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Sat 20 Dec 2014 @ 10:12

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Difficult Gospel

The Theology of Rowan Williams


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Publisher: SCM Press
ISBN-13: 9780334029410
Published: 01/08/2004
Product description

Rowan Wiliams, is widely recognised as a creative and powerful theologian, but his theological writings are frequently complex and difficult. This book provides a clear and simple guide to the main themes of his theology, and shows how they are related to his reading of the Bible, his careful and wide-ranging engagement with the Christian tradition, and his grappling with contemporary culture. It shows how the Archbishop's ideas about peace or about popular culture, about sexuality or about evangelism, relate to his understanding of the life of God, and of the challenging good news of Jesus christ. The book is designed especially for those who have no academic expertise or formal training in theology, but are interested in finding out more about what Rowan Williams stands for.

Product Reviews

"Mike Higton provides a wonderfully clear and gracefully written account of the central themes in the Rowan William's theology. (...) Mike Higton has not given us a dry, academic account of Rowan William's theology. But he does offer a simple but compelling re-telling of the central message of a fascinating theologian. At the same time the book cannot be dismissed as 'Williams lite' because it is enriched with Higton's own, imaginative illustrations. Do not miss it." Paul Richardson, ENGLAND ON SUNDAY.

"Higton introduces us to Williams as one who writes theology in three moods - celebratory, communicative and critical. (...) Higton is himself splendidly communicative of his own subject. One is left with a largely clear and faithful impression of William's own teaching. (...) This is an excellent and much needed book which has the potential to bring the breadth and the depth of William's writing and teaching to a wide readership and audience." THE TABLET, 23 October 2004.

" Higton is a faithful disciple, and persuasive." Lionel Wickam, TLS, November 26, 2004.

"Higton portrays very competently Williams passion that the difficult challenge of the gospel should be known and understood by the whole world. He also presents very clearly the implications of this for the church." David Baker, minister of Emmanuel Church, Tolworth, CHRISTIANITY, January 2005.

"No light read, but really worthwhile, and an excellent background to Rowan William's work." Jennie Jones, HOME AND FAMILY.

"I was moved and immensely stimulated by this book about the challenge of the Gospel.(...)This is a book to which I will return." Julian Reindrop, Minsitry Today, Summer 2005.

"Often books about other people's theology can be analytical and dry, but Higton has managed to write the six short chapters of this book in such a way that again and again I was stopped in my tracks to contemplate my being held in the wholly loving gaze of God." Geoffrey Burn, Whitfield, Theology, Nov/Dec 2005.

Author Information

Mike Higton

Mike Higton is an Anglican theologian who has been a research fellow in the University of Cambridge and a consultant at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and now lectures in theology at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Christ, Providence and History(Continuum,2003) and numerous articles ,and co-editor with David Ford of Jesus(OUP 2002)and with John C McDowell of Conversing with Barth(Ashgate 2003) He lives on the edge of Dartmoor with his wife Hester.

Author Interview

Interview With Mike Higton

1. Rowan Williams' theology is said to be dense. Do you think that is really the case?

He certainly doesn't believe in cutting corners for the sake of simplicity. He's writing about the most complex questions in the world: the nature of God as Trinity, the deepest currents of human life, the connections between spirituality, morality and politics - and he thinks his first task is to be faithful to the subject matter, however difficult it gets. Sometimes, he sees a way to put some of this very simply; more often, his writings require a lot of patience. You need to work at them - read them a couple of times and puzzle them out.

2. Are there any pointers from his theological writing as to where his leadership will take the Anglican Church?

I'd like to think that his impact would be seen most in a renewal of real, intellectually serious spirituality in the church - the kind of deep and honest spirituality rooted in the Gospel, nurtured by reading the Bible and the riches of the Christian tradition, aware of its unavoidable political entanglements, and passionately concerned with incarnate holiness. However, I guess that's likely to be overshadowed by the necessity of dealing with threats to the unity of the Anglican Communion. I think he has a lot to offer by way of clarifying just what 'unity' means.

