A student question and answer session with Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, took part in a short question and answer session with Theology and Religion students as part of the Cadbury Lectures series 2012

Duration: 9:22




Alexander Chow (PhD student, Department of Theology and Religion): 

There was a conference on the Lambeth-China day, and if I may ask – as both a church leader and personally, what is your interest in China? Why China and Christianity?

Dr Rowan Williams:

I think before I became Archbishop I had very little contact with, or knowledge of China; but early on in my time I had a visit from some Christians in China and an invitation to go and visit. So I realised I would have to change that lack of familiarity and work a bit on that. It’s difficult not to be concerned and interested in respect of China at the moment. This booming economy, with all the complications it brings, the global influence of China, and the extraordinary internal changes in the culture of China and the openness in some ways to religion. So when I was able to visit some years ago, I found that absolutely intreiguing – to be able to see that how a very top-down culture was changing bit by bit, inch by inch in all sorts of areas  of society. How people were asking questions about what it is that gives a moral coherence, as you might say sustainability to a society. If you lose a very controlling ideology, you do need to have something in its place in terms of vision and imagination and motivation for people, and I think some of the interest comes from that – especially for younger people. That’s were the continuing commitment and enthusiasm comes from.

Aimee Whittaker (first year BA Theology and Religion):

For you what does it mean to be Church today and has it changed significantly over the years?

Dr Rowan Williams:

It’s a very good question I think.  Being Church today does feel different to what I assumed when I was growing up. I grew up in Wales in the environment of a Presbyterian chapel, which is wonderful in its way, but there was that place in the community where a lot of people turned up every week, at a particular time and there was a whole set of things that you went through and the culture on the whole backed it up you know, supported it.  Now of course we don’t have weekends  in a way that we can take for granted, people work on Sundays, we have very different cultural assumptions, we don’t have backup in the culture at large. We’re aware that people come for different reasons, looking for different things, that perhaps they’re less willing to be bored that when I was a child.

So yes, the environment in which Church happens has changed, and I think that’s reflected more and more in what we in the Church of England call the fresh expressions of Church that are around.  The church, so to speak, going out to where people are, trying to shape, form, stimulate congregations and gatherings where people are at the times that suit them. But underneath it all is what is Church essentially? The definition I’ve sometimes used is Church is what happens when a group of people get engaged with Jesus Christ – it’s as basic as that. The New Testament picture of the Church is the people who found that the encounter with Jesus has made a difference to them as individuals and as a group as well as their relations with each-other. Now when you see people discovering Christ for themselves and finding their relationships with each-other are seriously different, as well as their relationship with God, the I think you can say Church is happening. People sometimes say Church is an event as much as it’s an institution. It’s something that happens, and we’re seeing more than that – it’s higher in people’s awareness now than it was. I don’t say that the institution doesn’t matter – I am an Archbishop, I have this commitment to institutions in a way – but what the institution tries to do  is to try to provide a kind of nourishing soil for these things to grow on, and to me when the church is working well, it’s got assort of mainstream traditional life that is really welcoming of new adventures and support them, is willing to take risks if you like. We need that sense of transformed commitment and engagement more than ever, precisely because our society doesn’t support it in quite the same way it did when I was a child.

Alexander Balcombe (First year BA Theology and Religion):

In light of your recent discussion with Richard Dawkins – how much do you think Atheism is a threat to our morality?

Dr Rowan Williams:

Is Atheism a threat to our morality? I think the first stage of an answer is to say that there are lots of good Atheists around. Atheists who are generous, faithful, committed to justice and all those things, and I meet a lot of them and they are admirable people. I think Richard Dawkins is an admirable person, he has a real passion about cruelty and injustice, it’s something that gets him very engaged. But what puzzles me is where does it all actually come from? If you believe at the end of the day that we are in some sense mechanisms,  and that’s language that Richard Dawkins and others have sometimes used, we’re just mechanisms for transmitting genetic information, then I don’t see where morality belongs in that. You can choose to be moral, you can affirm very boldly ‘I might have a selfish gene but I’m not going to be a selfish person’. But why should you do that? It makes it all a matter of personal preference. Someone else will say if I have a selfish gene that gives me the perfect alibi for being a selfish person. I want to go on connecting morality with the way the universe is, you know with the sense that there is something, someone – there is love an intelligence and purpose and a moral life is one that is purposeful and intelligent and loving because it fits in with the way things are.

I think this connects a bit with the interest in China. One thing that strikes me about traditional Chinese philosophy is that religion is not a kind of magic persuading someone up there to be nice to you – it’s about finding your way into the reality of the universe in a sense, settling in your place and understanding it and relating to a wisdom and order, which is just given and I don’t that’s humiliating, it’s not someone wagging their finger at you from the sky and humiliating you. It’s learning to swim with the current of the river. It’s learning to be at home with yourself and the universe. If that’s what morality is and you believe we’re just mechanisms, I don’t think it really works in the long run. So is Atheism a threat to our morality? Well, it doesn’t have to be, but I think you need a very good reason for being one, a better reason or reasons for being moral than that – just choosing it.

Do you have any advice for students starting out on their university career?

If I were trying to give advice to students starting out their university lives I’d say first of all it’s important to value friends. To make the most of friendships,  to be loyal to those friendships and be willing to learn from those friendships. Second, I’d want to say don’t rush it, take your time. All the pressures in university will be to fill every moment with productive work. Don’t be bullied by that. Take time to be yourself and look after your imagination and your spirit. Obviously as a person of faith I think the practice of faith is the best way of doing that, but even if you’re not a person of faith, take that time because that stops you being consumed by anxiety, which is so much around in university and sadly in lots of young peoples lives