The Tab Meets…Rowan Williams
Current Master of Magdalene and ex-Archbishop of Canterbury talks to JAMIE WEBB about homosexuality, gender equality, and those Game of Thrones rumours…
What is the student relationship with God like in Cambridge today?
I don’t sense that the situation is radically different from when I was an undergraduate: there’s not a vast amount of public expression of faith, but those who really want to develop their faith do have a fair amount of opportunity for it. When I was a student that was one of the things I valued the most. One difference is something you notice in the culture generally: people are simply less familiar with faith. In the 19-35 age bracket, exposure to Christianity is very very low. At the same time, I don’t experience a great public hostility towards Christianity. When people encounter it there’s often a sort of not unfriendly curiosity.
Do you believe there is any element of persecution of Christians in today’s society?
There’s a certain amount of petty harassment of some Christians, but I think it’s a bit dramatic to call it persecution. It may be culturally a bit difficult for some people to say ‘I’m a Christian’, partly because people will then say ‘Oh, you’re some sort of homophobic, misogynistic reactionary are you?’ which isn’t very encouraging. I think there’s a temptation to over exaggerate how difficult it can be – but the other side of me says, well, if it’s difficult, it’s difficult. From the very beginning, there have been no guarantees that expressing the values of the gospels was going to be popular.
On the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage, do you consider your own views and those of the church as being out of touch with the views of your students at Cambridge, and do you think that’s a problem?
I think it is quite a problem. This is the one area where there is the deepest sense of the church being out of step with what the rest of the culture take for granted. I think it’s quite difficult for some people outside of the church to recognise that there is something in the matter of several thousand years of assumption, reflection and ethical practice here which isn’t likely to be overturned in a moment. But, all that being said, I think the church has to put its hands up and say our attitude towards gay people has at times been appallingly violent. Even now it can be unconsciously patronising and demeaning, and that really doesn’t help. We have to face the fact that we’ve deeply failed a lot of gay and lesbian people, not only historically but more recently as well. I think that there is a very strong, again theological, case for thinking again about our attitudes towards homosexuality: but I’m a bit hesitant about whether marriage is the right category to talk about same sex relation, and I think there is a debate we haven’t quite had about that. But in a sense that’s water under the bridge, the decision has been taken, things move on. Looking back over my time as Archbishop I think that’s what most people will remember about the last ten years: ‘oh, he was that bloke who was so bogged down in issues about sexuality’.
What role do you believe that religion can play in the field of gender equality?
This is a very interesting question, because a lot of people assume, not without reason, that religion is quite bad news for women. Quite often it seems that oppressive patterns of behaviour and demeaning stereotypes are reinforced by religion. At the same time in all religions there is a radical principle of equality, which undermines those oppressive patterns. The challenge for religion is to quarry those deep principles and use them to combat what are often superficial or culturally influenced patterns of repression.
How do you prevent religion having that superficial harm?
How long have you got? It’s a struggle. People constantly want to slip back to the cultural default setting but I think it’s a matter of helping people to have really sharp critical discussions about the foundations of faith, allowing questions to happen, letting people really have access to the deepest sources of faith, both in reflection, meditation and contemplation. I think people who have developed the ability to be silent and still in the presence of God are a bit less anxious about banging other people in the head.
Finally, there’s a quite well known story doing the rounds about a conversation you had with a student in Sainsbury’s…is it true?
I really don’t know where this came from, I cannot recall this conversation, and I have never watched an episode of Game of Thrones from end to end. I’m so sorry, I feel my street cred has fallen. People have been very kind and generous in inviting me to sessions of hours and hours of Game of Thrones watching. Perhaps I’ll take it up one of these days. I absolutely promise I shall follow it through and live up to my unearned reputation.