21 December 2007

Separated by a Common Language

Just sticking with Poor Rowan Williams for a bit longer, I see that you can watch his discussion with Ricky Gervais on YouTube. Contrary to the Telegraph's description of the show, his discussion with Gervais did not follow his interview with Simon Mayo; rather, it preceded it! The Archbishop arrived while Simon Mayo was interviewing Gervais, and the two guests overlapped and had a discussion about The Simpsons, denominational schools, and the importance of forgiveness, among other matters.

It's worth watching, not least to see the Archbishop's skill in finding common ground with a self-professed 'evangelical atheist', and indeed Gervais's outright declaration that people doing horrendous things in the name of God really has nothing to do with religion. Once Ricky Gervais heads off Simon Mayo gets stuck in interviewing Dr Williams properly, and -- before moving on to discuss several things including the historicity of Nativity scenes on Christmas cards -- starts by asking him about the discussion he'd just had:
SM: We’ve the Archbishop of Canterbury here with us. I wonder, Archbishop, how much time you spend engaging in debate like that, which it seems to me a lot of people would think you’re for, which is a key part of your job in promoting your church, and how much time is spent in the wretched business of running the Church of England?

RW: Well, you won’t be surprised to know that plenty of time is spent running the Church of England or trying to, but I think that kind of engagement with people outside the family of faith is really important. In the last year or so I’ve talked to John Humphreys of course, I’ve done something with Richard Dawkins which will be on television before very long, so I regard it as a bit of a priority to try and be there and have the arguments.

SM: Do you wish you could do more of it?

RW: Yeah, quite often, quite. It's, you know, it’s hard work -- it tests you, it pushes you to the limits of what you know and what you’re confident of --

SM: Because, without minimising the importance of the debate about what happens in the Anglican Communion and trying to fight schism and all that, those people outside of the Church look on with a degree of bafflement.

RW: Absolutely, absolutely.

SM: They’ll have understood the debate they’ve just heard between you and Ricky and think ‘Oh, that’s quite good, I see what you’re saying.’

RW: No, they don’t want to know about the politics of the Church, the inside politics of the Church. They want to know if God’s real, they want to know if they can be forgiven, they want to know what sort of lifestyles matter more. And they want to know, I suppose, if their prayers are heard.

SM: When we spoke a couple of years ago you talked about setting a tone. I think the question I asked you was about your job description, how you’d write a job description. You said the first thing was setting a tone while you’re in charge, modelling ways for people to get on with each other, people making sense of each other. How are doing with that? If that’s the job description, how are you conforming to your own template?

RW: If you measure that up against the Anglican Communion at the moment, I’ve got a bit of a way to go. 'Room for improvement,' I think the school report would say on that one. Well, I still believe it’s worth doing, and that unless you do try to model some style of patience, some listening to each other, then really you’re just going along with some of the worst -- the most destructive -- currents in the kind of world we live in, where it’s all throwing slogans at each other.
That last point strikes me as particularly important, especially at a time when the barriers seems to be flying up between those within and without what Dr Williams calls 'the family of faith'. Jaw-jaw, as Winston Churchill is reputed to have said in what I presume was one of his moments of clarity, is better than war-war, and I think this holds here. It's surely better for atheists, agnostics, apathetics, and believers of all stripes to talk to each other than to simply to shout down anyone who disagrees with them.

I think Dr Williams is absolutely right on this, and it's particularly discouraging that not merely have Wednesday's discussions have been so misrepresented in the media, but that people have been so keen to believe the false reports, responding themselves in a way that's been far from charitable. Atheists have jeered at what they see as evidence that the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't even believe in what he preaches, Catholics have gloated at what they see as typical 'cake or death' Church of England wishy-washiness or else been aghast as the Archbishop's apparent willingness to downplay the significance of the Virgin Birth, while it seems that exasperated members of the Archbishop's own communion are sneering at what they see as the Archbishop's tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

By this they presumably mean talking about Christmas at Christmas.

