The Occasional Theology and Constant Spirituality of Rowan Williams

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Rowan Williams is not only Archbishop of Canterbury, but also a world-class theologian. This essay explicates Williams's theology by underscoring the substrate mystagogical impulse that invites his readers into a deeper engagement with the Christian faith. The impulse is explicitly present in his spiritual theology, where he encourages the reader to grow spiritually by dwelling in the place "where Christ stands," as well as in his academic theology. It is my argument that this mystagogical impulse is manifest in the following characteristics of Williams's theology: (1) it is embodied or incarnational; (2) it is public and political in nature; (3) it is purgative and progressive.

It has become nearly a cliché, when characterizing Anglican theology, to speak of it as an occasional, contextual, and incarnational venture that is more concerned with prayer than with systematic postulations. Indeed, it is often said that Anglican theology emerges, not from the ivory towers of academia, but from the bell towers of the churchyard where first-order common prayer shapes second-order believing. Clichéd or not, this characterization is clearly borne out in the theological approach of Anglicanisms premier theologian and current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Not only does this Anglican character imbue his theology at a deep, unspoken level, Williams himself explicidy acknowledges his distinctively Anglican approach in the opening words of the prologue to On Christian Theology, where he broaches the question of his methodology. He writes,

I assume that the theologian is always beginning in the middle of things. There is a practice of common life and language already there, a practice that defines a specific shared way of interpreting human life as lived in relationship to God. The meanings of the word "God" are to be discovered by watching what this community does - not only when it is consciously reflecting in conceptual ways, but when it is acting, educating or "inducting," imagining and worshipping.1

As these words manifest, Williams's methodology is an adherence to the maxim lex orandi lex credendi, with a deep groundedness in communal doxological and spiritual practices. It is perhaps his own spiritual and praxiological sensibility that makes Williams's theology unique and yet part of a long tradition in Anglican theology.

In this paper, which is itself an occasional treatment, I suggest that Rowan Williams's theology is not primarily an academic or scholastic discourse, but rather a contemporary reworking of the ancient tradition of mystagogy, that pedagogical practice which invited disciples to participate in the mystery of the faith and not merely articulate it. This participation invites the reader into a relationship and conversation with those saints who have passed on to glory and also obliges the reader to adhere to the discipline of that tradition; thus, one could also speak of discipleship. This suggestion is certainly not an earth-shaking statement. Indeed, even those who are only cursorily familiar with Williams's oeuvre will see in his devotional books and manuals, such as Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert, or Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin, an invitation into a deeper engagement with the Christian faith.

The argument I am making here is that not only does a mystagogical impulse underlie all of Williams's theology, but his theology is a direct outworking of his own spirituality. Throughout his theological writings, Williams is indeed taking occasions as they present themselves to wrestle theologically with thorny issues that face the (post) modern church and individuals as they seek to follow after the Risen One. However, that is not all he is doing. Williams uses these occasions to demonstrate and employ his own spirituality, and like the Apostle Paul, he seems to say, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). In this paper, I will trace his spirituality through his writings on spiritual theology, principally in The Wound of Knowledge, to his "critical theology" in On Christian Theology and Wrestling with Angels. …