3. So what does Rowan Williams have to say about unity?

He writes a lot about how we live with and learn from our differences - trying to get away from the idea that we're caught between inflexible uniformity and colourless tolerance. We're called to unity, certainly - but unity in Christ. That means we have to look for the ways in which those we differ from are seeking to be faithful to Christ, and for what they might teach us about Christ, rather than assuming we have Christ all sewn up ourselves. Unity only breaks down when we can no longer recognise in others (or in ourselves!) a serious attempt to follow Christ.

4. Given the current debate, many readers will be interested in the chapter 'Sex and the Gospel'. Can Rowan Williams' views on this be summarised easily?

I'm tempted simply to say, 'No! None of Williams' views can be summarised easily!' One important thing, though, is to recognise that his commitment to marriage and faithfulness, his condemnation of forms of sexual activity that objectify and exploit, and his belief that faithful homosexual relationships need not be condemned, all emerge from his attempt to think through the gospel of God's saving love in Christ, and the holiness to which it calls us. I hope that those who disagree with his views will nevertheless understand how he can believe that they are implied by his Christian faith.

5. Rowan Williams has written some 2-3 million words in books, articles, lectures, reviews and so on: what do you think are the themes that constantly emerge in all of this?

God loves us with reckless abandon, not because we do anything to earn that love, but simply because he does. Yet to accept that good news - to let it percolate through every level of our understanding - is extraordinarily challenging. It undermines all our attempts to secure and defend our position in the world by our own efforts. It transforms the way we understand ourselves, the way we understand other people, the way we understand our world, and the way we understand God. That challenging good news - or 'difficult gospel' - is at the heart of everything Williams has to say.

6. Rowan Williams has written for a more general reader - and of course his fondness for The Simpsons is well known - but do you feel he can really speak to and connect with a sometimes sceptical and indifferent secular audience?

The media have managed to grasp that Rowan Williams is no intellectual lightweight, no peddler of wishful thinking or pious nonsense. And that has meant that he has had an amazingly open hearing, at least from most of the broadsheet press. They know that he's worth taking seriously, even when they disagree. Of course, I don't think anyone could claim that he has a natural populist touch - that he is regularly going to amuse, attract and excite 'the man on the street' (whoever that is) - but I'm not sure that's a role an Archbishop can honestly play.

7. Rowan Williams co-operated in the writing in the book: what did that involve: how did it come about?

The vast majority of my material comes from his published writings, but I did write and ask if we could discuss the project. He was kind enough to make time to talk to me, to answer various questions I had, to clarify some things I didn't understand, to provide some background - and to suggest some ideas for dealing with our three-month-old daughter's sleeping patterns… And when I had a complete draft, I sent it to him to make sure I hadn't made any huge blunders. He's been very supportive, but the book is definitely my own interpretation of his theology.

8. There is reference in the book to Rowan Williams 'crossing of boundaries. What do you mean by that?

Whenever you think you're reading about something distant and controllable - an abstract philosophical claim, say, or some historical theological debate - the ground can suddenly shift, and you find yourself confronting an uncomfortable insight into your capacity to deceive yourself, or into the connections between your domestic actions and world poverty or child abuse. Or you think you are safely reading about a question of spirituality, exploring deeply familiar territory, only to find that your attitudes to global economics are being brought into the discussion. He's constantly crossing these kinds of boundaries; it's unsettling, but a powerful mix.

9. In the book you make reference to the 1984 article 'On not quite agreeing with Don Cupitt': what does that article (and title) tell you about Rowan Williams?

Rowan Williams disagrees quite sharply with Cupitt, but he doesn't simply measure Cupitt against a pre-defined standard and reject him. He strains to hear what God might be saying to him through Cupitt's work, what call to repentance it might contain - and only when he's done that to the best of his ability does he allow himself to identify the point beyond which he can't follow him. And that, I think, is characteristic of Rowan Williams: that patient, self-critical listening; it gives all the more weight to what he goes on to say.

10. Tell us about your own career. Where did your interest in Rowan Williams come from?

I'm a theology lecturer in the University of Exeter. Most of my time, I work in the Department of Lifelong Learning - arranging the theology evening classes and distance learning courses. I've been here about five years, teaching all sorts of things: modern theology, the history of Christian doctrine, the history of devotion to Jesus. I was introduced to Rowan Williams writings ten years ago, by my PhD supervisor in Cambridge, David Ford, and have kept on reading them since - though as soon as I started work for this book I realised I had barely scratched the surface!

