The Interview: Rowan Williams

Rowan Pelling and Peter Phelps interview Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, about his new collection of poetry, the perils facing refugees and the power of patience and contemplation in forging empathy and bridging divides

I live in Cambridge, where there’s a brilliant academic behind every other door. Even so, I feel daunted at the prospect of interviewing the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams (otherwise known as Lord Williams of Oystermouth), a renowned theologian who’s proficient in eleven languages and is a noted poet and anointed Welsh druid. He was also Master of Magdalene College for eight years. The sight of Williams wandering deep in thought across the Fen city’s cobbles, looking more like Gandalf than Ian McKellen in his cowled gown, was a welcome vision for the time of his tenure. As I limber up for our Zoom chat, I tell Perspective’s editor Peter Phelps, the magazine’s resident poetry expert, that he will have to share interlocutor duties lest I’m overcome with awe. I’ve tucked away the conversational gambit that Williams and I were both included in a University Challenge question in an episode that was broadcast around 2003: “What links Mr Bean, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the editor of the Erotic Review?” It’s almost certainly the only time those two posts have been linked (and the clue is in my byline).

Suddenly we’re all live on Zoom and Williams materialises on our office’s computer screen with such a sense of ease that Phelps and I instantly relax. Then there’s that voice, with its distinctive sonorous timbre, summoning carols from King’s Canterbury and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding. Williams has just published a volume of his richly-allusive Collected Poems with Carcanet Press and Phelps and I have spent days immersed in his verses. Many reference works of art, painters, writers, museums and even institutions (the University of Cambridge on its 800th anniversary), sending us scurrying to gaze at famous faces and cultural icons anew. When Phelps remarks on this, William disarms us by saying, “One not very complimentary reviewer said it’s exactly the sort of stuff that dons write on holiday.” Which makes us laugh, though it’s deeply unfair. There’s a striking range and depth to his poetry, which means you can be calmly gazing out at sea on one page, or welling up as Williams evokes the domestic calm before the unspeakable horror of the Aberfan slag-heap slide, which killed 116 Welsh schoolchildren and 28 adults.

Phelps asks if writing poetry is an almost involuntary act for Williams and he nods: “It’s very much a question of things writing themselves. I know it’s a cliché. I know it sounds a bit precious sometimes but poems that need to be written make the time for themselves and get written somehow… Something starts bubbling and I know at some point I’ve got to find a space to let it boil over. And that may be a long train journey, or something like that.” I wonder at what age he found himself turning to poetry as a personal resource. Williams says he wrote poems at school including an “unbelievably dreary one when I was about thirteen called “Constantinople”, God forgive me.” But at seventeen he wrote his first “serious” work, inspired by “a really wonderful sixth-form English class with lots of stimulus and encouragement.” 

The theologian says his faith was always part of the “convergent” cultural forces informing his poetry: “I’ve always found the crossover is whatever it is that makes you recognise you’re in a larger world than you thought. Larger, possibly more disturbing, more exhilarating… At school, my sense was always that what I was learning in English class was really about what I was hearing on Sunday at church.” 

What isn’t so evident in the verses is any sense of “I”, although most modern poetry seethes with the self. Phelps asks if this apparent lack of ego is deliberate and Williams shakes his head. “Poetry is always in some sense transformative of what you are experiencing or receiving, it can’t just be reporting,” he says. Several of his subjects clearly arise from direct experience, “but I find that the interest and the energy doesn’t come from just reporting on my feelings but trying to enable something to be seen or heard.”

One poem where Williams’ faith and sense of high culture collide is “Our Lady of Vladimir”, where the intimate and numinous are tightly coiled: 

“The child has overlaid us in our beds,
we cannot close our eyes,
his weight sits firmly,
fits over heart and lungs,
and choked we turn away
into the window of immeasurable dark
to shake off the insistent pushing warmth”

Phelps and Williams both speak Russian and have viewed the twelfth-century icon, now in Moscow’s Church of St Nicholas in Tolmachi, in situ. They share their sense of these luminous images as portals to the divine. Williams says he first picked up a book of icons aged fourteen, feeling, “this is not a picture so much as a window. It’s very much a surface that you learn to look through… It’s almost like walking in a labyrinth sometimes. And you come to a still centre where you know that you’re engaged.” I suggest there’s something in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of mysticism that’s distinctly lacking in the Anglican Church – an imaginative space that isn’t troubled by “otherness” of phenomena that can’t be described. The former archbishop replies, “Yes, I do sometimes want to say in church, ‘Stop explaining, stop trying to entertain, just let it unfold, let the space do its work.’”

