Speaking just before his first extended audience with Benedict XVI, the Archbishop of Canterbury talks to Freddy Gray about Richard Dawkins, women priests – and how close he is to Catholicism
Archbishop, throughout history people have struggled to understand that Jesus is both fully God and fully man. Some eras have underlined the divinity of Christ, presenting him as a terrifying judge of mankind. Others have focused so much on his humanity that he seemed little more than a good man who taught us to be kind to others. I wonder where you think we are today: what are the characteristic insights and blind spots of our own age in relation to Jesus?
It’s a wonderful question to start with because it is the most central that there could be. When I look at the history of the Christian Church, especially in the early centuries, what strikes me as extraordinary is that the temptation to go overboard for one or the other – the humanity or the divinity – is always there. The Church always resists it and says: “No, you’ve got to have both.” But the balance has never been easy, I think.
Interesting that in the question the divinity of Jesus is associated with being a terrifying judge of mankind. I would say that the divinity of Jesus is about the Mystical Body; it’s about Jesus as that end of life into which Christians are incorporated and which they express in the Eucharist. I think that is what we are missing today. We talk about devotion to Jesus. We talk about the quest for the historical Jesus. What often slips out of focus is that sense of the sacramental Christ. The life of the risen Christ is the life out of which flows the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit incorporates us, binds us into that Life, gives us the right to pray “Abba, Father” and gives us the right, in the Eucharist, to join in the prayer of Jesus as we receive the life of Jesus. That is the foundation of private and public prayer – the whole thing. One of the greatest influences for me was the theology of the liturgical movement of the 20th century – Gregory Dix or Lambert Beauduin, the Belgian.
When you write about the Incarnation you often use words such as “disruption”, “interruption”, “upheaval” and “bewilderment”. Are you concerned that many Christians have become too familiar with the idea of God become man and need to let themselves be shaken to their core by it again?
Perhaps not so much “familiar” as almost a “don’t call us” mentality. When Dorothy Sayers was writing her radio plays about the life of Jesus she wrote lots of letters about them to various people and published those letters. She said: “What have we done? This is the most extraordinary thing you could imagine: the Maker of the universe sitting down to scrub his toenails on a roadside in Galilee. How on earth have we managed to make that boring?”
You know, it may be true. It may be false. It may be nonsense. But it is not boring. That is what I am trying to get at using words like “disruption” and so forth. What I see happening in the New Testament – to use the phrase that has been used by a couple of other writers – is that there’s been some sort of explosion and here are all these people picking round the edge of a crater to see what has happened. A sort of Dr Who scenario. Because the words that you’ve got and the ideas that you’ve got are not going to be adequate to what’s happened. So in the New Testament, you see John or Paul feeling their way into a new vocabulary. What have we got to say about this event? What must we say in order to capture the fullness of it?
When you were chosen to be Archbishop of Canterbury you famously said: “If there's one thing I long for above all else, it's that the years to come may see Christianity in this country able again to capture the imagination of our culture, to draw the strongest energies of our thinking and feeling.” Why did Christianity lose its grip on the imagination of the British people?
I don’t really know. I think it is a little bit to do with this routinising of our talk and our worship which all the churches – yours and mine – are involved in. It’s a little bit to do also with that curious post-Second World War loss of nerve in Britain. There was a very interesting study recently by a young scholar called Matthew Grimley, who said that the problem after the Second World War wasn’t that people stopped believing in Christianity; they stopped believing in moral communities. That sagged and a rather materialistic, pragmatic spirit dug itself in a little further. I think we are still dealing with the consequences of that.
But do you think that modern Christianity might focus too much on the faith as a binder of communities, rather than something much more substantial?
There is a danger there. There are elements in government and public life which would love to have religious communities doing their work for them: binding communities. But it can’t just be social cement. It has got to be a real inspiration, in the sense of seeing people and the world differently. When I was a research student I met someone who had been a close friend of a very, very remarkable old émigré woman Sonya Zernova. She, like many Russian émigrés, was, although firmly anti-Bolshevist, a great believer in justice. She used to go and nag factory owners in France. One of them apparently said: “Why do you bother with these people? They are just animals.” And she said: “No, they are images of God. That is why I bother about them.” Now, that’s capturing the imagination.
