suppose each of the evangelists might have liked to think that theirs was the version that might eventually prove definitive, or best survive?

RW: Yes, I would guess that if St Matthew knew St Mark, which was almost certainly the case, it wasn’t a case of him saying, I could do this better, or, here’s a new and more popular edition, with more teaching and more events in it. I think he was saying simply that – there’s more to be said, let’s see if I can say some of it. Then Luke comes along and says, yes, fine, there’s more to be said. And eventually John comes along and says, there is lots more to be said! (laughs)

CC: Ah, right. But then, at the end of Revelation: ‘if anyone adds to it’ …

RW: Well John ends up saying that, if you try to exhaust the perspectives, there would not be enough room in all the world for the books that would need to be written. 

CC: So, there is a place for verbal communication. I suppose it’s about human nature, and the need to share ideas and communicate. But the big danger isn’t it, with religion, is that if we try to ‘capture the joy as it flies’, we knock it dead.  So, I suppose keeping that sense of otherness, that unfamiliarity is important. I know that when I started looking into Catholicism, when I was In France, it was the sort of jolt I got going into a chapel where there was a group of about 30 French people all rattling off the rosary and I didn’t know what was going on. But the otherness was extraordinary, it was so foreign, and so interesting, because there were all so committed to it, they were taking it so seriously. I immediately felt I had stepped into another kind of space because it was so strange.

RW: Yes, because it was strange. And that’s one reason why I think it’s no kind of strategy for mission if we say we have to make less mysterious or less strange. I’m not a Latin Mass Fundamentalist, or a Prayer Book Fundamentalist, but I do think that we get it seriously wrong if we think it’s all got to be streamlined somehow, and simplified and made accessible. When I used to take ordinations according to the new Anglican Rite I used to feel really impatient because we were always explaining.  There was always another paragraph telling people what’s going on. I just thought, why can’t we get on with it?

CC: It’s awful isn’t it? Yes, I’m very intolerant with explanations – why not just say the words…

RW: Yes, and the Orthodox are completely shameless about this. You know, you sink or swim really.

CC: So you’ve obviously been very drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy. You’ve spoken about icons and written about Dostoevsky. Is there something we need to import from that tradition? Do we need to remind people that religion isn’t about rules and certainties; it’s about otherness and strangeness and weirdness, and being broken open?  Something we can bring in from the Eastern tradition perhaps, from the icon tradition, or from the Arts?

RW: Well, yes. And it does explain why more and more Western churches have icons in them. It’s really quite common in the Church of England now. Last Sunday we blessed the installation of a new icon in here, in the chapel of Magdalene. It is becoming more familiar now because people have that sense that they want to be in a presence, and icons are very deeply imbued with that.  And you can have an immense sense of presence in a properly planned empty space with the light falling.

CC: Absolutely. There are some wonderful chapels, and in fact, the less stuff they’ve got in them the better.  Also something like the Taizé movement can do that. I think perhaps the repetition of phrases and musical phrases can serve a similar purpose.

RW: Again, it’s entering a larger space.

CC: Has there ever been any secular, or ostensibly secular poem – that has really taken you aback, and triggered something like a
religious experience?

RW: Good question, I’d guess that the poem which most seized hold of me, in that way, was one of WH Auden’s earlier poems, Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm. The emotional content is profound; it’s all about the inevitability of hurt, or even betrayal in Love. It’s formally so perfect, and so musical in its balance. Its vocabulary does everything poems ought to do – no clichés. And when I first came across it (I must’ve been twenty something) I just thought – that’s a poem.  But apart from that, quite often it’s Shakespeare.

CC: A profound human experience, yes, but a religious experience? For me, Yeats’ Innisfree  comes to mind. I completely relate to the whole sentiment behind it, because it’s not unlike the fuga mundi sort of thing. The need for a space where one can go away, and just be open to some sort of ‘pure experience’.

RW: Yes. I’m not sure of any secular poems that have quite done that, but, coming back to W.H. Auden – what struck me about that and about quite a lot of his poetry, which I deeply love, is the sheer compassion and tenderness. That’s a very tender poem. It says, in effect, that this is a moment of wonderful intimacy, but we have absolutely no guarantee that it is going to last, or that either of us are going to honour this moment, but for now – just be glad.  And it is a realism, and a slight – not cynicism but a kind of ironic acceptance, by saying – take it as a gift, here it is now.

CC: Yes. So it’s not about otherness, or strangeness, or the flight from the ordinary.  In fact it’s very incarnational.

RW: Very incarnational.  It’s the embrace of the ordinary. And I suppose that’s actually one reason why I have a very soft spot for John Betjeman!  I don’t think he’s one of the great 20th-century English poets, but he is a very considerable poet, and there is one of his poems in a teashop in Slough or somewhere like that. It’s a very unlikely place, and the two rather shady characters who are having tea, a loving couple, but Betjeman says they’re just touched with glory at this moment simply because they love each other.