Williams says that when he was preparing for the Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops just over ten years ago, he decided to start “with two days of reflection for everybody in Canterbury Cathedral… I thought the building could do more than I could to get people together.” He believes the contemplative space lessened “the pressure to sort out all the problems”. The act of “inviting people into a space where things can happen, where your perception is opened up” is at the heart of worship, he explains. “It’s not about conveying ideas and certainly, not about working yourself to death to keep people’s attention like an unsuccessful schoolteacher.”

It was a difficult time of tumultuous Church politics, in which poisonous rows about gay priests and women priests – both groups he supported – chequered Williams’ time as archbishop. When he makes a slightly jokey aside about post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from this era at Lambeth Palace, I decide to tell him of a chance encounter I’d had at a book launch when a seemingly mild-mannered woman my own age went off like a rocket when I expressed unreserved admiration for Williams. She declared he’d almost “destroyed” the Anglican Church. I ask the retired prelate if time has given him any perspective on why some Church insiders were so implacably opposed to him. Declaring himself “the worst person to comment on that, obviously,” he muses on the impact of his “rather unconventional” background. “I haven’t been a bishop in England. I had most of my ministry either in the South Wales Valleys or in the university,” so while at best that meant he brought a different perspective, “at worst, I just didn’t know how things worked.” The way the Church ran in Wales, he explains, “was very different, a much smaller operation.”

I suggest that academia also set him apart, because divisive ideas are meant to be freely discussed, tested and exposed within a scholastic framework (even if, arguably, that freedom is under siege in universities in 2021). Williams nods and says, “I got into some degree of hot water about a lot of things I’d written. And what I really wanted to say was: ‘Look, when I wrote that I didn’t know I was going to be Archbishop of Canterbury.’” As he jovially points out, it would be “a rather sad kind of life” if you went around censoring yourself in the expectation of taking up such an office. 

Several of Williams’ poems take their energy from artists, thinkers and creative spirits who came to the fore in the early decades of the twentieth century, such as Picasso, Matisse and Rodin. I ask if we’ve lost some of that extraordinary artistic ingenuity in the age of AI? “That period is one in which people are very consciously pushing the envelope of what could be imagined and said, sculpted and painted, dramatised,” he agrees. “They’re still very much bound to the material stuff of what they’re working with. They’re also in a society where it’s possible to step a little bit sideways from narrow considerations of profit and survival and of course a lot of them have the advantage of private means.” It’s not just the extraordinary talent he finds compelling, “but also some of the vulnerabilities or the shadows of the great figures, which was why there was that sequence of poems about people’s death: Nietzsche, Rilke, Tolstoy. And the sequence of poems about Gwen John, which, if I’m allowed to say, I’m quite fond of. It comes from a deep, deep love of Gwen John’s painting, but also fascination with a figure who moves in and out of much larger, aggressive and frequently more stupid male figures.”

Williams’ deep sympathy for the plight of women artists and writers – so often placed in the shadow of their male lovers and relatives – is evident throughout the collection. The volume starts with “Gwen John in Paris” and a reference to her more famous brother, Augustus John. “I am Mrs Noah: my clothes-peg head/ pins sheets out between showers;/ In my clean cabin, my neat bed,/ the bearded Augusti lumber in and out.” The poem is dedicated to Williams’ sister-in-law Celia Paul a painter whose haunting portraits (often featuring women in shroud-like garments) are rarely discussed without mention of her relationship with Lucian Freud. Williams says of Paul with wonder, “I don’t know exactly how she does it in the palette she uses… It’s not anaemic at all. But it’s very disciplined.” He agrees that society seems to punish women for single-minded dedication to their art, musing “male artists do have a certain amount of slack, don’t they?”

There’s no “deliberate strategy” to write about creative women, he says, though other poems are dedicated to the poets Dorothy Nimmo and Inna Lisnianskaya. “But I suppose having been of the generation that encountered the first wave of Christian feminism, I felt I had to keep my eyes and ears open to that strand in my religious environment as well as elsewhere. And it is just a fact that some of the people I mention, like Lisnianskaya, are people whose writing has had a huge impact over the years.”

This leads us to a wider discussion of the diminishment of humanities in the British education system, in which both Phelps and I have seen our children steered away from their natural inclination towards the arts and encouraged to throw their energies at STEM subjects (particularly prevalent in Cambridge, where every new school is a science or maths academy). Williams confesses that he worries, “not about science, but about the strange fundamentalism around science, which is a very narrow view of how science works.” There are models of knowledge we take for granted, he observes, as if knowledge is akin to “capturing something and bringing it home and putting it in the larder.” He calls it “a hunter-gatherer picture” and wants us also to be attuned to other types of knowledge, such as that needed to ride a bicycle, or sail a boat or play the cello. “That’s a knowledge which is knowing how to adjust to what’s there and work with its rhythm. And that’s very much undervalued, I think.” The problem with the arts, William thinks, is they’re about, “how you respond, how you – sorry about the sentimental – how you dance with something.”