Do you think there are signs of growth, a recapturing of the imagination?
Well, there is a lot of interest isn’t there? A couple of nights ago we had the launch of Theos, a new Christian think-tank. We had a very interesting discussion with Shirley Williams, Madeleine Bunting and Frank Field, who I think disagreed quite a bit about how near we were to a rediscovery of Christianity. Madeleine was pretty pessimistic. Shirley was a bit more optimistic. The interest is there and one sort of advantage is that a lot of people are now so ignorant of the Christian narrative and Christian imagery that it comes to them freshly.
So the further society gets from faith, the more we want it?
In one way. We may be better equipped to hear it as if it really were new – that is not impossible. When Philip Pullman’s plays were on at the National, I did a conversation with him. The response to that was very interesting: a lot of young people in the wake of that clearly wanted to know what I was talking about.
The difficulty is that a lot of religious journalists, or people who think they know a bit about religious journalism, tend to have stereotypes about Christian belief: you know, either you are a liberal or you are a fundamentalist. In the middle of all that there is something much more interesting, I think, which is the great tradition that the Church proclaims and which I think, again, ought not to be boring.
Many people seem to instinctively reject Richard Dawkins, though he is the bestseller at the moment.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? I think it works in two ways. First of all, people are always a bit suspicious of people who are overdoing the argument and Dawkins is inclined to go over the top in what he says about the intellectual and moral corruption of religion.
Second, there is perhaps just a touch of scepticism about science. People have gone a bit beyond the idea that scientists are automatically to be listened to and believed when they talk outside their field. We are much more suspicious about science than we might have been 20 or 30 years ago. People think there is something a little bit fishy about science now. It’s leading us in directions that we can’t cope with. The fact that Dawkins is a very, very good scientist doesn’t automatically mean that he is a very good philosopher … which he isn’t.
There is a burgeoning publishing industry devoted to announcing the imminent death of Anglicanism. A recent example is entitled Last Rites and is cheerfully subtitled The End of the Church of England. Does the Church of England still have the power to shape culture, or is it only able to be shaped by it?
“The Church of England as it now is no human power can save.” Those words were spoken in 1831, at the time of the Reform Bill, so a little bit of historical perspective comes in handy. At the same time, it is clear that the Anglican Church worldwide, as it has evolved, has got to find some new ways of relating and organising its life because we have depended a little bit too much on what you might call “gentlemen’s agreements”. As the Church has become so much more diverse, then the old notion of a kind of spiritual version of the British Commonwealth becomes less plausible. We have got to do more and better theology and more and better thinking about structures. We are trying to do it, with the Windsor Report and so on…
As for the Church of England, you do get wildly differing accounts don’t you? I have looked at Michael Hampson’s book, and it doesn’t do me any favours. But my feeling is that, on the ground, parish life is pretty much what it was.
There are real points of strain, especially finding enough volunteers to keep certain bits of the administration going – parish treasurers and so forth. At the same time, there are largely uncontrolled and unplanned bits of growth. My sense is of lots and lots of parishes that are very effectively plugged into their local communities, working, often heroically, with very limited resources with young people and young families. And while they have all sorts of anxieties about finance and maintenance, there is a basic confidence which I find very striking. It’s not as if everywhere is in decline and low morale.
That’s not to ignore the points of strain and the challenges – like all churches we face huge challenges. I don’t sense, though, that in the majority of parishes there is a massive crisis of confidence. The decline in Sunday worshippers, which again affects all the churches, seems to have slowed a bit and we are beginning to realise that we have got to count in those who don’t worship on Sundays for whatever reason – those who, if you like, slip through the net of counting and what we get is not a straight downward graph but a diffused pattern of loyalty to the Church much more varied than it was a generation ago. And at the same time also we have a rising number of candidates for ordination, quite startlingly in a way. Having said last year that I thought we needed a really substantial percentage increase in candidates under 30, I look at the statistics this year and rather to my surprise they seemed to have got it. But shaping and being shaped was the question wasn’t it? I think it does still shape culture to a remarkable extent and the first of the two areas where this is most obvious is education, where it is still quite clear that people at large have an investment in a religious dimension to education, however much columnists in certain newspapers don’t like it. The other area is this question of partnership, regeneration, and the fact that in so many areas of our country the Church is the only organisation that has a non-negotiable long-term presence in the community. The building, the priest, the very fact of a regular activity, a resource for the community, a professional who lives in the middle of the community and doesn’t commute in – these are shaping things. It is partly because of that there remains this sense that the Church is there for people and exercising a kind of pull.