“Part of the art of poetry is really hard listening, and that’s quite difficult to boil down, but it’s important. It’s about the music that it makes, the echoes it sets up – you really have to listen very hard to get the chime of spoken words…”

CC: Not a million miles away from the Divine. Mary Oliver I think wrote something that really captivated me. I read it a few days ago. I don’t know whether you’ve heard this phrase, the third self (it was new to me) and it might have been just a device she used in that one essay.  But she was talking about how we all have within us the third self. There’s the first self, the inner child, which is all about exploration, play, and learning, and then there’s the second self, the responsible adult who has a utilitarian, practical approach to life, and has to get jobs done. But the third self is the one that is constantly tugging at us, pulling us away into a larger space, a place of freedom, it’s like something that is in flight from, and needs to break away from the ordinary, and the things that hold us back.  And that third self is where the poetry comes from. I haven’t explained it very well! Does that make sense to you?

RW: Yes, that’s good. And I suspect what’s being said about that third self is not so much that it’s flight from the ordinary, but it’s a flight from the routine, flight from the comfort of habit even if that comfort is paradoxically very stressful at the same time. We know how to be busy, we don’t know how to be not busy …

CC: Exactly. The whole essay was really about that, and was saying how poets really need that uncharted space. They don’t just need a hermitage, or a shed, or empty space in the diary, because it’s also the distractions from within that we need to be delivered from. 

RW: Yes I suppose that’s why I quite often find I ‘save up thinking about’ a poem for a long plane journey or train journey, when I know that I will have the space. I don’t travel with laptop.

CC: You’re lucky that you can block out distractions when you’re travelling …

RW: To some extent. Just the fact of being in transit, being out of habitual routine, and thus being able therefore to register new impressions, to have things shaken and stirred a bit.

CC: You’ve said that humans are makers of meaning. So I suppose the impulse to make meanings, in terms of doctrines, and rituals, and the social pillars of religion, that’s a different kind of impulse isn’t it?

RW: It is. I think it’s not bad, or wrong to work at that – we need those handholds – but on its own it’s like building the house but not living in it. I like to think of doctrine as a place to live, and you feel your way all around the territory.  But what you do in it, how you inhabit it, is something else again.

CC: I think that analogy might help people understand the doctrinal approach to religion better.  Because otherwise it would be like saying, you can just go and visit a house, go around it once, and then, you’ve got it – nailed. And it’s not that. 

RW: In fact you need to feel your way around it, hear the creak of the floorboards, feel the draft in that corner, see the view from that window.  And as I said earlier, I feel I was incredibly fortunate in having the kind of Christian formation which was perfectly serious about theology, and yet quite clearly seeing that as framing the environment you lived in, not just a set of things you signed for at the bottom of the page.

CC: Would you like to say anything about the other Arts? And how they might relate to Faith?

RW: Well we thought a little bit about music, didn’t we, and how that has some of the same constraints to liberty that you use when working with words. And I’m often struck by the way in which some modern studies suggest that we sang before we spoke, as a human race.

We were making pitched noises before we could actually put them into rhythms or words, because that literal fact of resonance, picking up a wavelength, picking up a pitch, that’s a deep form of communication.  When we talk about something resonating for us – that really rings a bell for me. 

CC: Like a heartbeat isn’t it?

RW: Yes that’s right. There is a real sympathy going, or a shared feeling, a shared being-done-to, and all the mystical and philosophical speculation in the ancient world about music and mathematics, and the spiritual character of both, that’s all behind it. 

CC: What about the visual Arts, bearing in mind that the ancient Hebrews were very averse to images, as indeed they were to pinning down God through naming him. Does Art then necessarily occupy a different terrain from faith or are we looking at something more like a Venn diagram?

RW: I suppose Christianity has inherited from Judaism a little bit of wariness about visual Art, and indeed a bit of wariness about Music too if you read St Augustine on the subject.

It’s as if there has always been that faint sense of, yup, but you mustn’t let it get in the way. 

You mustn’t let the work itself get in the way.

CC: But then there’s always Augustine’s claim that, ‘he who sings prays twice’.

RW: It is very mixed legacy. If you look at the Reformation period there is this intense uneasiness in some Reformed circles about anything that claims to represent God in any way other than in words. There’s something about visual representation – it is more brutally immediate, and perhaps seductive as well – about the visual.  Because you can run away with the illusion that, this is what it looks like, and you’ve got to protect against that. I think that’s why Christian Art, anyway, keeps on reinventing itself doesn’t it? 

One of the post-Reformation things that’s really interesting is that it’s the Protestant world that gives birth to Rembrandt, who I suppose many people would regard as one of the really supreme Christian artists.  What is it about Rembrandt?  Often it’s the sheer gentleness, the obliqueness of his representation, it doesn’t shout at you. What Rembrandt is doing is not insisting that you see it like this, but is inviting you in, somehow, to a sort of luminous twilight where these stories are evoked, but there are enough shadows, and enough softness and variation of light, for you to feel that you have room to be there quietly.