Is there a practical way of addressing the imbalance? It may simply be “underlining the fact that humanities and the sciences are not that far apart,” says Williams. “Some of the gifts you need to be a scientist are some of the gifts you need for doing the humanities”. It’s about patience, courage, imagination, the capacity to see around a problem, and most of all to self-reflect: “Am I asking the right question?” In his view effective and creative science “involves attentiveness and flair and the capacity to question your questions. And some of that you learn in good humanities teaching. So if you actually want to produce creative scientists, then for goodness sake, get them to read some poetry, take them to the theatre. Not a lot of scientists know this.” 

Two thinkers who entwine science and the humanities in their writing are his good friend Rupert Sheldrake, who proposes that living organisms can inherit collective memories, and Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees. William cites them as “people who are really asking outrageous questions about the natural world and coming up with outrageous answers. I think it’s wonderful.” He tells us that when Wohlleben’s first book was reissued there was one write-up on the back that simply said, “This book ought to be burnt.” He becomes very animated as he tells us, “There are scientists who are really creatively pushing the boat out in terms of method and understanding of these things. I’ve been part of a research group in the last year or so, meeting online, looking at some of the implications and limits of artificial intelligence and it’s been absolutely fascinating, being in a conversation with working scientists and working IT experts, plus some philosophers and some imaginative writers, all proving our thoughts on this – trying to raise together some of these questions about how we think and what the limits are of what I call a mighty fettered approach to learning and thinking and knowing.”

This leads me to ask what Williams thinks of transhumanism, which has become a very modish topic amongst Silicon Valley and tech millionaire types – fuelled, I suppose, by the certainty that money and success should somehow guarantee an extension to your natural span of years. “It’s one of those promethean fantasies that surfaces from time to time,” he observes, “where again and again human beings are fascinated and seduced by the idea that we could just do without the world we’re in and the body we are… because we are so clever and it would be so much more interesting if we didn’t have to worry about eating and dying and all those other things.” It’s not the idea itself that bothers him so much as the way it takes us away from our environment and our place in the material world; it encourages us to see ourselves as “ideally and essentially separated”, colluding with destructive habits. 

Phelps asks if Williams sees a similar impulse in the “private space race”, which sees immensely wealthy men aiming to leave the planet and its problems – like our fouling of the environment – behind them. The theologian ponders the question: “Well yes, I think if the Elon Musks and Jeff Bezoses of this world went for a walk in the rain rather more often than getting on a spaceship to the moon, that the world might be a happier place. Going for a walk in the rain is, if you like, one of the paradigm experiences of being a bodily reality faced with circumstances you can’t necessarily control.” He’s been re-reading CS Lewis’s works and says it’s extraordinary how, in his first science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet, the author was writing with great prescience on this topic in the 1940s. “Here are these scientists, going to a new planet, and what are they interested in? They’re interested in its resources, its capacity to house human beings once they’ve done what they want to do with earth. They want it as a possession in their pockets, and that’s a sort of diabolic approach that is countered in the book.” 

It’s hard not to ask Williams if the human impulse to destroy our own habitat is related to the idea of original sin and losing our place in the Garden of Eden. He replies that one way of interpreting that story would be God saying to Adam and Eve, “The garden is yours, but just as a reminder that it’s not your possession, here is something in it you can’t touch.” But the couple succumb to the belief that, “if it’s in the garden, it’s ours. We can touch what we like, we can consume what we like, and it’s not going to make any difference.” Williams continues, “There’s a strong element, I think, in Jewish scripture of that reminder that the world is lent, it’s not given. The world is not something we can absolutely encompass and contain for ourselves.” He cites the “wonderful” image of the jubilee in Leviticus: “the year that we don’t sow crops or harvest, you free your slaves and you write off your debts. There’s a kind of pause, literally a sabbatical moment when everything you thought you could cling onto, you have to let go of. And that comes around every seven years.”