Shaping on the wider stage, the country as a whole, harder to say. It is interesting that, in talking about the reform of the Lords for example, there is a surprising reluctance on the part of those discussing it to say: “Well, we can just dispense with the bishops and / or the guaranteed religious element.”
Does this not tie in with the twinning of Anglican identity with Britishness? Do you think that can both hold the Anglican Communion back and hold it together? I think what we are seeing is the swings and roundabouts of that. There is something about the involvement of the Church of England in the British political identity that is a very useful springboard for the work of the Gospel, but it something also that can be a bit of straightjacket in the global Church as it emerges. Part of my job, having a role in England and a role in the Communion, is trying to ride those two horses.
Your book on St Teresa of Avila suggested that you have a quite remarkable affinity for the Catholic world, for its saints, theologians and artists. Could you tell me about your relationship with the Catholic Church and how it has influenced your life?
The Welsh environment in which I grew up was, on the whole, deeply suspicious of Catholics. Catholics were foreigners: Irish, Italian or Spanish. You might be surprised to know there was a substantial Spanish community in the upper Swansea valley in the mid-20th century. The Spanish were right out of consideration; the Irish were just a local nuisance; the Italians were tolerable just because they had very nice ice-cream shops. When we started attending a rather more Anglo-Catholic parish church in Swansea that was a sort of gentle introduction to an awareness of other kinds of priority and shape for worship. We’d moved house; we’d moved from a context in which we had been regular members of a Presbyterian chapel to a village where the parish church was the most important religious presence, which we loved, and the whole family had flung itself into enthusiastically. It was a curate in the parish who, when I was about 14, lent me some of his books to read, including St Teresa’s autobiography. So I was beginning to find my way in this, to understand a bit about the monastic tradition, about traditions of prayer. The teaching we had in the parish was solidly sacramental, very much focused on the Eucharist. It was old-fashioned High Churchery, but with very serious emphasis on the centrality of the Sunday morning parish Eucharist and the daily Mass in the parish. That’s what I grew up with and it still forms who I am and what I am as a Christian. And an interest in both history and literature in school intensified that. All of that helped me find my way a bit into the Catholic world.
How close did you get to becoming a Roman Catholic?
I thought about it a lot for several years, during most of my student years. That was a time when the biggest influences on me were coming from one or another kind of Catholic environment. I was reading St John of the Cross and a lot of that tradition. I was making retreats regularly at Benedictine monasteries. Also, writers like Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar were the people who got me excited. And I was thinking about whether my calling was in monastic life and, if so, was it in that sort of context? The thing I couldn’t quite manage was, as it were, signing up to the theology of the papacy as it evolved. I couldn’t cope with Vatican I. And I didn’t think that it was particularly honest to pretend otherwise or cut a corner. So I sat there chewing my nails for quite a while, not quite sure what would emerge. I think it was the experience of teaching theology to Anglican candidates for ordination that made me feel: “Well, they’re coping with it. Perhaps I need to cope with it and offer myself in good faith for ordination in the Anglican Church and see what happens.”
So it would be the decree from Vatican I on papal infallibility that proved the real obstacle?
That’s what I found the hardest, but there were other things that I wasn’t comfortable with: some aspects of the doctrine of grace as it evolved, but I think it was that that was the really tough thing.
What aspects of the doctrine of grace?
Oh, I could never quite get my mind round indulgences and the slightly, without being unkind, mechanical, factory approach.
What attracted you then?
The life of prayer, the life of sacraments. I found that technical side harder. I think that is where my studies of the Eastern Orthodox tradition came in at that point, because I was researching Russian Christianity at that period. That had the kind of scepticism about the papacy and about certain aspects of the doctrine of grace that I thought: “Yeah, OK, I understand those questions.” So that is why I am not…
Last year the book Father Joe by Tony Hendra appeared. This brought the extraordinary personality of Dom Joseph Warrilow vividly to life. You have described yourself as one of Fr Joe’s “spiritual children”. What did he mean to you?
