Rowan Williams: Church needs to listen properly to the bible

General Convention / Religion

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury has delivered a lecture today in Toronto. The audience was made up primarily of faculty and students from two theological colleges in the Anglican Church of Canada.

In the lecture the Archbishop speaks concretely about ways that he thinks Anglicans need to read and understand the words of Holy Scripture. It’s a long and helpful lecture with much to digest.

The Archbishop’s own final paragraph is perhaps the best short summary of this thought:

“So in sum: what I believe we need for a renewed theological grasp of Scripture is

  1. the recognition that Scripture is something heard in the event where the community affirms its identity and seeks its renewal;
  2. the development of the skills needed to explore the analogy and continuity between the world ‘in front of’ the text and the current context, so as at least to avoid the misuse of texts by abstracting them from the questions they actually put; thus also,
  3. the discernment of where any given section of Scripture is moving — what are the changes it sets out and proposes for the reader/hearer;
  4. an understanding that this last is decisively and authoritatively illuminated by the Eucharistic setting of biblical reading;
  5. the consequent holding together of Eucharist and Scripture through a strong doctrine of the Spirit’s work in constructing the community of Christ’s Body; and
  6. the recognition that neither Scripture nor Eucharist makes sense without commitment to the resurrection of Jesus as the fundamental condition of a Church whose identity is realised in listening and responding.

Reading Scripture theologically and understanding theologically the process of reading — all this is essentially about seeing Scripture as the vehicle of God’s act to bring about conversion. Ultimately, Scripture brings us back to the uniquely creative moment of God’s freedom — to the grace of a free self-bestowal that can create what is other and then, by love and welcome, transform that other into a sharer and communicator of the same joyful, generative act. ‘The word of life…[that] we have seen and heard we declare to you, so that you and we together may share in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ’ (I Jn.1.1-3).”

Read the rest here: Archbishop of Canterbury – church needs to listen properly to the bible

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. His discussion of Romans 1 is especially interesting for two reasons. First, it is striking that he would focus on what Romans 1 says (or does not say about same sex relationships) in light of the current controversy within the Anglican Communion. Rather than avoiding the issue of human sexuality, he confronts it directly–and in Canada no less.
    Second, it seesm to me that his reading of Romans 1 offers far more support to the “revisionist” side of the debate that the “reasserter” since it is the reasserters, and not the revisionists, who use Romans 1 as a proof text. I doubt that the Global South Primates are very happy.

  2. Chuck: The point that the ABC makes about Romans 1 is a pretty standard point. I remember Prof. Richard Hayes (hardly a “revisionist” making the same point in his class on NT moral and ethics when I was a student of his. Paul’s argument in Romans closely parallels a similar argument in Galatians.
    St. Paul’s point is to draw a distinction between the old creation and the new creation. In St. Paul’s mind the characteristics that he lists in Romans 1 represents the brokenness of the old creation. But his holding up of same-sex relationships is only a passing reference and is not meant to be fundamental nor key to the point that Paul is making. (Which is what I understand the ABC to be pointing out.)

  3. It seems as if +Rowan is also making a point against proof-texting, which everyone is guilty of to some degree. You can’t really say what a particular text says without considering how it got to that point and where it’s going with the point.
    For example, in Matthew just prior to where Jesus is talking about conflict among believers and what to do about it, he tells the parable of the lost sheep. It could be said that Jesus sets up his “perscription” for dealing with conflict by reminding everyone that even if one of the sheep gets “lost,” he’s still a member of the shepherds flock.

  4. I think Fr. Bill’s reply is in line with some of my own concerns in general with William’s thinking because Williams tends to elide into unity too quickly without the neceesary corallary that we are a unity with differentiations meaning that disagreement and multiplicity of all whom the Spirit calls in, not just people like Williams, bear something of the Spirit with them, are Church, are corrective to Church only (as Williams seems to often imply) understood as people like Williams, something he tends to do when speaking about the place of x, y, z in the Church without recognizing that his own place is also in question as the Spirit rearranges the seating so that all is given their due. For example, white folk as a whole in Episcopal parishes in pre-civil rights movement Georgia or Illinois weren’t likely to recognize as Spirit the contrary crying out and rebuke of black voices–indeed, we still can’t seem to hear the rebuke and call to repentence. So when Williams moves to a tendency to place this within the hands of authorities in the Eucharistic community, often those representing the present order of things, he can expect other voices will speak just as they do in Scripture, Ruth to Ezra-Nehemiah, for example. Fr. Bill writes,
    What I see operative in Williams’ thoughts here is an emphasis on the “hermeneutics of retrieval” over the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (see the writings of David Tracy and Paul Ricoeur). He seems to fear that giving the well founded suspicions of feminists, Marxists, Freudians, queer theorists, etc. their due place within a Christian theological hermeneutics will mean giving away the store, i.e. making Scripture “one element in a merely modern landscape of conflicts.” Rather, can we not insist that these suspicions arise from the heart of the Eucharistic assembly itself, as this diverse community, growing under the Spirit’s influence into the fullness of Christ, seeks a faithful response to the Word of God? Until we admit that portions of our sacred text serve an anti-Kingdom, anti-Gospel agenda and were written to do so, we cannot take adequate account of the contradictory collection of writings, which I too hope to listen to, as a whole, as the record of God’s mighty acts in salvation history and as the contemporary means by which God addresses human beings and calls into being a People out of nothing. The need for ideological criticism of Scripture is aptly demonstrated by feminist theologian and biblical critic Sandra Schneiders, whom no one can accuse of ignoring the theological sense of the text.

  5. the Rev boy writes: You can’t really say what a particular text says without considering how it got to that point and where it’s going with the point.
    Mark Jordan warns of interpretting without the history of interpretation. Romans 1 for example has a long and complicated and contradictory interpretative history. Augustine thought it was in part about women having anal sex with men. Aquinas considered masturbation part of the equation. Williams himself does just this assuming that Romans 1 is about homosexuality, which is itself in part a modern overlay in its own right. The interpretive history complexifies such an easy slide.

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