Which seems a timely moment to ask him about the Covid lockdowns, because – despite the fear and distress – there was something valuable for many of us in having our frantic lives paused and dials pushed to reset. Williams says he felt the same at first, but now fears we’ve returned to business as usual. “It just makes me think, what does it take to wake us up? A pandemic doesn’t do it. What will?” He was disappointed by the missed opportunity of the COP26 conference in Glasgow, which he attended, especially its failure to accelerate the promised $100bn dollars set aside for poorer nations to transition to carbon neutral economies. “I’ve been very concerned by how the voices of indigenous peoples don’t get a proper hearing, as they are the front line on the Amazon and Pacific,” he says. He also frets about the dangers faced by climate activists from indigenous backgrounds, whose protests mean they run the risk of being “threatened or murdered by militias and other sinister groups associated with the extracting industry.” 

Since Williams is a seasoned protestor, who was once arrested for singing psalms at a CND protest at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, I ask him about the hastily slipped-through amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which means certain long-practised forms of peaceful protest (noise and obstruction) could now be met with 51-week prison sentences. He notes we’re in a political culture “where this is just rolled out without getting much challenge or discussion, as if the only point at which government ought to be responding to protest is shutting it down, rather than engaging.” And when you try to close protests down, people push back harder, which in turn “gives government an excuse to say, ‘Well look, it’s getting a bit violent and messy so we need more restrictions.’ And I worry about that spiral.” 

Is it possible that the fear stoked by Covid and lockdown restrictions has led to a desire for order and security, which can readily be channelled by unscrupulous politicians into more authoritarian measures? Williams nods. “It’s the temptation to go for what I sometimes call cosmetic responses to problems. Let’s look as if we’re doing something rather than engaging. And I fear with the recent tragedy about the emigrants in the Channel, again the temptation is, ‘Let’s look as if we’re doing something.’”

As we glumly focus on the terrible human tragedy unfolding in the English Channel and the labyrinthine problem of solving it, Williams reveals he’s learned a lot from some of the groups he’s worked with that help child refugees, such as Safe Passage UK. “The basic principle is if you want to avoid chaotic migration, then you need to create secure legal structures which make some attempt to attend to what people say their needs are. So, look at what drives people’s desperations, listen to what people are actually saying from within the refugee experience – because that doesn’t often feature very much.” He also pleads for people not to collude with language trying to persuade us that “we’re being swamped by refugees.” In terms of statistics, “the UK is well down the list of countries receiving refugees,” he points out. He stresses the need for better engagement with local communities, who can easily feel resentful at the thought of a sudden influx of “outsiders”. The key issues are, “How do you engage? How do you prepare the way for that? And then, of course, there are the bigger questions of looking at different causes, civil strife, environmental disaster and all the things that drive migration in the first place.”

Which takes us straight to the stark – seemingly intractable – polarisation of opinion that’s marred UK debates and raged across social media ever since the Brexit campaign created two trenches. I half-jokingly beseech Williams to bestow some healing wisdom. “Like everybody else, I think I’m better at the diagnosis than prescription,” he avers. But he believes part of the answer lies in individual self-reflection. We each need to “question the process by which we learn, grow, develop, assimilate and revisit information, and say to ourselves, ‘That makes sense, or, actually no, it doesn’t.’ Or think, ‘I changed my mind about that but did I do that for the right reason?’” He sees it as a process of distilling knowledge so that we have a better understanding of how others arrive at different positions to our own, “because of the lives they’ve led”. But this sifting process and painstaking development of empathy poses “a real challenge to our educational philosophy.” Williams returns to his earlier point about the importance of imagination and creativity: “The problem is that it’s not just about logic, it’s about narrative… a recognition that while you may want to argue, you can’t suppose that somebody else’s disagreement is a wilful spitting in the face of truth.” He pauses, before adding: “Because that’s the climate, isn’t it? Our opponent is not just wrong, but wicked.”

I tell Williams I’ve seen those sort of dark accusations – on both sides – in debates about Covid passports and vaccine mandates. “That’s right,” he replies, “And it’s connected, once again, with sheerly punitive responses to crises [such as] the migrant issue. Which assume that if you simply bang the problem on its head at the point where it rears up, you’ve solved something.” 

This seems a good juncture to ask Williams what he makes of the current mental health crisis that is having a particularly dark impact on teenagers. I confess I feel guilty for raising my sons in largely secular fashion, without the Anglican rituals that I now realise acted as a reassuring framework when I was young and troubled. Does he think people suffer when they’re deprived of the resources spiritual practice can offer? He ponders before replying: “I think a sane life, a balanced life, is a life where you know you’re receiving, processing, working within a system which you can affect, you can modify, you can relate to – but it’s there, it’s a grammar for your language in the widest possible sense. If you think that at every moment you are responsible for making yourself, projecting yourself, protecting yourself, the burden is massive.”