For several years, everything in terms of nurture and encouragement. His photograph is still on my desk. I think it was, as Tony Hendra describes, the sense of being taken completely seriously and having somebody’s love and prayerful attention just wrapping you around, with no reproach and no agenda – just that sense of, yes, an unconditional love. I have seldom met it in anyone, but there was this remarkable man who was just there in that way. Tony Hendra says at end of the book how surprising it was for him and for many people to find that, where they had thought that they were the really special person for Joe, there were about 500 others. For somebody to give that sense of absolute specialness to quite so many people is amazing. Theirs is a sort of freemasonry of people you bump into and say: “Ah yes, one of Joe’s boys.”
Did you discuss joining the monastic life with him?
I discussed that and all sorts of aspects with him. And the great thing was he never put me under any pressure. He helped me see what was true and what was false. He’d very gently say: “Look, aren’t you being a bit romantic about all of this? Don’t try and be more holy than you need be. Take it gently and say your prayers.”
How would he have answered your concerns about the papal infallibility?
I still remember the conversation we had about it, because it very nearly tipped me over. He said: “Well, I have always thought of it as being a bit like the promise you make of being obedient to the abbot. You’re in the community. You acknowledge where the leadership is. You just say: ‘OK, I am committed to that.’ Well, if only it were that… but a great man for whom I give thanks constantly.
In 2002 you published a book about praying with icons of the Virgin. Are you that most remarkable of things: a Marian Archbishop of Canterbury?
Well, I’d like to think I was a Christian Archbishop of Canterbury and therefore a Marian Archbishop of Canterbury. The kind of Anglicanism in which I grew up with wasn’t panicked by the idea that a proper devotion to Mary was part of proper Christian practice. It was when I was bishop in Wales that this came home more because I used to take groups from the diocese every year to Walsingham for a week.
We would take quite a big group from the diocese, 90-odd people sometimes. And I remember the first time I took such a group thinking that there is something about this environment and people discovering Mary as a mother and as a sister in the Church, something so life-giving and liberating for people, that I really need to rediscover.
Would you feel uncomfortable with the Marian Catholicism that John Paul II showed?
It is more overt and more emotional than something I feel entirely at ease with. But it is not something I feel repelled by – quite the contrary. It’s a cliché, but I think it’s important that if you take the humanity of Jesus seriously, then you’ve got to understand that that humanity is shaped by Mary.
The American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor was once invited to a New York literary salon. Over dinner the hostess, who had the power to make or break writers’ careers, said that she believed the Eucharist was merely a “symbol”. Flannery O’Connor replied: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Later, O’Connor wrote that there was no other answer she could have given, because the Eucharist “is the centre of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable”.
I think that is a wonderful quote and I want to stand and applaud it.
Is that also true of you?
I think so, but I might want to refine the language a bit. Of course, the Eucharist is a symbol, but I think what Flannery O’Connor was saying is that if it is just a symbol in the sense that it is something detached from what it is about, and it is just working in your mind -- well, no, that’s not it. The Eucharist is not a visual aid and it’s not a jog to memory. It’s an event, an encounter. And if it is not an event in which some utterly earth-shaking change occurs, if it is not an encounter with the risen Christ, well, indeed, to hell with it. It just becomes something that we do as opposed to something God offers or does. That’s at the centre of my own feeling about the Eucharist.
But how close can Anglicanism get to transubstantiation?
I think partly because of the Thirty-Nine Articles giving transubstantiation a very bad press, Anglicans don’t especially want to go down that route. In spite of a lot of very interesting work – P J Fitzpatrick’s book – on the Eucharist, I still think there is a problem being bound to that particular theory of what happens. What I want to say: the bread and the wine, the sacrament, become fully and perfectly the carriers of the agency of Jesus, as fully as his literal flesh and blood are the carriers of his agency and identity. And what that means and how that happens, I am not sure we can carve up quite as neatly as St Thomas.
