Skip to content

Log Out



Rowan Douglas Williams was born in Swansea, south Wales, in 1950, into a Welsh-speaking family, and was educated at Dynevor School in Swansea and Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he studied theology. After two years as a lecturer at the College of the Resurrection, near Leeds, he was ordained deacon in Ely Cathedral before returning to Cambridge. In 2002, with eleven years’ experience as a diocesan bishop and three as a leading primate in the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Williams was confirmed as the 104th bishop of the See of Canterbury: the first Welsh successor to Saint Augustine of Canterbury and the first since the mid-thirteenth century to be appointed from beyond the English church. Dr. Williams is acknowledged internationally as an outstanding theological writer, scholar, and teacher. As Archbishop of Canterbury his principal responsibilities were, however, pastoral—leading the life and witness of the Church of England in general and his own diocese in particular by his teaching and oversight, and promoting and guiding the communion of the world-wide Anglican Church by the globally recognized ministry of unity that attaches to the office of bishop of the See of Canterbury. In December 2012 the queen conferred on him a peerage of the United Kingdom for life, and in January 2013, he was installed as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Among his many publications are Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love (Continuum, 2005) and the poetry collection Headwaters (Perpetua, 2008). A new collection of poems is forthcoming from Carcanet in 2014. He was interviewed by John F. Deane.


Image: There is a rich tradition of Welsh poetry that touches on faith—poets like R.S. Thomas, George Herbert, and others, and also Hopkins, who was influenced by Welsh poetry. Do you feel yourself a part of that tradition?

Rowan Williams: Those are names of massive importance to me. When I was a teenager, I began to read a bit of classical Welsh poetry, in Welsh, though my Welsh isn’t anything like fluent; and I discovered poets like Dylan Thomas and David Jones. When I was about seventeen, a couple of very important anthologies of Welsh poetry were published. These days the term “Anglo-Welsh poetry” is controversial, but at that time, in the sixties, it was still somewhat exciting. Reading those books, I certainly felt that here was a world I understood: the world of people who have been molded by the Welsh landscape, Welsh history, the experience of industrialization, of the country itself, and the experience of certain kinds of historic Christianity. And by the half-heard echo of the Welsh language in the background. I found that in R.S. Thomas, Gillian Clarke, certainly David Jones, Dannie Abse, Jeremy Hooker—these were important names for me. I wanted to belong with all that.

Image: You wear many hats. How does writing poetry fit in with your larger literary and practical tasks?

RW: Poetry always just makes its own time to get written. I’ve never set aside time to write, but just tried to allow enough opportunity for inner vacancy where images and sounds can mill around and settle—and then you try to judge the moment when it’s all ready for finding the words. Long journeys, waiting for trains, a late night….

Image: In the Old Testament, prophets were people who “scarified” society for its misdirected values. Would you see the churches today as failing, in that they have been mild and genial instead? For instance, in the years when we had such troubles in the north of Ireland, never once did I hear any church come out vociferously and say that such slaughter was sinful and wrong.

RW: I think for a lot of Christian history the church has wobbled uncertainly on such things, willing to be quite forthright on certain kinds of sins, usually personal, usually sexual, but not so forthright about violence, or money either. One of my colleagues used to say that in many many years of going to confession, he’d been asked about all sorts of areas in his personal life but not once been asked about how he was using his money. He said that that was something he ought to be as accountable for as anything else in his life.

Partly, the church has been willing to go with the grain of humanity about it, rather than against; and partly, the church has been fatally involved with power. In point after point, there has been a persistent refusal to take on board the fact that the Gospel is about the turning upside down of power. The one thing you absolutely cannot do, according to the Gospel, is use straight coercive power. It’s not to say that the church doesn’t exert discipline in certain areas—of course it does—but the basic model is not that of coercion.

Image: Perhaps this is where the artist comes in. Perhaps the artist can perform the function of prophet that the churches have neglected.

