Jane Williams interview: “God is really what we have to offer”
Justin Brierley meets author, lecturer and theologian Jane Williams
Because my wife is a local church leader, I’m often introduced to people as “the husband of our minister”. Jane Williams is someone who can identify with that, but magnified by a factor of 100.
When Jane’s husband, Rowan Williams, became the head of the Anglican Church in 2002, she knew her role would have to adapt dramatically. A life of travel, media attention and responsibility naturally became as much part of her pattern as her husband’s.
For myself, I’m keen to meet Jane Williams the author, lecturer and theologian – not just the wife of the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury. Her role in furthering the cause of women in the Anglican Communion has been significant (earning her an honorary doctorate from Yale recently). She now spends much of her time passing her own passion for theology and faith onto ordinands at St Mellitus College in London.
We are meeting at her house – which, until the end of December, continues to be Lambeth Palace. With 10 years of practise behind her, I sense that Jane is used to putting people at ease in the grand surroundings. What she can’t hide is that she is also looking forward to moving out soon (she punches the air with delight when I mention Rowan’s impending departure from his role).
Warm and friendly, Jane is easy to talk to and I learn a lot. For one thing, I didn’t know about the strongly experiential side to her Christianity – she has spoken in tongues; the charismatic aspect of her faith as important as the theological reflection that informs it. It’s just one aspect of a life informed by a variety of experiences, and while I imagine the last 10 years have been among her most challenging, Jane Williams seems raring to take on whatever may come next.
What was growing up like for you?
I was born in South India to missionary parents, so I was baptised into the Church of South India. All the protestant denominations in India came together under a pioneering unity scheme, which was the church I was born into. My father was principal of a United Theological College and my mother taught English there as well.
What did your faith journey look like at
It was a continuous process. There were moments looking back where there was this immense sense of pride about being part of a united church; I think I have always been committed to that missionary insight where our witness is less credible when we are divided.
There was no teenage rebellion?
Not really – I think my teenage rebellion was studying theology and discovering what I believed!
What was it about theology that captured your imagination?
I think I needed to know whether it was the real thing. I was completely surrounded by Christian certainty and it would have been very easy to assume that would be the culture that I would live in forever. But anyone who grew up from the mid-20th Century onwards knows that isn’t the case. I had friends who didn’t believe it and like any reasonably intelligent person I had questions about it, and I wanted to know if it was the real thing.
You studied theology at Cambridge, but was your faith based in experience as well as in study?
I have never been so sure about how that distinction works. I am not sure it works for me. I find God very exciting when I study God – discovering that God is always bigger than the questions I can ask. For me, study is experiential.
During my time as a student I did have a profoundly important encounter with what we would call the charismatic movement, which reached a part of my spirituality that had not been reached before – speaking in tongues and such, which requires that you throw yourself on the mercy of God and throw away thinking for the time being. This was and continued to be hugely significant to me.
You went on to teach theology. Did you find it a very male-dominated sphere?
There were a lot of women undergraduates when I was studying theology at Cambridge. Obviously there were a majority of men, but that is because there were a majority of men in Cambridge. What I find interesting is that, although the situation has improved and there are more academic women in theology, it is still a tiny proportion. I am not sure why that is.
Is there anything a woman brings to theology that men don’t?
I am not sure. I think having more women doing theology over the last century and a half has certainly changed some of the orthodoxy – you just notice that there are women in the Bible.
When it comes to theological differences, I don’t think I believe in a fundamental difference between men and women. What I have found important is to have role models – women doing these kinds of jobs. If you don’t see women doing these kinds of jobs you don’t think that it is possible for yourself; that is why it is also important to have people from different kinds of cultural backgrounds in church leadership so that people can see that it is a job that they can do for themselves.
If female ordination had been possible at the time, would you have considered it?
When I was 18 and I started studying theology, I think I assumed that was what would happen. I couldn’t see what else I could do with my theology really. Then, as time went on, and it became possible, God never asked me. But I feel very comfortable in my role as a lay preacher. I have actually ended up doing what I want by teaching as a church-based teacher of theology.
How did you meet Rowan?
I was studying in Cambridge when I met Rowan; I was doing my doctorate when he was a chaplain at Westcott House. He used to come to graduate seminars in the divinity school and we met there.
Did you have any inkling that you would be sitting in Lambeth Palace today?
No, thank goodness! It was always clear that he was a person with an enormous amount of gifts; that he was someone who would have a lot of options. But I also realised very early on that he was likely to do what God wanted him to do. With my own parents having thrown up their lives and moved to India, I recognised that what God wants you to do is never predictable. But I am very glad to say that I never dreamed we would be here.
What have been the highs and lows of the last 10 years?
I think you’ll have to ask me in another 10 years! It has been an immense privilege, mostly because of the people it has allowed us to meet through being part of a worldwide church, and the travel. It is hard to describe how amazing it has been.
Obviously it is a very turbulent time for the church, and the relationship between the church and the media, and the churches in different parts of the world, have been challenging. It is an impossibly full diary; it has been 10 years of incredibly hard work and it will be interesting in the next couple of the years, stepping out and looking back at what things raise and reveal themselves.
You edited a book of other bishops’ spouses reflecting on being married to the ministry. Did you identify with their stories?