You are going to have your first extended audience with Pope Benedict XVI later this month. Cynics say there is little point in a meeting between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, given that, despite frantic ecumenical efforts, the two communions are drifting ever further apart. Barring some extraordinary intervention by the Holy Spirit, full, visible unity is out of the question. What is there left to talk about?
I don’t of course entirely bar extraordinary interventions of the Holy Spirit. But what is there left to talk about? Any number of things, really. I think we simply have to try and understand each other for one thing. Why is it that the ordination of women has become such a touchstone of “yes” or “no” between our churches? At the very least, we need to understand what is happening there. Can we talk about where we see the unity of the Church lying? What do Anglicans mean by the unity of the Church? We need to be pressed on that. Equally, we want to press just how much the papacy has changed and how much it might change – plenty of conversation to go on. But also, and this is a very important strategic point for us at the moment, we are now not two churches competing for a limited market: we are two churches standing in the middle of a secular and unfriendly environment and also in the middle of a world whose practical needs are enormous, needs which the Church is in a unique position to help with.
So what we are trying to do at the moment is to diversify a bit, not just talking about institutional unity but talking about what are the practical means of collaboration, which is why when I go to Rome I am meeting the Secretariat of State and the congregation for evangelisation, not just Christian unity. Yesterday morning Cardinal Martino was sitting where you are sitting and we were talking about how we might better work together on the development agenda in Africa. In Sudan the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches have an extraordinary record of collaboration and we’re trying to work out whether we take that further, especially with education and reconstruction in southern Sudan. So there is quite a lot to talk about, and all of that happens because we feel there is enough in the bag in the way of doctrinal agreement for us to feel we can recognise each other and even though we may have hit the buffers a bit in terms of institutional reconciliation there is actually still quite a lot to do. So I don’t feel gloomy about that.
So the focus is not on Christian unity but on overcoming secularism?
Yes, and to Christian mission and to our common task in resisting the assumptions that are hostile to Christianity. That’s not to say we stop thinking about unity question. Certainly not. And of course we pray every day for the unity of the Church. It’s just a bit harder to see how we get to it.
In his address to the Church of England bishops in June Cardinal Walter Kasper identified women’s ordination as the key problem in relations between Rome and Canterbury. Has the introduction of women priests into the Church of England brought all the benefits that you hoped for and are you therefore satisfied that it was worth the deterioration in relations with Rome that it caused?
Two points. One, I think some Anglicans are quite surprised at just how high up the scale of theological priorities the women’s issue turned out to be. I have often referred to the fact that in the ARCIC document on ministry the whole foundation for theological agreement about what we mean by ordained ministry is sorted, and then there is a footnote saying: “Of course, there is an issue about the gender of people being ordained, but leave that for now.” Now, I think on the basis of that it is a bit surprising that it turned out to be quite so important. But of course in the late Pope’s pontificate a whole lot of new considerations about the theology of the role of women came in and were given quite strong priority in a way which made this much more complicated. So I could express the point crudely by saying it is not just the Anglican Church that has moved: there have been developments in the Roman Catholic Church as well.
The interesting question is: has it been worth it? When the Church of England decided to ordain women as priests I think all sorts of things were going on. But it wasn’t just because we thought it would be useful, but because we thought it was right, that there was actually something about the ordained priesthood carrying and representing the whole body of the baptised that we felt would be lost or obscured if things remained solely male. My own theological view rests very strongly on that conviction: that a baptised woman and a baptised man relate to Jesus Christ in the same way. And if that is the case, I believe that either may be called. So we did it because we thought it was right, knowing something of the price it would exact but not, I think, knowing just how difficult it would be.
Had we known how difficult it would be, would it have stopped us? I suspect not. And that sounds a bit blunt, but I think there was sufficient depth of theological conviction in the Church of England to feel that it would somehow be wrong and no real compliment to the Roman Catholic Church if we held back and said: “Well, you know, we won’t hurt your feelings.”
Perhaps it is ridiculous to say that it happened too quickly…
Two thousand years! No, I understand what you mean – the way it happened and the fact that it began with irregular ordinations in the United States. I just wish that the Communion as a whole could have settled this together, even if that had taken a bit longer. But what we had was one province here, one province there, one saying “no”, the other saying “yes”. That wasn’t the best way of doing it, but given the diffuse way in which the Communion works I don’t quite see how it could have been otherwise.
