The archbishop of Canterbury in Rome

In an earlier post (October 18, 2012), I recorded my low and unworthy amusement at the use of Latin by Archbishop Rowan Williams at the beginning of his address, in Rome, on October 10, to the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. I said in that post that I would later be writing a serious comment on his address, and this is that comment.

First of all, however, let us consider the fact that an archbishop of Canterbury was giving such an address in the first place. An anecdote here, by way of context. In 1982, Pope John Paul II was having dinner, in Canterbury, after an ecumenical vespers at the cathedral, with Archbishop Williams’ predecessor, Robert Runcie. Moved by the ecumenical significance of the occasion, Archbishop Runcie suggested to the pope that on the following morning, though unscheduled, they should concelebrate the Eucharist together and thereby signify a new relationship of communion between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. The pope politely demurred, then turned to a member of his entourage and said, in Polish, “Who does he think he is? He’s nothing but a heretical layman.” As it happened, there was a member of the archbishop’s entourage who spoke Polish; and so has this story come into general awareness.

I think also of the way Pope Benedict XVI sideswiped Archbishop Williams a few years ago by his unilateral announcement of the creation of an “Anglican Ordinariate,” that is, a structure within the Roman Catholic Church that would permit Anglicans disgruntled by such outrages as the ordination of women or the full acceptance of gays and lesbians to find religious refuge in communion with Rome “while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.” (You can google this project at Anglicanorum Coetibus (“for groups of Anglicans”).

Which brings us to the occasion of Archbishop Williams speaking in Rome. Was this a way of Benedict making amends? Or was it the fruit of the archbishop’s persistence in working towards better relations with Rome? Might it even have come out of the recognition in Rome, at the papal level or below, that in Rowan Williams the holder of the primatial office and England’s (and the Anglican Communion’s) most outstanding theologian have come together in one person for the first time since the archiepiscopate at Canterbury of St Anselm in the 12th century?  (I am currently reading the archbishop’s latest book, Faith in the Public Square, and finding it challenging and illuminating.)

Enough, then, of my curmudgeonly expostulations. What, in essence, did the archbishop say to the Roman Catholic bishops of the entire world? His focus was on contemplation, a term which will be familiar to any reader of Thomas Merton. Here is a kind of topic sentence: “the humanity we are growing into in the Spirit, the humanity that we seek to share with the world as the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work, is a contemplative humanity.” Contemplation, he says, is “the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to … a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world … with freedom … from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them.”  He affirms the emphasis placed by the Second Vatican Council on the work of the Christian writers of the earliest middle ages, who taught that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27, 5:1-2). That image, they taught, remains in spite of its being overlaid in us by the many forms of human wrongdoing and alienation which have caused the likeness to be lost. That every human being is made in God’s image is the inalienable basis, according to this Christian anthropology, for the absolute requirement that we respect one another as human beings, and for our commitment to human dignity and human rights.

“To learn contemplative practice,” then, “is to learn what we need [to learn] so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovely. It is a deeply revolutionary matter”–to which I can hear Thomas Merton responding, “Amen!” (See on this ch. 20 of Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation,  “Tradition and Revolution.”) Through the practice of contemplative prayer, and the living of a contemplative life, we grow in self-knowledge, in the ability to name and neutralize our “cravings and fantasies,” and to “allow the prayer of Christ … to come alive in [us].” It is to set out on an endless journey of transformation, endless because as through contemplation we enter into God’s eternity in the present time, we also place our steps on the path of eternal life and growth, what St Gregory of Nyssa called epektesis.

I found it significant that the archbishop gave as examples of what he meant a number of institutions and movements which I have encountered myself: the community of Taizé, in Burgundy (been there many times); the monastery of Bose, in northern Italy (haven’t been there, but have read about it); and the worldwide Focolare movement–the Italian word means “hearth,” a place to come with others to warm oneself (have met a number of members of the movement). He quoted Chiara Lubich, the founder of Focolare, who spoke insistently of our need to make ourselves one: one with the crucified and abandoned Christ, and through him with all the needs of our brothers and sisters in need.  She taught that the closer we come to God, the closer we come to our sisters and brothers, all of whom we encounter in the heart of God.

Thomas Merton said something in a very similar spirit. “If I can unite in myself the thought and the devotion of Eastern and Western Christendom, the Greek and the Latin fathers, the Russians with the Spanish mystics, I can prepare in myself the reunion of divided Christians. … We must contain all divided worlds in ourselves and transcend them in Christ” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander).  Later in the same book he takes this to the interfaith level: “If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.”

Archbishop Williams comes to the end of his term as archbishop of Canterbury at the end of 2012. So part of my motivation in drawing attention to his address in Rome (my disgruntlements aside!), is to salute him for his scholarship, for his courage in leading the Anglican Communion at the most difficult time in its history, and for his ecumenical graciousness. I end these thoughts with the Latin words with which he so appropriately began his address: Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum: “Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is for brothers [and sisters] to live [together] in unity” (Psalm 133:1). Amen and amen.


The full text of the archbishop’s address may be found at


This entry was posted in Deep holy thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The archbishop of Canterbury in Rome

  1. A Pacific Coast resonance to Psalm 133.1 – The Lions – The Two Sisters – The Chiefs’ Daughters
    [Modern and ancient speak]

    “Behold how good and how pleasant where kindred dwell together in unity! It is as when the precious ointment upon the head runs down …till it runs down upon the collar of their robes. As the dew of the Two Sisters, as the dew of the Lions which comes down the mountains of the Pacific Coast for there the Creator ordained a blessing, life for evermore.

    “And on the mountain crest the chiefs’ daughters can be seen wrapped in the suns, the snows, the stars of all seasons, for they have stood in this high place for thousands of years, and will stand for thousands of years to come, guarding the peace of the Pacific Coast and the quiet of the Capilano Canyon.”

    E. Pauline Johnson, 1911

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>