11. And lastly, after poring over a good many of these millions of words, has anything in particular struck a chord with you? and why?

It would have to be various things Rowan Williams said about babies. In one sermon, for instance, he talks about Jesus crying as a baby - and what it does to our understanding of the Incarnation to believe that Jesus was God even then. Elsewhere he writes about babies teaching you just how little you can control another person - and relates that to a discussion of the nature of love. Given that some of the work for the book was done with our very young baby daughter Bridget sleeping on my lap, these passages definitely struck a chord with me.

Extended Information

Extracts from Introduction

Last month, I found myself sitting in an airport departure lounge littered with people in transit: people from more backgrounds than I could guess, speakers of more languages than I was able to recognize, all accidentally thrown together in a cluttered public space in which few of us ever spoke more than a handful of words to any of those around us. I was on my way to what was for me an important meeting, finishing some university business I had been negotiating for months; I was nervous, defensive, concerned to make a good impression when I arrived at my destination. With some dull time to fill before my flight was called, I tried to decide how to begin this description of Rowan Williams' theology. In particular, I tried to think of a way to convey the claim that in the two or more million words of his published writings he is constantly concerned to press one simple question - and I realised that I could not think about that question without asking how it caught up with me exactly there, exactly then. Sitting there, I was aware of the work-stale glances of the airport staff, of the quickly averted eyes of my fellow travellers, of the anticipated scrutiny of those I was going to meet, of the assessing gaze of my employers carried around in my head, and of my own anxious self-regard. What difference would it have made if I had let myself believe that, beyond all these, I was held in a wholly loving gaze? What difference would it have made if I believed myself subject to a gaze which saw all my surface accidents and arrangements, all my inner habits and inheritances, all my anxieties and arrogances, all my history - and yet a gaze which nevertheless loved that whole tangled bundle which makes me the self I am, with an utterly free, utterly selfless love? What difference would it have made if I let myself believe that I was held in a loving gaze that saw all the twists and distortions of my messy self, all the harm that it can do and has done, but also saw all that it could become, all that it could give to others, and all that it could receive? And what difference would it have made if I had seen each face around me in that departure lounge - cleaners, businessmen, emigrants and immigrants, waitresses, tourists, even academics on university business - as individually held in the same overwhelming, loving gaze? What difference would it have made if I believed each person around me to be loved with the same focus, by a love which saw each person's unique history, unique problems, unique capacity, unique gift? And what difference would it have made if I believed that this love nevertheless made no distinctions between people more worthy and people less worthy of love, no distinctions of race, religion, age, innocence, strength, or beauty: a lavish and indiscriminate love? It was easy to jot these simple questions down, easy to think about them - but to believe in such a loving regard, and to let belief in it percolate down through all the sedimented layers of my awareness, would have been shattering. Such unfettered acceptance would have been utterly disarming; to believe such good news, such a Gospel, would have been very, very difficult.


The final characteristic to notice is Williams' constant mixing of theology, spirituality and politics. One moment, Williams can be discussing the meaning of 'one substance' in the Nicene Creed, the next he will be discussing the 'dark night of the soul' experienced in prayer, and the next the economic and social problems posed by globalization. He refuses to acknowledge sharp boundaries between these areas of conversation - constantly showing, in fact, that there are deep and telling connections between them. Another way of putting this is to say that you are seldom safe when reading Williams' work. Whenever you think you are reading about something distant and controllable - a dry technicality, a thin philosophical abstraction, an ancient historical debate - the ground can suddenly shift, and you find yourself confronting an uncomfortable insight into your capacity to deceive yourself, or an awkward exposure of the connections between your domestic actions and world poverty, or the abuse of children. Or you think you are safely embroiled in a question of spirituality, exploring personal territory that is deeply familiar, only to discover not only that your attitudes to global economics are being brought into the discussion but that you're also expected to connect all this to deep, abstract metaphysical commitments you did not know you had. Williams' work is constantly crossing boundaries, in the confidence that the Gospel has crossed them before him.

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