RW: Absolutely so. And it’s an interesting way of coming at it. For me, prophecy is not just about, as you say, scarifying from a safe distance. It ought also to be about saying, “things do not have to be like this.” And if you say that, you have also to say “they might be like that.” In other words, you have to evoke the imaginative alternative, or, in Rilke’s phrase, the other world that is the same as this one. In the prophets you have not only the castigation of the sins of society, you also have massively powerful images: the mountain of the Lord exalted above all other mountains and all people streaming to it; the suffering servant of Isaiah; “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” You have almost dreamlike, weighty and dense images of reconciliation and renewal: “I will remove the veil cast over all peoples.” There’s an image to conjure with.

Image: The poet Christian Wiman writes: “Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.” Meister Eckhart wrote: “The eye with which you see God is the eye with which God sees you.” This brings me to a question you’ve asked in your own work: Does poetry call for a wholehearted assuredness that one’s faith may not encompass?

RW: Poetry is always a risky enterprise. You don’t know where you’re going when you start writing. One thing you do know is that you’re not going to exhaust what you’re talking about; the willingness to take the next step, to put the next word down, is itself an act of faith. You know you’re not going to encompass it, conquer or control it. That’s what makes poetry an act of faith.

One thing that interests me is the way this image of faith or trust is shot through all our use of language: The trust that I am understood. The trust that I will discover something by speaking. By listening. The trust that our words are not, as some philosophers would like them to be, games in the dark. Faith is implied in the very fact of the difficulty of the task: you know that you are going to find something there but you never quite manage it. I can’t make sense of that difficulty we experience without the sense that our language is about something. It’s not just choosing what we want to say.

That’s why difficulty, I think, is one of the most positive things in language, and poetry which is deliberately working to make language more difficult, for the writer and for the reader, is actually doing us a great service. We must remember, it’s neither a game nor a simple labeling operation. It’s neither arbitrary nor controlled. Somewhere in between is this great, luminous darkness where we are risking the words that just might pierce that darkness.

Image: That leads me back to the idea of prophecy. Many of these prophets were called, and they listened. Perhaps part of the task of poetry is listening and waiting for God to touch us.

RW: Poetry, as you know better than I, has about it a listening quality. When you write, you don’t simply put things down. You listen. When I talk to people about the experience of writing, quite often I tell them that there are some poems that walk in and sit down. You hear them coming in. It’s a dangerous metaphor, but you almost channel them. Then there are others where you have to listen and listen. It takes forever for things to assemble around the core. There may be moments when, for whatever reason, the channels are cleared, and something is so powerful and overwhelming that the appropriate poem streams in.

But most of the time we’re struggling to clear out the clutter and debris. And you have to listen for the false moments, for the line where you’ve gone for the easy option, when it’s too much work to listen, so you put down something that’ll fit for the moment.

Image: And this is where the editor comes in.

RW: Recently I was getting some new poetry into print, and an editor, very gently and very precisely, said to me, “Those two lines there, you don’t need those. You’ve said it already.” When I was writing I felt I’d got to make it more explicit, and it took a sensitive and experienced reader to say, “No, you’ve said it. Now drop it.” It’s interesting, isn’t it? The one area of life where the maxim “never apologize, never explain” might be correct is writing.

Image: May I turn to your fine book Grace and Necessity? You write that faith allows authors like David Jones and Flannery O’Connor to delve more deeply into human questions. Does this suggest that there is an unavoidably theological element to artistic success?

RW: I think it does, in a way; I think that when art succeeds, whatever exactly that means, there has been some opening up to—let’s use the jargon—ontological depth. Success is when an artist, in Jacques Maritain’s terms, produces an object that has the solidity, the claritas, in the medieval sense, the radiance, the luminosity, the density, of real things. The poem, the music, the visual artwork has that density  that says that the world is full; the world is not empty; the world is packed (you can hear Hopkins in the background: “the world is charged”).

