As promised here’s my recollection of the “conversation” at the University of Glasgow between Professor Mona Siddiqui and Archbishop Rowan Williams.
Perhaps the first thing to say is that given the event was part of the celebrations of ten years of the Centre for the Study of Islam in the University’s Religious Studies faculty discussion of Islam was not a significant feature of the evening and the Islamic community seemed to be largely absent from the gathering. Of the 700 or so people who were there most were 50+, white and if appearances are anything to go by middle class.
The other thing to say is that the evening was billed as a conversation, but the reality was that Mona asked Rowan questions and he answered them rather than a genuine conversation.
Despite these two negative comments it was a very good evening and Rowan came across as a likeable man of deep Christian convictions.
Mona’s first question to the AB was regarding Lambeth and “where are we now?” Rowan believed that two things had been achieved. (1) People heard from each other a willingness to make the communion work, (2) there was a re0establishment of trust between differing parties. Nevertheless he conceded that there were still issues to deal with, issues over which all sides need to be patient as there are no quick solutions. Mona went on to ask him about GAFCON and if it is a threat. AB responded that while this movement was significant for some it was not a threat to Lambeth. That said he is meeting some of the leading figures in GAFCON soon to “continue the conversation”.
The Court’s of Justice Lecture was raised and AB was asked if he had “known what he was doing”. “well I hope I knew what I think I was doing” was his witty response. He stated that he’d expected some criticism and discussion of his talk but had not foreseen the hysteria that followed it. He had simply wanted to raise questions regarding the place of religion in British law and the limits regarding community law.
Mona then moved on to ask why he was involved with inter-religious dialogue like the Building Bridges project. AB responded that the imperative for this is the command to Love your neighbor which requires that we understand our neighbor. “Has it changed you?” Mona asked ..AB replied that he had become aware that we’re not trying to answer the same questions as we begin with different problems. Thus what as a Christian we might hold as central/important may not figure at all in other religions and this can make conversation and understanding difficult. He also talked about recognizing “echoes of holiness” in others from different faiths and his struggle with reconciling this with his belief that relationship with God, and thus holiness, is defined by our relationship with Jesus Christ.
He talked about how we can all use the same word – love, but mean radically different things by this. His understanding of love is defined by the incarnation and the kenosis of God in taking human form. He is not sure Islam has an equivalent understanding of love.
He was asked if he was a poet interested in religion or a religious person interested in poetry. His reply was that he could not pull the two apart.
When asked if anything had ever dented his faith the stated that in his twenties he had not felt a closeness to God at all times, “but you keep praying, keep saying the liturgy” in the belief that you will know God’s closeness once again.
The rest of the evening was take with questions from the floor. They were as follows;
Q – Would he like to see the Anglican and RC church united.
A – “I would if I could”
Q – Is the new-Atheism a threat?
A – “we are still here”. He also pointed out what many others have also pointed out in that there is nothing particularly new about the new-atheism. He also noted that argument does not change people but an “experience at a different level” does. It would have been interesting to hear him unpack what he meant by this a little.
Q – What about the Problem of evil?
A – There is not definitive answer. Perhaps the greatest evidence for God and his goodness in the face of evil is that despite the evil in the world we still believe in God and his goodness.
Q – Should we talk of hospitality rather than tolerance?
A – Tolerance is a flabby and not welcoming term. It’s me gritting my teeth and putting up with your presence. Hospitality is about being grateful to have you on my territory.
Q – What’s the future for the church in China?
A – Very positive but churches from outside need to stand with the Chinese churches to help and support them.
Q – he was asked about comments he’d made about Marx being right.
A – Marx was right only about one thing. His analysis about how the Capitalist story lead to a mythology where agency is ascribed to the things we have made seems true. We therefore need to reclaim human agency and not just be dictated to be impersonal laws (eg economic laws)
Q – should we advertise religious beliefs on buses etc?
A – this assumes there is a product and a consumer. This assumption is very problematic. However there is nothing wrong in provoking people to think.
Q – Can you envisage a secular saint?
A – not in the proper sense of the word, but there are echoes of holiness in others.
Q – Which of his predecessors does he most identify with?
A – Anselm, Thomas Crammer and Michael Ramsey.
Q – What does she make of O’Brien’s comments about genetic research and Nazism?
A – Comparisons with Nazi Germany ought to be used very sparingly. He’s concerned about a “functionalist” view of our bodies, our tissue and genes.
Q – What about Jonathan Ross and the culture we live in?
A – the actions of Ross & Brand were disgusting and pathetic infantilism. “Humiliation as entertainment is toxic entertainment”.
Q – Do you enjoy being AB?
A – Most of the problems you face are insoluble, so yes and no.
Q – Is the religious right playing less of a role in this US election?
A – Religious right not as cohesive as in the past. Issue of race has cut across the culture wars & this is not a single issue election.