CC: Do you think a Catholic painter would not have been able to create that space? 

RW:  A Catholic painter might have, but if you turn from Rembrandt to Rubens, I tend to think  … it’s all a bit crowded! And I suppose it’s one of the reasons (to come clean) I don’t really like St Peter’s in Rome. I feel banged over the head by it! I think I could also compare St Peters with Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which gives me a completely different feel  from St Peter’s. It’s like a great echoing bell, lots and lots of space, and you get just a faint feeling of what it would it have been like when the whole thing was covered with luminous images?  But the thing is, it’s got this great space in the middle, where you know you’re welcome. Things aren’t insisted on, things don’t shake their fists at you …

CC: And you can, of course, have that experience on a mountaintop, as did Elijah. Perhaps religions are trying to facilitate that experience?  They know they can’t command it, but …

“If you want something to happen in the language you are using, it’s got to go beyond describing just what you are.  It’s got to take its own energy and become an exploration, and that’s why I think there is a real analogy between spiritual discipline and the discipline of creation.”

RW: Yes, absolutely. I can understand the impulse of the Baroque, which by pushing so much at you kind of jolts you out of your comfort zone. But I’m happy to say on the whole, thanks very much, but I think there might be better ways of doing it. What I love in the Baroque, actually, is the pointless and silly ornamentation that you find in Austrian country churches. Daft little cherubs, that sort of thing – I’ve got quite a soft spot for that (laughs).

CC: And you didn’t consider Eastern Orthodoxy, as an alternative to the Church of England?

RW: From time to time, but I suppose I kept on coming back to the fact that what I’d learned of the Christian and Catholic faith I’d learned in this setting, from people I knew and trusted. And that goes for the Roman Catholic Church, which I did, for a long time, think about, but I couldn’t quite get my mind around the Papacy so I decided to stick where I was.  And the rest is history, as they say.

CC: So we have two paths that diverged. I did think long and hard about Catholicism, and again, I think it’s the setting that made the difference. Catholicism was the setting in which I had some very inspiring moments, and it was in that context that I was awakened and that I met some extraordinarily inspiring people.

RW: Yes, the setting is so important. It always seems to me that the great strength of the Roman Catholic Church, here and elsewhere, is the sheer taken-for-grantedness of prayer, and the on-going sacramental presence.

CC: And if I could just slip this in, is being a priest very closely akin to being a prophet, for you, or a very distinctively differentiated role from that of prophecy?

RW: The image I use when I am talking about it to students preparing for ordination is this.  The Church says to the priest, stand over there and tell us what you can see, and stay standing there, because we need somebody there to look, to discern, to mirror back on our behalf. Not that it’s a privileged place, a safe place, but it’s a different place.

CC: It can be a dangerous place, I suppose? Standing on the watchtower?

RW:  Yes that’s what it’s about.  And what anchors you in that place is your position as the person who stands at the Lord’s table and breaks the bread.

CC: That’s very interesting. So the priesthood is not a static role, but is about being situated in a particular position, with a specific outlook. Not quite like a prophet, then? 

RW: Well, some of the biblical prophets, like Ezekiel, were obviously also priests. But you don’t have to be, and in the story of the Church you clearly find people who are prophetic outside the priestly caste. Think of Dorothy Day in the United States? A prophetic figure if ever there was one.

CC: Absolutely. So, in Plato’s ideal world, poets were definitely not good news. And, while we are talking about the public roles of priests and prophets, do you think a poet bound to be a disruptive influence? Or what do you make of Plato’s take on it?

“What Rembrandt is doing is not insisting that you see it like this, but is inviting you in, somehow, to a sort of luminous twilight where these stories are evoked …”

RW: Well, it’s a paradox, because Plato himself is an imaginative writer of massive gifts and eloquence!

CC: But did he actually consider himself a poet?

RW: If he did, he would have tried to suppress the knowledge, I think.  He sees poetry as dangerously seductive. But against that you have to set that alternative world, of the Greek tragedians, in which the poetry or drama is there not to seduce you from what you really are, but to show you what you really are, and to show you the bits of yourself that you really don’t want to come to terms with, and to bring you to places you haven’t expected to go.

CC: So that’s where we seem to have come full circle, and poetry’s true function then is very similar to the function of true religion? As a mirror, and a corrective, and a call to personal regeneration.

RW: Yes, that’s right. In King Lear the King says at one point, Who is it that can tell me who I am?  And that’s the question that Art and Faith both try to tackle in their different ways.

MAY 2019 Catherine Coldstream MONK

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1 thought on “ROWAN WILLIAMS Through the Narrow Gate

  1. Interesting insight into the mind of one of the most intelligent, sensitive and artistic of churchmen. Beautifully illustrated.


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