Life

Rowan Williams: 'The challenge is whether religion is part of the solution or part of the problem'

Despite his career highs, the former Archbishop of Canterbury admits there’s one area in which he dropped the ball

The Right Reverend Rowan Williams. Image: NEIL SPENCE / Alamy Stock Photo

Rowan Williams was born in June 1950 in Swansea, Wales. He attended Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology. In 1975 he was awarded a doctorate of philosophy in theology by Wadham College, Oxford. He held a series of academic and ecclesiastical posts, culminating in his professorship of divinity at Oxford (1986-’92).

Williams became bishop of Monmouth in 1992 and archbishop of Wales in 2002. Two years later he became archbishop of Canterbury, where he remained for 10 years and attracted controversy thanks to liberal views on homosexuality and improving interfaith relations. He joined the House of Lords as a crossbench member in 2013, as well as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, he stepped down from both positions on 2020.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Rowan Williams looks back on his life and career.

I was a rather strait-laced teenager for the 1960s. There are moments when I think, oh my goodness I did miss out on certain things. I’d certainly want to say to my younger self, relax a bit. Beware of perfectionism, judgementalism. I think there was a streak of that. 

I was an only child and that always creates a slightly hothouse atmosphere. I’d also been a very unhealthy child. I had meningitis when I was very small and that left me with a few minor, but not negligible, health problems. My recollection of teenage years is spending quite a lot of time at home or in bed with various respiratory ailments. 

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It rather intensified a taste for solitude. I’m not sure that my parents quite understood that. They were churchgoers, but they didn’t fancy my being too enthusiastic about it. And they were politically very conservative and didn’t much like the sort of ideas I was picking up. So I guess I had my flicker of teenage rebellion in that sense, after all. 

At 16 I was starting sixth form at Dynevor Secondary Grammar School, an old-fashioned Welsh grammar school in Swansea. I had a strong interest in literature, theatre, music and very close friends – who are still close friends after nearly 60 years. I was also, at that point, just beginning to get a bit of a stirring of interest in social issues and politics. 

1992: Rowan Williams as the Bishop of Monmouth, joining a protest in Merthyr Tydfil to save the jobs of South Welsh miners. Image: Les skeates / Alamy Stock Photo

I was very taken with drama. Thanks to some very good teachers we were pushed to experiment, not just to do ‘school plays’, but to think creatively about it, to get beyond the obvious classics, familiarise ourselves with some of the theatre of the day, read a bit of Pinter and even Jean-Paul Sartre – who made a brief appearance in the repertoire of the Swansea Youth Theatre, which I was involved in then. 

This is an appallingly anorak thing to say, but those were the days not just of a golden age of British rock music, but also of the rediscovery of mediaeval and renaissance music. I became completely besotted with that world, and tuned into out-of-the-way programmes on BBC Radio 3, the ‘Third Programme’ as it was then. 

But there was no avoiding the Simon & Garfunkel, Beatles, Kinks, Rolling Stones ocean swirling all around us. I have vivid memories of my best friend from school coming round one afternoon with The Beatles’ new album, Sgt Pepper’s, and the two of us sitting down to listen to that together. A bit of bafflement, a lot of fresh vision. I remember thinking how some of this just gets into your head and sits there for ever. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds haunted me, and – in a completely different way, so did When I’m Sixty-Four. Sixty-four seemed like unimaginable antiquity. Now I’m thinking, prime of life really… 

I was rather puritanical. That’s part of the religious element, which was a big part of my life at that point as well. I wasn’t in any great hurry to have a love life. I think I’d probably have a word to say to my younger self about that –  not ‘play the field’, exactly, but just relax a bit and be grateful for the friendships you’re offered.

I was lucky to be in an amazingly creative church with a brilliant parish priest, who was himself committed to all the things that I was interested in, including the arts and politics. One of our curates had gone to South Africa to work and had been expelled by the apartheid government. So we felt we were in touch with some of these things. 

2002: Rowan Williams as the then-Archbishop of Wales, shortly before his nomination as Archbishop of Canterbury. Image: Jeff Morgan 11 / Alamy Stock Photo

My 16-year-old self would be extremely disappointed that some of the problems that seemed most pressing in the late 1960s are still pressing problems today. One of the watershed moments in my teenage years was watching Cathy Come Home on television and suddenly picking up the issue of homelessness in a very new way. My 16-year-old self might well say, ‘So why exactly haven’t we answered any of those questions since then?’

Over the years I’ve watched some of these problems get worse rather than better. Partly because homelessness is, it seems, never an issue that gets to the top of a vote-winning agenda. Like environmental questions, like prison reform. Nobody gets elected on those tickets. One of the difficulties in a democratic system is how you make sure that the non-vote-winning, essential, long-term questions like these stay on the radar. 

I think my younger self would say to me now, ‘In your 20s and 30s, you had it a bit easy’. I had a succession of academic jobs rather than just parish ones. My censorious and judgmental 16-year-old self would say, ‘You should have been out there on the streets a bit more.’ I think that self would also have been a bit surprised that I ended up where I did. Would ask me, rather stony faced, ‘So what exactly did you do with that?’ And I’d have to say that one of the things you discover when you have any kind of high office is that you get to do a lot less than you thought you were going to do, because suddenly you become aware of the institutional obstacles and the time things take.

It was drummed into me when I started as Archbishop, don’t just be a campaigner. And I think there were areas where I dropped the ball and lowered my sights. Very early on, I had to try to sort out controversy about whether we could have an openly gay Bishop in the Church of England, and I gave up on that. I still don’t know whether I was right to or not – it didn’t feel like the right time to push for it. But I think the message this gave was not a helpful one. And it certainly overshadowed a lot of what I did from then on, having lost the trust of some people in that community, for very understandable reasons. It certainly wasn’t a decision that left me happy, and it broke some friendships and trust. I have to live with that.

2019: Rowan Williams attending The Time is Now climate protests in London. Image: Karl Nesh / Alamy Stock Photo

The old chestnut from Samuel Beckett, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better,’ is one I still have a lot of time for. It’s become clearer to me over the years that facing failure, being honest about failure, is the condition of being really hopeful. You can’t have realistic, effective hope unless you know where the elephant traps are, unless you know your weaknesses. Unless you’re prepared to say what you got wrong.

We’re in a culture which is incredibly intolerant of failure. That’s different from holding people accountable, which is essential. But people in public life are very reluctant to admit failure or to say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I got it wrong’, partly because they are punished so relentlessly for any such admission. And this can lead to a culture of more secrecy, more evasion. The church does it like everybody else I’m afraid. But for me as a Christian, failure isn’t the last word, because there is more than just you and your skills and your success to count on.

The challenge for people like myself is whether religion is going to be part of the solution or part of the problem. There are plenty of people who are perfectly happy to make it part of the problem, like all those white Christian nationalists in the States supporting Trump or all those right-wing Catholics in Hungary supporting Orbán. So what are the rest of us going to do about it? Not just sit on our bottoms and hope for the best but get out there and say, look, there are much bigger possibilities here and much more fruitful ideas.

Rowan Williams will be discussing the Seven Deadly Sins with Successon creator Jesse Armstrong at Idler Festival, joining Zadie Smith, Tim Key and more at Fenton House, North London. 5-7 July.

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