A chat with Rowan Williams
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, addressed the United Reformed Church Ministers’ Gathering in May. Afterwards, he spoke to Reform
For Christians who want to start deepening their faith, it helps to try to create a regular discipline, a rhythm regular enough that you gradually absorb wisdom. This will take time to acquire. One of the most challenging things we face – because we have, all of us in western Christianity, largely forgotten this – is how we build up a background of domestic practice.
It’s a question of what we do in our homes, what we do daily – the pauses we make for prayer and reflection, the words we say, the texts we read. Without wanting to get obsessional about discipline, or saying: ‘This is my rule of life,’ we just need to recognise that we need a bit of a rhythm. We need things that gently reconnect us, day by day, with what matters. We need people around us who are willing to explore with us, to see how what we do day by day gradually broadens out into what we might grow into year by year.
I think the discipline to start with is the pauses – the space we make. If we’re ready to think of a rhythm where we give even ten minutes a day to being intentionally with God and being quiet and watching our breath and sitting still and listening – that’s a start. That conscious decision to step aside from the pressure and routine, and say: ‘Actually I have got space to breathe here, I don’t have to be choked by the duties, I can make that time.’ And if I can make that time, maybe something of the sense of being with God in that time spills over into my work as I take it up again.
But for that discipline to take root and develop, we need a bit of a framework, a brief form of words – the Lord’s Prayer or ‘Glory be to the Father,’ for example – and perhaps a few words from the Gospel.
Then the second thing to develop is reading the Gospel. Unsurprisingly for a Christian, there’s really no substitute. That’s how you grow in the company of Jesus.
In a sense, being a young Christian is more difficult today, in that there aren’t the obvious supports that many of us had in earlier generations. Younger Christians don’t have a ready-made peer group very often, and the isolation is tough. So the problem isn’t always that church is boring, or that theology doesn’t make sense, or that prayer is difficult, it’s just: ‘Am I the only one to be thinking about this? This feels a bit exposed.’
One thing we can do for younger believers, therefore, is make sure that there are events that get them together, in reasonably credible numbers, to support one another. And that doesn’t necessarily mean some great entertainment event. When I was Archbishop, we used to have an event every year at Lambeth Palace, with about a hundred youngsters from round the country. We’d have a talk, we’d celebrate Holy Communion, we’d have a little bit of silence and we had some question and answers. They were people who shared a generational perspective, discovering that they weren’t as mad or eccentric as they thought they were.
The minister’s main focus has to be witnessing to the basic fact of the gift of God in Jesus Christ. Others will do it, but the minister absolutely has to do it. That witness can happen in different ways, it’s not just about the words you speak or the sacraments you celebrate. It can also be about the service you offer, the initiatives you take, gently drawing a congregation back towards the basics. And that means that a minister can’t be completely preoccupied with the survival of the institution, and will sometimes, I think, have to say to a congregation: ‘The institutions come and go but some things don’t change, including the grace of God in Jesus Christ.’
The catch is, if you keep your eyes on what doesn’t change, you may actually find yourself managing change more effectively. If you fuss about how to change, how to survive, how to protect yourself, it may be that you won’t handle change very well. Just as with so many things where we can’t quite find the answer, it’ll come when we’re not thinking about it.
The advice I’d give to a minister is the same as the advice I’d give to any believer: in all things, give thanks. Give thanks if you’re a minister, for your calling and your ordination. Give thanks for the responsibility you carry and the lives into which you’re invited. Things flow from that thanksgiving.
This article was published in the June 2018 edition of Reform