Words or images or musical sounds that are charged in that way are an extraordinary testimony to the fact that we human speakers have been given the bizarre and utterly unpredictable gift of doing something a little bit like God—producing a reality that is charged, that is present, and that passes the radiance on to another level.

Image: For me, too, Flannery O’Connor has been hugely interesting in that her letters are written from the perspective of an extremely conservative Catholicism, but her stories simply avoid all of that and bring the Christian figure in in a way that is not at all conservative, without preaching in any way.

RW: She does show that if you really inhabit that world of classical mainstream Christian religion—of grace, incarnation, spirit, sacrament—you needn’t worry about “getting it across,” because the world that you’re depicting is one where you can actually trust the material to do the job, where you can let go in the confidence that some truth will come through. We’re back to this power and control question: if you really believe that the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ, and not the other way around, then you ought to be more relaxed than otherwise about these things. More ready to let the meaning happen. Which is exactly what Flannery O’Connor does with such shocking and transfigurative effect.

When I read the essays as well as the fiction of Marilynne Robinson, who’s a great favorite of mine, it’s the same thing; she’s writing about a particular way of being human which is unintelligible without some reference to grace, and yet that reference to grace doesn’t need to be spelled out all the time.

Image: This phrase “religious poetry” has been bothering me a great deal. “Religious” here appears to be a limiting term. It would be better to have another. “Spiritual” is wrong. I wonder, would “faith poetry” be workable?

RW: “Faith” would work better for me than “religious,” because “religious poetry” always strikes me as poetry written to serve religious purposes. O’Connor’s art, for example, is good in and as what it is; it’s not made good by being religious. And “spiritual” is so often used as shorthand for not wanting to be religious in any way that would limit you.

Yes, the idea of a poetry of faith—just as a poetry of eros, a poetry of vision—is rooted in one of the central aspects of our being human. Having faith is a central aspect of being human just like erotic attachment, just like a vision of the world around us, just like having a hope in the future. And, to me, a poetry that is, let’s say, religiously significant, is a poetry that works as poetry out of that human depth.

Image: I’d like to ask a question suggested by the poet James Harpur: in The Wound of Knowledge, you trace the roots of Christian spirituality and explore its apophatic, negative theology. If the great holy silence is the ideal of some of the mystics (Eckhart, Saint John of the Cross) doesn’t poetry, with its emphasis on ideas, expression, and words, undermine that ideal?

RW: I certainly don’t think poetry is interested in ideas, and I’d go along with those who say that ideas kill poetry. You don’t write poetry because you want to get your ideas into verse. Surely the interesting thing about great poetry is the silence it generates. This is a complex area, but the great holy silence at the heart of things is not just an absence or a cessation. It’s what happens when you’ve been led to this point.

The instance that often comes to my mind is the very first time I sang in a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. I remember the half-minute or so after the last bar. That’s what it was all leading up to: the moment when, after all that work, after all those sounds, you get to that very brief moment of silence. An audience that has shared that music attentively will respond to that very brief moment. How long exactly the gap is between the end of the sound and the beginning of the applause—whether in a good play, address, or piece of music—is an essential part of what the work has been getting to. The silence, when you get there, has become pregnant.

Image: Your poetry is not exclusively about faith, but the poems about faith are the ones that have touched me most. In “Emmaus,” for instance, the presence of Jesus is disturbing; the reality of resurrection is powerful. There’s a line, “a solid thumb and finger tear the thunderous gray bread.” I find that word “thunderous” to be a magnificent, an inspired choice. It’s a gift.

RW: I don’t quite know where that came from, but that is one of the poems that really did “walk in.” It all began with a sudden, unexpected picture: I was listening to a rather dull lecture, and there happened to be a picture on the wall of the Emmaus supper. What clicked for me was an image of those visual games where you see two profiles facing each other, forming a cup in the middle, and I thought, there! that’s Emmaus. I was struggling to find words for that. Then also there’s the sense that, at the table at Emmaus, as the bread is torn apart in the middle eastern way, it’s like the clouds breaking, it’s like the rain coming. So the poem ends with that image of drenching rainfall.

