Laureation address: The Rt Revd Lord Williams of Oystermouth

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Divinity
Laureation by Professor Alan Torrance, School of Divinity

Friday 13 September 2013

Lord Williams of Oystermouth is Master of Magdalene College in the University of Cambridge and formerly Archbishop of Canterbury. Prior to that, he was Archbishop of Wales and Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford. One of Britain’s leading intellectuals and public figures, he is also one of the world’s most influential church leaders and, indeed, academic theologians. In this 600th year, we wished to confer honorary doctorates on people with a uniquely distinguished record of intellectual achievement or of leadership on the world stage or of contributing to the well-being of our society. The conferment of this degree on Lord Williams is warranted in terms of all three criteria.

Rowan Douglas Williams was born in Swansea, South Wales into a Welsh-speaking, and I might add, Presbyterian family - though, at the age of ten, he persuaded his family to attend the local Anglican church. A glittering academic career took him from a starred first in Cambridge to the Lady Margaret Chair of Divinity in Oxford and Canon of Christ Church at the age of only 36.

Such was his commitment to the church that, after five years, he resigned his Oxford chair to become Bishop of Monmouth in his native county and country. Seven years later he was appointed Archbishop of Wales and on 2 December 2002, he was confirmed as the 104th bishop of the See of Canterbury - the first since the mid-thirteenth century to be appointed from beyond the English Church.

It is said that to be an effective prime minister requires stature, charisma, intellectual clarity and superhuman skills of negotiation. During a decade in which the challenges confronting the Anglican church were more marked than at any point in recent history, Lord Williams’ leadership exhibited such skills to an exceptional degree! Divisions emerged within the church that were deep and complex – and played out on a very public stage. The ministry of people in same-sex relationships, the blessing of same-sex partnerships and the consecration of women as bishops were questions that not only threatened the unity of the Anglican communion but also its relations with the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Professor Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham at the time, testifies to Williams’ “amazing professorial ability to sum up complex and difficult and contentious discussions and enable them to move on to steps that most participants had not even glimpsed.”  Suffice it to say, the integrity, wisdom and inspirational striving for reconciliation that characterized Lord Williams’ leadership was plain for the world to see – as also, at times, was the pain etched on the face of one so deeply committed to the unity and catholicity of the church. Despite that, his colleagues testify to his sense of humour, to ‘brilliant and witty unscripted homilies at numerous services in Synod, in the House of Bishops.’

If divisions in the church had threatened to undermine its credibility, Lord Williams’ unruffled exposé of the shallowness of the neo-atheism of Dawkins, Pullman and others deprived its detractors of any easy gains. The credibility, moreover, of his theological vision was no less reflected in the intellectual rigour and moral clarity with which he challenged the widespread rhetoric of war and deterrence.  Inspiring a counter-cultural affirmation of the humanity of the enemy, he presented a vision that elevated humanity when majority opinion threatened to diminish it. Lord Williams’ convictions were not new. His protests at American air bases had led to his being arrested in the ’80s. Indeed, when Professor John Macquarrie of Oxford University commented to his colleague in the Regius chair, that Rowan would make an excellent Oxford don, he added “so long as he's out on bail at the time”.

A predominant feature of his public witness and example has been his commitment to those on the margins. This, again, was evident long before any public profile. As an undergraduate he brought homeless people into his college rooms when they had nowhere to sleep. In recent times those convictions have been played out in his work with Christian Aid but, more significantly, in the close relationships he has established with key Muslim representatives and the confidence he has gained in these communities. During the 9/11 attacks, he happened to be giving a lecture only yards from Ground Zero and subsequently wrote a book reflecting on the events. Without condoning terrorism in any way, he reminded the world that “terrorists can have serious moral goals” and condemned the all-pervasive “bombast about evil individuals” that obstructed rather than served genuine understanding. Such was his credibility he acquired in the Muslim world that he was invited, on the third anniversary of 9/11, to speak at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo – where, remarkably, he spoke on the Christian understanding of God! After the 7/7 bombings in London, he again challenged the scapegoating of Muslims reminding the British public that the terrorist attacks contradicted “Islamic belief and philosophy completely”. Much more controversially, he also proposed that Sharia Law might make a contribution in certain contexts as a method of arbitration – statements that were sadly misconstrued and led to fraught controversy.

Lord Williams’ further challenging of attitudes to immigration, the excesses of the free market, the exclusivism of the Freemasons and his engagement with the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement are just a few of the many reflections of inclusive commitments that exposed the profound incompatibility between the Christian vision for society and the self-serving commitments of establishment religion and, indeed, secular individualism.

The high esteem with which his deep-thinking, critical analysis of socio-political issues was held led to his being given a current affairs discussion slot on Channel 4 News.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to his academic contribution. His more than two dozen books cover a wide range of related fields – philosophy, theology, spirituality and religious aesthetics. He is a leading scholar of the origins of Christian thought - his monograph, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, stands as a pre-eminent text on the most significant debate in the history of Christian thought. Elected FBA at 40, he has explored the interface of Christian spirituality and theology in his monographs on Teresa of Avila, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and C S  Lewis. At heart, however, he is a systematic theologian and his 2000 monograph On Christian Theology is one of the most significant collections of essays on theological prolegomena of the last fifty years. Like his mentor in Cambridge, the Scottish theologian and moral philosopher, D M MacKinnon, some of his most significant theological contributions take the form of essays – these include studies of the major thinkers and theologians of the modern era such as Hegel, Lossky, von Balthasar, Rahner, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Gillian Rose. It is a serious mistake, however, to think that his theological insights are found exclusively in his academic works. They are evident in his myriad forewords, afterwords, sermons, speeches and published letters – not least a personal letter he wrote as Archbishop to a six-year old Scottish girl who wanted to know how God was invented. It is also important to appreciate that Williams’ socio-political vision is no free-floating ethic. It is driven by a profound and irreducibly theological interpretation of the world – as is evident in his recent collection, Faith in the Public Square.

Finally, Lord Williams’ interests are far wider than is generally appreciated. He is a linguist who speaks or reads 11 languages: English, Welsh, Spanish, French, German, Russian (he reads Dostoyevsky in Russian), Biblical Hebrew, Syriac, Latin and both Ancient and Modern Greek. He has a deep love of classical music (he has spoken about Bach on Radio 3) but also of the Scottish psychedelic folk group, The Incredible String Band for whose compendium he wrote the introduction. He is also an accomplished poet and translator of poetry. His 2004 collection The Poems of Rowan Williams was listed for the Wales Book of the Year award and his 2008 collection, Headwaters, acclaimed by The Guardian as ‘subtle and skilled’.

Lord Williams has also received myriad honours and awards. He has 15 honorary doctorates and many honorary fellowships - including an award from the Government of Pakistan for exceptional service to that country and nation.

It is fitting that this year he has returned to be Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. It is no less fitting that he should also be appointed Chancellor of the University of South Wales. Despite his staggering accomplishments he returns to academic theology as one who is comparatively young. Given the precedents of Kant and Whitehead, we have reason to expect that his greatest academic contribution may be still to come. Now there is a humbling thought!