We were pleased to welcome back Rt Hon & Rt Revd Lord Williams of Oystermouth, our very own Bishop Rowan Williams
CHEESE, college life, the plight of the homeless and life as the Archbishop of Canterbury were all on the menu in Abergavenny on Wednesday evening at An Evening with Rowan Williams.
The event, organised by St Mary’s Priory Church, began with a conversation between Bishop Rowan and Caroline Woollard, former production editor of the Argus, before the Bishop fielded questions from members of the audience.
The Bishop spoke about growing up in Swansea and the realisation at quite an early age that he was being called to the ordained ministry. The church was so much part of his life, he said, that it seemed that is where he should be.
But academia beckoned before ordination and the teenager from Swansea went up to Cambridge – a culture shock, to say the least, he said. It was made all the easier, however, because there were four or five of them from Swansea who all went to Cambridge at the same time, so there was a support network.
“The other thing which helped,” he said, “was that on my second day in Cambridge I met a homeless man. We had a long talk and I learnt about the other side of the city.”
That concern for the homeless has been with the Bishop ever since – in both a prayerful and practical way. It manifested itself while he was in his second year at Cambridge, when a group of students decided to set up a hostel for the homeless.
“We didn’t know what we were doing, but it seemed to be OK,” he said with a wry smile.
Getting involved in life outside college is something the Bishop encourages students at Magdalene College, Cambridge, of which he is Master, to do, although he acknowledges that it’s more difficult nowadays as there is much more focus on getting a good degree.
After Cambridge, it was off to Oxford to complete his doctorate before then teaching for two years at the College of the Resurrection at Murfield.
By 1977, Bishop Rowan was back in Cambridge, having been ordained Deacon. As part of his student experience, he spent some time in a parish in Liverpool, which including one of the city’s worst council estates. The Vicar there said to him that “these people have doors slammed in their faces every day of the week. I want to make sure they don’t have another one slammed on the seventh day”.
That vision of the church ‘being there’ and being accessible has been central to his life and work ever since. The church, he says, must be open to anyone who needs it, even if they never actually come to Christ.
In 1986, at the age of 36, Bishop Rowan had travelled back to Oxford, to become reportedly the youngest professor at the university – a urban myth he says. But then in 1991, life took a different turn when he was elected Bishop of Monmouth.
Friends and colleagues had suggested he should take up the post and he says he had been thinking for a while that ordained ministry should be more about college life, or being Canon of Christ Church.
He sees his greatest achievement as Bishop of Monmouth and subsequently Archbishop of Wales as encouraging Christians to think of bringing their faith and worship to people in a different way. This was to manifest itself further when he became Archbishop of Canterbury in Fresh Expressions and pioneer ministers in the Church of England.
He sees his time as Archbishop as one of highs and lows. He travelled a great deal, and feels privileged to have done so, and was able to put people in contact with each other when they needed to be so.
“For instance, I was able to take an African bishop in to meet a Foreign Office minister and say, tell him what you’ve told me, so that the minister was able to get a clearer picture of what was going on,” he added.
He also saw the good which social media can do, citing the case of young people in Christchurch, New Zealand, who put a message out on Twitter after the devastating earthquake which say hundreds of volunteers assemble in the city hours after the call went out to help with the clear-up. It was, he agreed, a positive use of the internet which can be used for so many negative things.
Asked what he least like about being Archbishop of Canterbury and he has to think, before volunteering that one of his least favourite parts of the job was the General Synods, which he found frustrating.
So, after 10 years, he stood down from the job and admits that he felt the weight of the world lift from his shoulders as he walked out of Lambeth Palace for the last time.
“It’s lovely to live a more normal life,” he said. “We even have our own front door now and we don’t ‘live above the shop’. Even though being Master is a busy job, I’ve got more time to read and be with the family.”
But he’s not resting on his laurels. His entry in the Register of Interests in the House of Lords lists 55 positions he holds, ranging from President of the Royal College of Church Music to President of Help the Homeless. He thinks that list is a little out-of-date now as some of these positions come with being Archbishop of Canterbury and says that one of his prime interests is being Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Christian Aid.
To a later question from the audience, he expanded on why he feels it important to re-engage the churches with Christian Aid. “It is,” he said the development arm of the Church. We need to be supporting Christian Aid in their work with violence against women in war zones and also with the affects of climate change – however you think it’s being caused, it is leading to changes which have to be dealt with.”
Other questions from the audience were less serious, including: “Stephen Fry gave voice to the Harry Potter books, what audio book would you read for children?” The answer was the Just William books, because William is such a great character who gets in to lots of scrapes.”
Other subjects touched on included whether food banks were an indictment of our society – the answer to which was ‘yes’. Bishop Rowan went to say how he often talked to people about how quickly people get move from being self-sufficient to needing help from food banks.
He cited the case of a woman who lost her job as a cleaner and whose partner fell ill so that he couldn’t take their children to school. The woman missed an appointment with the benefits office because she was taking the youngsters to school and was subsequently ‘fined’ by having her benefits cut for six weeks’. Whatever you think about the benefits system, he said, that left that family in need.
Bishop Rowan spoke also about the benefits of a permanent Diaconate. ‘We should think of Deacons not in terms of what they don’t do, but in terms of what they do,” he said.
Other topics included prayer, 3,000 years of Christianity and his poetry. He is writing more poetry now, something he does by hand rather than on a computer – although he did confess earlier that he does now have an iPad.
Poems, he says, come to him in all sorts of ways – very, very occasionally they will ‘arrive’ fully formed and it’s almost like taking dictations. Other times he will be asked to write a poem on a specific subject, or he will get an idea from something he says, or from a metaphor he hears. At times he will write three lines, but not come back to it for six months, while at others he will start a poem but never finish it.
After the question and answer session, it was outside to the courtyard for a glass of wine and a chance for the audience to chat to the Bishop.
And the cheese mentioned right at the beginning? Well, there was a cheese and chocolate moment at the end of the formal part during which the Bishop was asked either/or questions. The answer was cheese.