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 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.

Williams on Liturgy and Giving Our Words Over to God

As Rowan Williams explains, Scripture is narrative, but it is a particularly interesting kind of narrative, since it “weaves together history and liturgy” (On Christian Theology, 7).  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not only talked about, but he is spoken to.  He is praised; He is worshipped in song and poetry; He is addressed in prayer.  Not only in Scripture and the liturgy, but also in works like Augustine’s Confessions we find this interplay of speaking about God and speaking to God; yet, in each of these instances the discourse involved is open to the other and willing to be attentive to and challenged by what the other has to say.On Christian Doctrine by R. Williams

The language of worship ascribes supreme value, supreme resource or power, to something other than the worshipper, so that liturgy attempts to be a “giving over” of our words to God (as opposed to speaking in a way that seeks to retain distance or control over what’s being spoken of:  it is in this sense that good liturgy does what good poetry does).  This is not to say that the language of worship itself cannot be starkly and effectively ideological; but where we find a developing and imaginative liturgical idiom operating in a community that is itself constantly re-imagining itself and its past, we may recognize that worship is at some level doing its job.   That is what the overall canonical structure of Jewish Scripture puts before the reader; and insofar as the New Testament portrays the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as something which opens up an unprecedentedly direct and undistorted language for prayer, praise, “sacrifice”, and so on it is to be read as reinforcing the same point.  The integrity of a community’s language about God, the degree to which it escapes its own pressures to power and closure, is tied to the integrity it directs to God (7).

Our words about God are not final, not comprehensive, but ought to remain open-ended and receptive of new meanings (not just any meanings of course), just as we remain open to what the Word has to say to us.  The words we hear in Scripture and in the liturgy may require us to amend, alter, or give up not only certain ways of being but also certain ways of speaking (about God, others and our world).  Thus, the theologian must resist, to borrow a Nietzschean metaphor, a tendency to allow his/her theological discourse to become a columbarium, and hence, a language of death, rather than words of life.  Or as Williams puts it from a slightly different but related angle: “Language about God is kept honest in the degree to which it turns on itself in the name of God, and so surrenders itself to God” (8).

Sokolowski on the Eucharist, Death and Questioning Time

As Robert Sokolowski explains in his book, Eucharistic Presence:  A Study in the Theology of Disclosure, in the Eucharist past and future are made present.  That is, past events of salvation history such as the Jewish Passover, but especially the Christ-event and future eschatological realities are brought together.  Sokolowski then offers a beautiful reflection on our union with Christ in death.Eucharist Icon

[W]e in the Eucharist anticipate our own death as to be joined to the death of Jesus.  Our death becomes part of the divine mystery, part of the great saving actions of God, because it can be identified with the sacrificial death of Christ.  […]  The celebrations of the Eucharist at which we assist are like so many rehearsals of the one transition, the one exodus that is reserved for each of us, the one offering in which we no longer sacramentally but bodily participate in the death of the Lord.  As Jesus acted toward the Father in his death, so we are enabled to make our death an act before God, an act in which life is changed, not taken away. […] Our death, which is the horizon marking off the edge of our life, becomes a particular image of the final restoration of all things in Christ, an image of the death of things that is now to be understood as a transition into the kingdom of God.  The Eucharist thus presents a double future to each of us as we participate in it:  it presents our own entrance into the death and Resurrection of Jesus, and it presents the more remote setting in which everything will be restored in the kingdom of God.

These enactments of past are future are all woven into the Eucharist we celebrate in the present.  The celebration of the Eucharist is surrounded by temporal ripples through which past and future things are refracted.  The Eucharist does not give us merely images or signs of what is past and future; it presents these things as past and as future to us now. The Eucharist involves memory and anticipation, but it does not involve them as mere psychological states; rather, it reenacts and preenacts things God has done and will do  (104-5).

Sokolowski, a few pages later, says that the Eucharist is from one perspective something that takes place in time.  That is, it takes time to celebrate it; yet, “it also overcomes time as it reenacts an event that took place at another time.  In doing this, the Eucharist calls time into question.  It claims to go beyond time and thereby indicates that time and its succession are not ultimate.  It makes time to be an image; it makes succession to be a representation.  Thus the Eucharist, in its reenactment of the past and anticipation of the future, also enacts for us the context that encloses past, future, and present:  it enacts the eternal life of the God who could be all that he is, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world and its time were not [!].  The Eucharist engages, and perpetually reminds us of, the Christian distinction between the world and God” (107).