Sex, war, poverty and human rights: the world according to the new Archbishop of Canterbury

Much has been written about Rowan Williams, who is enthroned today as 104th Archbishop of Canterbury; little of it has been so interesting as the writings of Dr Williams himself. Paul Vallely presents a selection of the thoughts of a prolific and perceptive churchman
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Can we stop talking so much about "war" and reconcile ourselves to the fact that the punishment of terrorist crime and the gradual reduction of its threat cannot be translated into the satisfying language of decisive and dramatic conquest? Can we try thinking more about the place of risk and even loss in ordinary civil society and about the moral resources needed to grapple with the continuing problems of shaping a lawful international order? Can we, for God's sake, let go of the fantasies nurtured by the capacity for hi-tech aerial assault? As if the first move in any modern conflict had to be precision bombing?

If we stopped talking about war so much, we might be spared the posturing that suggests that any questioning of current methods must be weakness at best, treason at worst.

Writing in the Dust, 2002


Have we, we ask, an adequate vocabulary for speaking of evil? Does modernity allow for evil or only for a thinly conceived good and bad or, worse still, progressive and reactionary, useful and redundant? That leaves us linguistically bereaved ... "Evil" becomes a trivially emotive way of referring to what we hate or fear or just disapprove of (in the style beloved of American presidents), rather than a reminder of the fact that there are aspects of human behaviour which we only make sense of when we say we can't make sense.

Raymond Williams Lecture, Hay Festival, June 2002


Marriage is about more than just stability; it's about the risk of passionate commitment – wanting the fellowship of another so deeply that you mortgage your own abstract freedom by a rash public promise intended for life.

Presidential Address to governing body of the Church in Wales, April 2000


We have had the chance to read the messages sent by passengers on the planes to their spouses and families in the desperate last minutes; and we have seen the spiritual advice apparently given to the terrorists by one of their number, the thoughts that should have been in their minds as they approached the death they had chosen (for themselves and for others). Something of the chill of 11 September 2001 lies in the contrast.

The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr's drama out of a crime. The non-religious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.

It should give us pause, especially if we think we are religious. You don't have to be Richard Dawkins to notice that there is a problem.

Writing in the Dust, 2002


All faiths, all views of the world (including atheism!) are capable of being distorted. People whose lives are already twisted and damaged use faith as they use other things in twisted and damaged ways. And if you try to shut religious faith out of the public arena, to shut it out of education or politics, you are actually encouraging faith to become narrower and more isolated, more liable to be misused by fanatics.

Christmas Message 2001


If we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming reproductive sex is a norm, however important and theologically significant it may be.

The Body's Grace, July 1989

I don't see my task as going around the bedroom with a magnifying glass doing surveillance. I do see my job as making sure that someone who is going to be a priest in the Church is taking full responsibility for all that means ... I am not convinced that a homosexual has to be celibate in every imaginable circumstance. But if that were the case I would also want to be sure that their attitude to their sexual habits is a responsible, prayerful and theologically informed one.

Interview in Southern Cross, 2002


No "Star Wars" shield of missile defence could have averted last Tuesday's atrocities. No intensive campaign to search and destroy in Afghanistan will guarantee that it will never happen again. If we fear and loathe terrorism, we have to think harder. Indiscriminate terror is the weapon of the weak, not the strong; it's commonly what the "strong" aren't expecting, which is why they are vulnerable to it. It is the weapon of those with nothing to lose. If we want it not to happen, we have to be asking what it means that the world has so many people in it who believe that they have nothing to lose.

Presidential Address to Church in Wales, 20 September 2001


It's not enough just to change who happens to be on top of the heap. That's the mistake of many revolutions, which end simply by victimising a new set of people. The Gospel asks us to imagine what things would be like if we stopped thinking in terms of "heaps" at all, if we stopped thinking that the world is always a competition to rise to the top.

Press release, May 2001


The child should strip us of the assumption that our agenda is the natural, the obvious, the authoritative one.

Faith & Reason, The Independent, Christmas 1997


Power is bound to be hated when it is seen to work simply for those who have it.

Presidential Address to the Church in Wales, 2001


One of the things that socialism can be particularly bad at is imagination – not just political imagination of different forms of society, but also the readiness to be patient with the quirks and the byways of the human heart.

Five Reflections on the Beatitudes, Christian Socialist Movement, 1995


We should be cautious about making this story – however appropriate, however vivid and haunting – a necessary condition for believing in or speaking of God in our midst in Jesus. If we have some freedom in interpreting the vividly metaphorical language of "he came down from heaven", we can claim equal flexibility in our understanding of "incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary".

Open to Judgement, 1994


The whole language of temptation has been trivialised for a century or so, both by religious and by non-religious people. "Very tempting," we say. "I can resist everything except temptation." And so on. This gives the impression that faith and pleasure are at odds; and faith finds itself opposed to a sort of schoolboy naughtiness in search of fun.

Temptation is originally what tests the integrity of our comm- itments; not so much a seduction into fantasy as the devastating question: "Am I being truthful?" Jesus's temptations are bound up with his probing of his own honesty. Someone may be deeply, painfully unsure of whether they are being honest or not, and yet in fact be acting from the centre of their being. To anyone looking on, there is an inevitability about their path. They struggle and suffer, yet it's clear that they have become the sort of person who ultimately won't betray who they are; that they are in fact in touch with their deepest roots, however much on the surface they feel fear or confusion.

Faith & Reason, The Independent, Maundy Thursday 2000


The Christian engaged at the frontier with politics, art or science will frequently find that he or she will not know what to say.

On Christian Theology, 2000


( Written after his experiences only one block from the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001).

Faith is about dealing with the fear of death. Last Tuesday I was privileged to know for a couple of hours what it might be to face death in company, and I was blessed with a group of people around me with whom I can say without exaggeration I was glad to be in such a moment. The Church is supposed to be a community of people you'd be glad to die with ... And if that is true, faith becomes the one wholly inflexible ground for resistance to violence, precisely because it teaches us how to face death – not in excited expectation of reward, but in the sober letting-go of our fantasies in the sure hope that a faithful God holds us firmly in life and death alike.

Presidential Address to the Church in Wales, 20 September 2001


Shortly after becoming a bishop somebody asked what the biggest difference was. I said that I've really discovered that you need to believe in God! Time and again you realise you are not what you thought you were, not as good at these things and not necessarily the answer to somebody else's problem ... So I try to tell myself that it's all right to fail, and that God is God.

Public interview at Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham, 2000