To be fair, I say exasperated Anglicans, whereas I really mean exasperated Episcopalians, who of course -- being in America -- live right on the faultline of the schism that now looks so unavoidable within the Anglican communion. Part of their exasperation comes, as far as I can tell, from a sheer inability to understand English as spoken in England. I know, that sounds a bit patronising, but run through the comment thread here and look at the huge debate surrounding why the Archbishop replied 'I should think so,' on being asked whether he believed the depiction on Christmas cards of the baby Jesus in the manger was historically and factually true.

Yes, 'I should think so' -- a phrase that in England simply means 'of course' or 'that goes without saying' -- gets torn apart for what's perceived as its staggering ambiguity. It's not remotely ambiguous if you understand English English. it's also important to keep in mind that the Archbishop was talking on a radio show which -- while accessible to people all over the world -- is directed towards a domestic audience, all of whom pay for the radio show through licence money, and the vast majority of whom think Christianity is nonsense, if they even think of it at all. Harking back to a question he'd put to Ricky Gervais earlier on, Dr Williams comments on this, in fact, later in the interview, saying:
I think the trouble in the country is that people imagine that when we speak about religious faith there’s only one kind of faith that counts, and it’s slightly off-the-wall, very intense, very literalist, in some ways rather anxious and violent, the sort of thing they associate with the Anerican Right -- the American Religious Right.
One of the things the Archbishop is doing is trying to present mainstream Christianity as something which is reasonable and plausible, and I think he makes a decent fist of that.

It's a shame then that he should get it in the neck from Catholics and his own Anglicans for what's wrongly seen as his willingness to drop the Virgin Birth as a fundamental Christian belief. It's worth unpacking what he says, as I think he has three points when he says:
I don’t want to set it as a kind of hurdle that people have to get over before they can, you know, be signed up, but I think quite a few people would say that as time goes on they get a deeper sense of what the Virgin Birth is about. I would say that of myself, that thirty years ago I might have said I wasn’t too fussed about it, now I see it much more as dovetailing with the rest of what I believe about the story.
To begin with, he doesn't want the Virgin Birth to become an obstacle that discourages people from approaching and exploring Christianity. I think this is fair enough, as despite its significance in the historical creeds, it is something at which most people would -- naturally -- balk. It does sound incredibly unlikely, after all, though whether it is more unlikely than water being turned into wine, thousands of people being fed from a few loaves with there being more leftovers than there was bread to start with, people rising from the dead, or God becoming man, well, that's another matter. The real question here concerns whether or not one accepts the possibility of miracles, and that in turn depends on whether one is willing to believe in the existence of God.

His second point was that thirty years ago, which was when he was first ordained as an Anglican deacon, he wasn't 'too fussed' about the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. I know, that might seem a bit odd, in that in an interview with The Catholic Herald just over a year ago he commented that the kind of Anglicanism in which he grew up wasn't panicked by the idea that a proper devotion to Mary was part of Christian practice, but I think all he means is that he accepted this doctrine but didn't dwell on it. This miraculous sign didn't have any special meaning for him over other miraculous ones, at least when he was first ordained.

His final point is that as Christians explore their faith they tend to gain a 'deeper sense' of the significance of the Virgin Birth. In his own case, he seems to have realised this while Bishop of Monmouth in the 1990s, when he used to take groups from the diocese to Walsingham every year. It seems that on his first such pilgrimage he was struck by how liberating and life-giving people found the concept of honouring Mary as mother and sister; among other things, he admits that although it's a cliché, he believes that if we are take Jesus' humanity seriously, we much recognise that that humanity was shaped by Mary.

As for the Virgin Birth, he made his views on this very clear in the Spectator poll Simon Mayo cited in the interview:
Yes; I believe that the conception of Jesus was a moment when the creative action of God produced a reality as new in its way as the first moment of creation itself. And I believe that what opened the way for this was the work of God through human history over centuries, coming to its fullest moment in Mary’s consent to God’s call. The recognition of the uniqueness and newness of Jesus is a recognition of the absolute freedom of God to break the chains of cause and effect that lock us into our sins and failures; the virginal conception is an outward sign of this divine freedom to make new beginnings.
Talking of new beginnings, today was the Winter Solstice. I may get on to that tomorrow.

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