There were all sorts of common strands. One was that your home is both your work place and a place of hospitality to the people that you minister to. That is a wonderful thing to have but it also has its challenges and can be problematic. Especially when you are bringing up a family in a very public environment.
Did you manage to distinguish between work and home life here?
We do have a flat in the middle of a very big working house and we are never quite sure who we are going to bump into going in and out. But I don’t have to cook for everyone or clean the public rooms. So I think we have it much easier than a lot of people in ministry.
You’ve won an award recognising the role of women in the Anglican Church. Is something that fires you?
One of the advantages of travelling with my husband is that I get to see things that he might not be able to see; I get to join in with women and see them work and worship and what it is like to be a woman working in the church. Most development specialists would tell you that if you are able to build and raise the capacity of women in any situation you create the possibility to change things for generations.
How significant a milestone was the inclusion of women into priesthood?
Oh, it was hugely important and I was actually quite unprepared for how important it was for people who don’t go to church. I wrote a book with a friend, Bread, Wine and Women. We were totally taken aback by the reaction of women who didn’t go to church and that these symbolic roles profoundly affect the perspective of women and what they are able to do.
So even though you weren’t taking ordination up yourself you were profoundly affected by the change?
I think it was easier for me knowing that I wasn’t called, so I could argue for cases, being outside the structures. Now that hasn’t been so easy in the past 10 years, because I think I am seen to be within those structures by virtue of my marriage. I think that lay theologians, lay people can argue differently.
Could you name some women whose faith inspires you today?
There is a woman, she is one of my sister’s godmothers, called Pauline Webb, who is a Methodist leader and did a great deal of broadcasting and writing. One of my greatest childhood memories was when she was refused entry to South Africa because of her campaigning against apartheid. That to me is what the church should be when faced with such circumstances.
Another is a woman called Maria Akrofi, who is a consultant anaesthetist and the wife of the Archbishop of West Africa. She is one of the greatest “pray-ers” I know and achieves more in every day than I do in a month. When she comes to see me we talk, laugh and pray together and when she goes I always feel I really need to get on and do more for God.
You wrote a book called Approaching Christmas. What is so important about this season of Advent?
I think part of it is rescuing Christmas. Christmas is a big deal and it is hard not to get drawn into the materialism of it. Part of me doesn’t mind getting drawn into the materialism of it, provided that I am not getting into debt or getting carried away with it. It is very easy to think all of that month of December is about shopping rather than preparing.
I think Advent gives us a chance to remember what Christmas is about. I think it is a chance to imagine what the world would be like had Jesus not has been born. It is a time of preparing for what a difference it would make.
Angels is another subject you’ve written on – why do so many turn up at Christmas?
Well my thinking on this is that angels show up in the Bible when God has things that he has to explain. The incarnation, God being born as a baby, takes a lot of explaining because it shouldn’t be possible – they should be mutually contradictory things. So the people that meet this baby, aware that they are confronting something extraordinary, are probably grateful for the presence of angels. The other sense you get is that the angels were wildly excited!
Do you have a fairly literal view of angels and the events as recorded in the Gospels?
I take the biblical stories quite seriously, and there are times when “angel” actually means “messenger”, and you are not quite sure of the nature of that messenger. Equally (as with the Nativity) there are times where it is clear that they are an angelic host. I am not insistent that if you don’t believe in angels you are not a Christian. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are what you need to believe in order to be a Christian.
Where would you draw the line? How much leeway is there in terms of doctrine, before you stop adhering to Christianity in any recognisable form?
Fortunately I am not in a position to excommunicate people, which is not my job! It’s partly because I have taught for years about the historic doctrine that I would hold up the historic creeds as a really hard-won, shared interpretation of what is essential to our belief. And it is with some sorrow I read about how, over the centuries, that process did rule out certain people who felt it didn’t describe their form of Christianity, and I am a person that doesn’t like to rule people out.
But I find if you water it down too much, to just being a moral common denominator, it doesn’t really work – it isn’t primarily about morality – although I hope that it does lead you to change your life.
Both the United Reformed Church and the Anglican Church are experiencing decline in attendance. How can this change?
I think there is a whole range of issues, and not all of them are easily categorised. What church requires of people is no longer natural to people, such as sitting in a pew and taking things from above every week. Very few people can do that anymore, so I think churches are beginning to learn that going to church needs to change.
I think we have also really played down what our faith is about. In 1940 the then Archbishop of Canterbury received a letter from [the author] Evelyn Underhill on Christian education, who stressed that, more than anything, ministers should be taught to pray. Too many of them were very nice people but behaved more like social workers than actually introducing people to God. She had this wonderful turn of phrase: “God is the really interesting thing about religion.” Which is true – however nice our services are, or how good the coffee is, if we are not introducing people to God then we are not really giving them anything that isn’t available elsewhere. God is really what we have to offer.
Finally, what gives you hope for the future?
Well… God. That is a serious answer. If you look at God, who was willing to die, and how it looked when Jesus died – that appeared to be the end, and it was, in terms of the humanly end of God on earth. Yet God raised him from the dead, so anything is possible. I also get a lot of hope from my students; they are very young, most of them preparing to offer their lives to the strange institution that is the Church of England. It is a glorious privilege to see their witness and them offering their lives to God.
Justin Brierley presents the faith discussion show “Unbelievable?” on Premier Christian Radio
This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of Reform.