Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Faith in the Public Square

Yesterday I went to a lunchtime talk given by Rowan Williams at St Mary-le-Strand in central London on the subject of 'Faith in the Public Square', which is the title of one of his books.  I had pre-booked, which was just as well as St Mary's - a fine Baroque building - was packed.

I'm absolutely a fan of Bishop Rowan Williams.  (He has stepped down from being Archbishop of Canterbury but was being billed as a Bishop; I wonder if this was a mistake for his now being a Baron).  He's an impressive physical presence, a humble and engaging speaker and expresses a deep spirituality.  I also like him because he's known to be an admirer of Quakers, and indeed he made favourable mention of us in his talk.  His subject was the familiar one of the secular/sacred divide but he took a refreshingly positive approach, avoiding the wearisome denunciations of secular immorality and materialism usually to be found in the mouths of churchmen.

For Williams, the sacred is a sense that the person and the environment are not fully under our control, that there is more to reality than me and the totality of other me's.   The spiritual life is to look through 'a window into the inexhaustible depth'.  The Church - and Williams would include Quakers in this, as would I - is a hospitable space where stuff goes on which doesn't go on elsewhere.  This can include creative doubt (and also the expression of existential and emotional pain, though Williams didn't mention this).  The sacred space is for those for whom the ordinary world of things and busyness is not enough.  This means that the Church speaks for those for whom others do not speak. 

The church asks whose depths are not being attended to, who has been forgotten?  By this Williams was making the familiar point about the need for the churches to speak out on social justice and for minorities but I felt more to his words than this.  The church is also for those who may have power and a voice in the secular domain but whose spiritual needs must be identified in, and served by, the spiritual domain. I have in mind people like me, middle-class, well-to-do, white, heterosexual men who may operate well enough in the secular domain but who struggle to express themselves satisfactorily between persons and within a faith community.  One of the issues which concerns me and which I was able to talk about to people on at a recent residential I attended at Woodbrooke is the role of men in the Society, who are prominent and apparently powerful but seem to contribute less to, and get less from, fellowship than women Friends. Williams talked of the church has conveying a sense of something that doesn't go elsewhere.  He could have used the phrase 'a gathered meeting'.  Perhaps this is the point I'm trying to reach for; a church is about fellowship between all.

Williams said the role of secular power is to act positively to hold the ring between faith communities, which should have an unembarrassed voice but must accept that they may sometimes lose the argument with the secular.  In so saying, Williams mentioned the argument over assisted dying but he might equally as well have mentioned same-sex marriage.  (I get the impression that Williams is uncomfortable with the conservative position of the mainstream churches on these issues but his standing as an ecclesiastical prince makes it impossible for him to say so publicly.) He is optimistic about the prospects for communities of faith working under the protection of benign secularism.  He ended his talk by a message of hope for the mended life, rather than the fractured one, which is expressed in Christianity by St Paul's words about a new creation through Christ (2 Cor 5:17).

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