Image: You’ve written about tragedy. Could you speak about the tragic and its relation to faith and art? Why do we take hope and even the promise of redemption from the deus absconditus and the cross—as we do from tragic art? Why, for example, despite appearances, isn’t Lear (and the cross too) a form of nihilism?

RW: As soon as we find words for what is appalling in our experience, what seems to be empty, toxic, meaningless, we have done something with it, reintroduced it into the human world where questions and thoughts can be tried out. Nihilism would be the absolute refusal to speak or represent—or else it would be the insistence that there could be only one way of responding to what is appalling, and that is despair. Once you’ve found a word or an image that connects this atrocity with the rest of human experience, even in the most fragile or attenuated way, you’ve turned away from nihilism, even if there is no consolation, explanation, or resolution.

The crucifixion is an atrocity that rightly silences us at first; then we just (so to speak) lift up the cross, as we do in the Good Friday liturgy. We lift up the sign, in hope that it will generate other words and thoughts, as we see happening in the New Testament.

Image: Recently, in an interview, Thomas Kinsella said that he has been “maturing into disbelief”; and Seamus Heaney said not long before he died that he no longer had any religious belief. These writers emphasize the possibility of “going beyond belief,” reaching a stage that you might almost describe as mystical. Their lives are sufficiently engaged with love, truth, and integrity. Are we to believe, do you think, that these people are actual believers, whether they admit it or not? Or is that merely a way of trying to satisfy our own anxieties?

RW: When people like that say these things about belief, very often what they seem to mean is this: if you put me on the spot and ask me what I believe to be true, in the abstract, I don’t know where I’d begin. But in them you see a use of language going back to what we were saying earlier about poetry: it’s precisely theologically informed in that it is dense, full of radiance, of claritas. Something theological is going on, and they know it.

The last thing I’d call Seamus, for instance, is an agnostic, in the sense of somebody who floats uncertainly around; he has a real commitment to the language and all that it means. Very often we tie down the notion of belief to mean having a quick answer to what you think is true out there, rather than, how do you inhabit the world you’re in, the speech you speak, and the vision you see.

And at that level I feel faith goes on, God-relatedness goes on, and I don’t worry too much about the uncertainty of what the answers might be. Now, I’m talking about other people’s experience; I say the Nicene Creed every Sunday without my fingers crossed, I feel enormously grateful to use those words and to believe that’s the world I inhabit—hallelujah for it! But I can also see that for a great many people, those words have been filtered through so many stale and unhelpful media that they don’t come alive. But so long as some things do, and do in the way that we find in people like Seamus and others, I can only thank God for them.

I don’t think that’s Christian imperialism. I’m not trying to take away the sincerity of people’s doubts; it is just to say, if you have any religious commitment, you’re bound to believe that some of this miraculous radiance in words will come through.

Image: Image was founded in 1989. The cultural landscape seems to have changed in the past twenty-five years, with more openness to religious or spiritual vocabulary within the mainstream culture and more interest in the arts within the church. What need is there now for journals like Image, if any?

RW: It’s a vital contribution. One of the things that most needs saying to the cultured despisers of religion today is that the classical language of faith is overflowing with resources for imagining and understanding human experience at depth. As I’ve said on other occasions, when people compare Christian belief to belief in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, I want to ask, where are the Divine Comedies or Matthew Passions or Four Quartets inspired by the tooth fairy? Image and enterprises like it show the seriousness of the language of faith in keeping the human world large and difficult and interesting.
Yes, the climate has changed a good deal—but that still needs affirming and bodying out, and I’m glad it’s being done with such energy and style.

image credit: copyright Image, 2022.

Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Receive ImageUpdate, our free weekly newsletter featuring the best from Image and the world of arts & faith

* indicates required