Per Caritatem

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 Rowan Williamsmisogynistic 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.


3 Responses so far

Thanks for this, Cynthia.

I recently read _Rowan’s Rule_ and was similarly encouraged. I will put this on my reading list. I am grateful to have such a wise archbishop. Indeed, he is one of the reasons I became Anglican / Episcopalian!


Thanks for the comment, Matt. I also find Williams’ work exceedingly encouraging.


Hello! I got word of this blog via my good friend and brother Matt Boulter (religiocity.org). I like the issues that you blog about. I agree that understanding the current state of the church for a better grasp of the future state of the church, can not be done without an understanding of the church’s past. But I wonder how radical is that, with Williams “emphasiz[ing] throughout that the Church is founded and sustained by divine action”? To me, that has always been the emphasized part of the church’s narrative especially when dealing with her shortcomings (and at times a means for justification, rather than a silver lining). I am a little more interested in reading about, as you noted, “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”. I think the real story of the Church can be found in the story of its members and those “11th hour” parts of the Body found in the highways and by-ways of God’s redemptive plan. I would like to see him emphasize that. At any rate, I have sampled a few of William’s books from my buddy Matt’s library, and he appears to be a very engaging writer.