Book Festival: Rowan Williams with Julia Neuberger
Edinburgh International Book Festival review: Susan Mansfield reports on an event featuring former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in conversation with Rabbi Julia Neuberger.
CHARLOTTE Square was buzzing well before 10am on Thursday in anticipation of the morning’s event with former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in conversation with Rabbi Julia Neuberger. However, anyone hoping that he would dish the dirt on Lambeth Palace, having moved on (one suspects, happily) to be master of an Oxford college, was to be disappointed.
Williams was never one for sensationalism, even when he was Archbishop. What he excelled at was thoughtful, intelligent discourse which is quietly unashamed to put faith at the heart of life. Yesterday, he ranged in a typically learned and measured way across spirituality and neuroscience, gender politics and secularism, while tending to answer overly pointed questions with: “As a â€¨good Anglican, I would have to say yes – and no.”
However, a steady undercurrent was the contention that faith can have a place in society: in public life, in social and political discussion, and particularly in upholding those unable to speak for themselves. He spoke about a “massive cultural scepticism, even cynicism” with regard to institutions, including the Church, yet there are those who “obstinately still regard the Church as providing what they need”.
He took us back to a rainy night in Merthyr Tydfil when he attended a public meeting as Bishop of South Wales. “Why is the Bishop here?” asked the head of the TUC. “We have unions to speak for us. For those who don’t, the church is there to speak for them.” And he spoke of meeting recovering child soldiers in eastern Congo, able to re-enter society because church-based organisations believe in their humanity, even when they had almost lost sight of it themselves.
There are pitfalls which must be avoided: the pursuit of “spirituality” purely to cultivate the inner life, rather than ackowledging that it is also about how we treat one another; and the danger that the church becomes another non-governmental organisation, a “woolly well-meaning liberal think-tank”, forgetting that its core business is cultivating the spiritual.
He has had his fair share of contending with belligerent secularism, but he had this to say: there is such a thing as good secularism, that which comes from the Enlightenment, which questions institutions and any claim to have a monopoly on truth. Bad secularism, however, seems to preach a monopoly of its own, as if no other position were admissable in public life.
In short, Williams showed himself to be the kind of wise, measured voice we would want to see in public life, and it has to be hoped that he does not withdraw from it now that the responsibilities of office have passed on.
Originally published in The Scotsman