He cites Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, who describes a fundamental problem of human mental health as “the self-creation myth,” in other words: “if I could just make myself up.” It sounds appealing, says Williams, “until you realise you can never stop projecting yourself.” By contrast, if you grow up with a tradition it gives you something to engage with and a grammar to express yourself, so even when you break the rules and rebel, there’s a language for engaging with others: “something shared, something inherited.” Phelps and I are nodding with recognition, since he is the seventh of nine children raised by observant Catholic parents on an Australian farm, while I attended a school for daughters of missionaries in Sevenoaks. There’s little we don’t know about breaking the rules.

Phelps points out that the green movement is giving young people a new language of engagement and Williams agrees that the fact we are already “part of a complex interactive life system” which is “more than” us means we are not the source of all value and meaning. The challenge for young people, he believes, is finding a balance between their panicked sense of urgency and the reasons they wanted to solve the problem in the first place. He invites teenagers to remember that their environmental advocacy is “not just about averting disaster, it’s about living well.” That, in his view is “where the energy comes from. And that’s where some of the anxiety gets lifted.”

Since we’ve turned to uplifting topics, I tell Williams my husband will never forgive me if I don’t ask about “Alderley”, the poem dedicated to the author Alan Garner at 80. Those of us who grew up reading Garner’s children’s novels (The Owl Service, Elidor and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) often become lifelong devotees. There’s an eerie, transporting quality to the writing that puts me in mind of the theologian’s beloved icons – they’re portals to another realm. Williams says he’s just nominated Garner’s latest novel, Treacle Walker, as his book of the year.  He has loved the author’s work since he was eleven, especially Thursbitch, which “conveys more than any other book I’ve ever read the sense of what the Shamanic view of the reality is like.” 

Emboldened by talk of shamans and the veil between this world and the next, my editor seizes the opportunity to ask the former Archbishop if he’s ever tried magic mushrooms. Williams says he hasn’t, nor anything similar; he recognises some people have wonderful experiences using it, “but I don’t want to have wonderful experiences… I’d like to be better in touch with the world and there are other ways of doing it.” He’s aware that in certain cultures there are “received and measured and traditional ways of accessing some kinds of vision and I pass no judgement on that. What I’m not so enamoured with is what I would call the Timothy Leary version.”

I once shared a conference panel with Williams in 2012, when we debated “innovation” in the sphere of relationships, how the modern Church deals with the reality that even the best-intentioned spouse can fail the ideal of fidelity over a long, unpredictable lifetime. How can we reconcile the vagaries of desire with our yearning for a safe berth? “It’s not that God sits there with folded arms being rugged and insistent, a sort of granite presence,” Williams replies. It’s about “that endless improvisatory freshness that says, ‘OK, so you failed. Now restart.’ And if we internalise that a bit… perhaps we get a sense of how we relate to one another.” He suggests we need to recognise and accept our hurt feelings and hurt faiths and the sense of self-hatred that goes with our sense of failure, in order to allow something new to flourish. He quotes a cherished opening line of John Keble’s hymn, “new every morning is the love our waking and uprising prove,” explaining that “the words apply to our relationships, just as much as to our faith.” He cautions against the idea that “forgiveness means forgetting,” because we need to be able to look at our past and recognise: “Yes, that’s where I came from, that’s what’s made me what I am.” The point of looking back and remembering is to learn, “that’s not what I shall be.” 

The moment of grace is being able to open up to newness. But it’s a challenge on both a personal and national level. “If we were to sum up a lot of what this conversation has been coming back to,” he observes, “it’s how difficult an idea of grace seems to be for so much of the world we live in and the country.” 

Speaking of grace, Williams once movingly said in a sermon that “truth makes love possible, love makes the truth bearable.” Reminded of this, he thinks it was partly prompted by “that strange throwaway line in St John’s Gospel where it says, ‘Jesus did not trust himself to them because he knew the human heart.’ And the sense that Jesus in that gospel was completely unillusioned about what human beings are like. And at the same time completely committed.” 

Pondering the frailties of the human heart as we make our farewells, I ask for some Advent hope to help our readers through turbulent times. “I suppose, quite simply, that the sum total of what I can hope for is more than the sum total of what’s in me, or in us even,” Williams replies. “And that’s the key to understanding Advent. What is to be hoped for is not what I can hope for, or even what my society or my Church can generate. It is coming, it is on the way from wherever, which is within and beyond. It’s more than we can generate from ourselves.”

Rowan Williams was born in 1950. He was the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012). He spent much of his earlier career as an academic at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford successively. Williams stood down as Archbishop of Canterbury on 31 December 2012 and became Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University in January 2013. Carcanet published Collected Poems in November 2021

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