Students and affiliates of Glasgow University were given a rare glimpse into one of the most respected minds in Britain when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, visited the campus.
The Archbishop appeared in conversation with Professor Mona Siddiqui, Director of Glasgow’s Centre for the Study of Islam, in front of a packed Bute hall on Wednesday 29th October. Prof. Siddiqui introduced the Archbishop and described how the ‘Building Bridges’ project upon which they had been working since 2003 had brought their paths together.
She said: “It is a huge honour for me to welcome Archbishop Rowan Williams to Glasgow, and an even greater privilege for me to be able to have this public conversation with him on home ground.
“How did this come about? The simple answer is, at least for my part, through friendship and through learning. The seminar brings together every year a group of international scholars, Muslim and Christian, who meet in different parts of the world to talk about scripture, faith and practice.”
In the first half of the event Prof. Siddiqui led the questioning, then in the second, questions were written down and submitted by members of the audience. The Archbishop chose questions at random and covered a selection of topics ranging from stem cell research to the problem of evil.
The Archbishop gave the latest news on the divide in the Anglican Church over the issue of homosexual clergy. His report of the Lambeth Conference earlier this summer was optimistic in spite of the tensions that had arisen within the Church.
He said: “I think a lot of people were expecting more drama from the Lambeth conference, but people were able to hear from each other a willingness to work together even at a time of real stress and difficulty, a willingness to make the communion work. Secondly we were able to rebuild some of the broken trust that had damaged our life together over the years.
“I don’t think we’re going to divide, I don’t think the problems are going to go away, and we still have a huge number of issues to deal with. But perhaps the basis of relationship on which we address these issues is a bit stronger.”
Prof. Siddiqui also quizzed the Archbishop over his lecture on Sharia law in February, and the ensuing media furore. Dr. Williams took the questions in good heart, anticipating this topic of public interest.
He said: “Thank you for that question, we got at least 10 minutes in before the lecture was mentioned. Did I expect the public reaction? I expected a lot of criticism frankly and a lot of discussion. I didn’t expect the level of what felt like public hysteria for a couple of days, and it wasn’t that easy to deal with. It does illustrate that the Archbishop is never just talking to the audience in front of him; the echoes, the resonances go out.
“It was a lecture that was designed as the first part of a series: Islam and British Law. It was a lecture that was written with a lot of consultation, in spite of what’s been claimed, with a number of people in the religious studies world and the legal world. And of course, as the Lord Chief Justice made clear some months later, the substance of it wasn’t all that drastic.
“What I wanted to do was raise a certain question, not just about Islamic law but about the place of religion in British law. I don’t think I had any answers at the time, I don’t think I have any answers now.
“I realise the word Sharia is a red button and my attempt to say look at how it is actually used and what it actually means was singularly unsuccessful. But it would be a great shame if we just drew the conclusion that it was impossible to have that sort of reasoned discussion and I’d like us to keep trying.”
One poignant highlight of the conversation came with Dr Williams’s description of his darkest hours, when he felt the strength of his religious conviction was truly tested.
He admitted: “There have certainly been periods where I have had very little sense of tangible divine consolation, where the language has sounded hollow.
“I’ve never had a point where I’ve felt ’there’s nothing there, I’ll give up on the whole thing’, but there have been long patches, certainly in my twenties when I found so much of the language felt stale and stiff and I couldn’t put much into it. You just carry on in silence and just pray in a way that is open to what there is, the mystery that there is.
Dr Williams also took an interesting line on the British Humanist Societies atheist advertising campaign — displayed recently on the side of Transport for London buses — almost defending their slogan: ‘There is probably no god, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.’
He said: “The trouble with advertising anything, whether it’s humanism or religion, is that one assumes that there is a product and a consumer and I don’t think that Mohammed, St Francis of Assissi or Martin Luther or Dietrich Bonhöffe or Mahatma Gandhi would have been terribly impressed with the idea that religion was a product looking for a market.
“There is, I think, a reasonable place for trying to jolt people into thinking it’s worth thinking and that’s why I don’t think adverts from the BHS are the end of the world — already it’s provoked a bit of public discussion and delightfully I think many people have quite rightly noted that the word probably is a frightfully English way of coming at things.
“But it has got people talking, what is this word ’probably’ and why is it assumed that if there is a God you ought to worry and stop enjoying your life? So yes, get people thinking, but don’t imagine that it’s marketing.”
He was unsurprisingly sceptical on the subject of modern atheism, arguing that philosophers such as Richard Dawkins were not the revolutionary thinkers that some believe them to be:
“How new is the new atheism? Not very. I don’t think there is anything intellectually actually new about the latest atheist publications, it doesn’t mean that they’re not serious, but I don’t feel there is some great thing that would make you say: “Ah! Damn I never thought of that, I’ll have to stop believing in God. That’s not how it works; its the same sort of arguments, the same sort of tensions.”
“I don’t think that we, as communities of faith, are wholly failing in our efforts to keep that discussion alive.”
On the subject of China, the Archbishop was able to give a religious perspective, not often seen in current affairs. He saw great opportunity in spite of the greatly weakened religious organisations in China, even condoning action with unofficial churches in the People’s Republic.
“I spent a bit of time in China just two years ago and we’re trying to maintain a fairly steady program of inviting religious scholars from China to Britain for some seminars. One of the effects of long-term oppression of religion is of course religious bodies lose some their self confidence, they lose some of their sense of being able to cope, they turn inwards. We saw it with the Church in Russia and elsewhere in eastern Europe, to some extent it is true of the Church in China, now there is a window of opportunity for the churches, and are the churches equipped to take it up? Well, not very well and so churches elsewhere need to be alongside churches, both official and unofficial, in China.”
Dr. Williams was visibly angered by a question raised in relation to the recentl furore surrounding BBC presenters Russell Brand and Johnathan Ross, and was answered with a round of applause when he voiced his distaste for the affair.
“Frankly, I’m absolutely astonished that any editor gave the go ahead to this disgusting and pathetic infantilism. I really can’t believe it. Have we got to the point where humiliation as entertainment is so much taken for granted that nobody asks any questions about this? And why do we reward so colossally this toxic immaturity in entertainment? That’s what I want to say.”