I don’t think it was too hasty. After all, the discussion had been going for a good 20 years – more than that really – several votes, several synod discussions, innumerable papers. I don’t think it could have been put off much longer.
As for the issue of women bishops, would that thicken the wedge between you and Rome?
It’s certainly not going to make it any easier, and those of us who care about our relations with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are going to find it very hard that this is undoubtedly going to be another cause of concern. But we are in the process at moment of discerning how and when, and I don’t think I want to foreclose on that. I can’t see a theological objection, but we know that the practical cost is high. We all know that and Cardinal Kasper reminded us of that very forcefully.
Do you anticipate the same sort of rebellion as occurred with women priests?
We are undoubtedly going to have internal division. The most time-consuming and energy-consuming thing at the moment in all this is working out how that is dealt with justly and creatively, not just reactively, in a way that honours the convictions of those who can’t go along with this.
But the level of division has not shaken your conviction that it was the right thing to do initially?
No, it hasn’t. It has tested it, it really has, and there have been moments when I have felt that. But I think perhaps what one doesn’t always realise is how very, very normal this has come to feel for the huge majority of Anglicans and it hasn’t undermined what people feel about the ministry of the sacraments. So that now that putting it back in the bottle is not an option.
I don’t think it has transformed or renewed the Church of England in spectacular ways. Equally, I don’t think it has corrupted or ruined the Church of England in spectacular ways. It has somehow got into the bloodstream and I don’t give it a second thought these days, in terms of regular worship.
There can be no going back then?
I don’t see how there can be. I could just about envisage a situation in which over a very long period the Anglican Church thought again about it, but I would need to see what the theological reason for that would be and I don’t see it at the moment.
I don’t think, practically, there’s going back. It is a matter of containing and managing the diversity.
How disappointed are you that there will be no ceremony in the Sistine Chapel marking the 40th anniversary of the historic meeting between Paul VI and Archbishop Ramsey?
I am just delighted that we have been given a chance to pray together and we have been given such generous time in the meeting.
It would have been nice iconically to have a meeting in the Sistine Chapel but I think we also have the sense from 40 years ago that it was unique and now it is routine.
Pope Benedict XVI’s address at Regensburg provoked an outcry in the Muslim world. But the address was not so much a critique of Islam as an attack on Western secularists who seek to exclude the sacred from public life. Did you find the Pope’s argument persuasive? And do you think it can be applied to the present, somewhat hysterical, debate about secularism in Britain?
I don’t think there is any division between us on that matter and some of the interventions I have tried to make recently have been shoving that forward. One of the lectures I will be giving in Rome will be partly about this subject.
I thought the Pope made an extremely interesting point about what we now understand about reason.
And whatever the Emperor Paleologus may have said, the point that reason and faith are not automatic opposites is one we really need to ponder.
We have bought into a view of reason sometimes that is so trivial and functionalist that we need to recover something of the patristic, early medieval sense of the reasoning capacity as part of the image of God.
Is it equally worrying that reason has detached itself from faith, as it is that faith appears to be distancing itself from reason?
Yes, so there are really important markers there. We will want to talk about that.
Do you agree with his term “the dictatorship of relativism”?
I have read what he has said about that not only in his pontificate but also before. Yes, I think the challenge of subjectivism, individualism, the idea that all society can do is gently regulate a set of individual agendas, is a really dangerous view.
Do you think that the British Government has presented multiculturalism in a relativistic manner?
Not necessarily. If what the Government is doing is to allow different communities to have responsible debate in public, then OK. The worry is where Government, or popular opinion, tries to say: “OK, everybody get out of the room. Put the Muslims away in that cupboard and the Christians away in that cupboard and we will have nice reasonable discussion.” But there is nobody there.
You and the Holy Father will have much ecumenical business to discuss. But if you have time for a more general conversation what would you most like to talk to him about?
I think the one obvious answer is Mozart. I know that the Pope is a musician and if we have a chance to talk about something other than theology that would be one of my first choices.
Maybe you could play the piano together?
That would be something: the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope playing duets.
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