Rowan Williams on the Complexities of the Church’s History and Identity
Rowan Williams’ little book on the church, Why Study the Past? The Quest for the Historical Church, is a must read for anyone interested in understanding the historical and theological complexities of the continuity and discontinuity of the Church. As usual, Williams does not offer overly facile solutions, nor does he tell a triumphalist story in which the Church marches forward untainted, having never soiled herself along the way. Rather, Williams admits the various failures of the Church—from the early fathers misogynistic tales to historic Protestantism’s “embarrassing record of collusion with uncritical nationalism” (73) to the Church’s overall failure on the issue of slavery. Nonetheless, Williams does not leave one in despair. He emphasizes throughout that the Church is founded and sustained by divine action, particularly one divine action which is both “a set of historical events and an eternal act, the self-giving of the Son to the Father in the Trinity” (96). If the survival and resilience of the Church depended solely on humans, the story would have ended some time ago. Thankfully, it doesn’t; yet, Christians must be active and continue to put themselves, the Church and the world into question. We must study our past, our tradition, our Scriptures, (and, as St. Thomas taught us, truth wherever it is found) bringing to light our failures and learning how to translate what is true, good and beautiful into our present contexts. Williams, attentive to the interplay between historical contingencies and the ways in which history “makes” us on the one hand, and the reality of transcultural (yet contextually-applied) truths on the other, denies that we are stuck in a hermetically-sealed present or unable to break into a hermetically-sealed past. As he explains,
To engage with the Church’s past is to see something of the Church’s future. If we relate to the past as something that settles everything for us, something whose meaning is utterly and finally plain, it is to treat the texts of the past as closing off history, putting an end to our self-awareness as historical persons involved in unpredictable growth. If we dismiss the past as unintelligible, if we read its texts as closed off from us by their alien setting, we refuse to see how we have ourselves been formed in history; we pretend that history has not yet begun. And in the specifically theological context, we shall on either count be denying that we can only grow in company, can only develop because summoned by a word that is not ours. That word is made concrete and immediate for us in the human responses that have constituted the Church’s history; all of this has made our present believing selves possible. T.S. Elliot, faced with the glib modern claim that ‘we know so much more than our ancestors’, riposted, ‘Yes; and they are what we know.’ As was said in the first chapter, we must become aware of our hidden debts for who we now are (94-95).
If only Williams’ critics would actually read his works with care.