Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (London: SPCK, 2014).
I am often surprised by the success Rowan Williams appears to have as a popular writer. Such books as Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (1982), Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (2000), Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (2003), Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (2007), and are clearly pitched beyond the academy for more general audiences. They are not, however, light reads and they clearly demand of their readers a patient willingness to follow Williams’ nuanced and often slowly-developed arguments.
Obviously Williams' audience and marketability owe much to the profile he gained whilst serving as Archbishop of Canterbury. The position itself made his ideas important and interesting and gave him a visibility not usually enjoyed by theologians of his calibre. Yet I would suggest one feature of these writings which might be a further explanation of their success. Williams writes about the Christian faith with obvious authenticity and out of conspicuous personal involvement in that faith. His wisdom comes not just from his erudition or intellect, but from a deep prayerful engagement with God, the life of faith, the Christian community, and the wider world.
This is certainly true of one of several of his books to be published in 2014: Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist and Prayer (London: SPCK, 2014). The book (of less than 100 pages) consists of lectures given in Canterbury Cathedral during Holy Week (in an unspecified year) and addresses “the essential elements of the Christian life” which he defines not “in terms of individuals leading wonderful lives, but just in terms of those simple and recognizable things that make you realise you are part of a Christian community”, i.e., baptism, Bible, Eucharist and prayer. (p.ix)
Whilst accepting baptism as clear identity-marker, he also warns against treating it as a mark of segregation; it does not “confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else”. He continues:
To be able to say, ‘I’m baptised’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected – you might even say – contaminated – by the mess of humanity. This is very paradoxical. Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave untouched or unsullied. (p.5f)
Williams adopts the hermeneutically unfashionable view that the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the controlling centre of the Bible. This does not mean, however, that Williams executes a christological flattening of either Testament. He shows how different biblical writers offer commentary – and negative judgement – on other parts of the bible. He gives the example of Hosea’s reading of Jehu’s massacre of the house of Ahab. As recorded in 2 Kings the massacre is “presented as a triumph of God’s righteousness”.
Now, that clearly, is a rather problematic story because of all the random bloodshed in it. But it did not take twenty Christian centuries for people to notice that. For in the book of the prophet Hosea (1:4) you will find, just a few generations later, a prophet of Israel looking back on that very story and saying that Jezreel is a name of shame in history, not of triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished. Something has happened to shift the perspective. (p.37)
In exploring that changed perspective, Williams engaged in some imaginative, but not implausible, reconstruction:
And I imagine that if asked what he meant, Hosea would have said, ‘I’m sure my prophetic forebears were absolutely certain that they were doing the will of God and I’m sure the tyranny and idolatry of the royal house of Ahab was a scandal and need to be ended. But, human beings being what they are, the clear word of God calling Israel to faithfulness and to resistance was so easily turned into an excuse for yet another turn of the screw in human atrocity and violence. And we’re right to shed tears for that memory. (p.38)
In his discussion of the Eucharist, Williams does not get bogged down in the metaphysics of sacraments. He places it against the background of Jesus’ own hospitality. With the story of Zacheus in mind he states that “Jesus is not only someone who exercises hospitality; he draws out hospitality from others. By his welcome he makes other people capable of welcoming”(p.42). Thus we see something essential about the Eucharist:
We are the guests of Jesus. We are there because he asks us, and because he wants our company. At the same time we are set free to invite Jesus into our lives and literally to receive him into our bodies in the Eucharist. His welcome gives us courage to open up to him… We are welcomed and we welcome; we welcome God and we welcome our unexpected neighbours. (p42)
The chapter on prayer proceeds by way of an engagement with the respective views of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Cassian on the Lord’s Prayer. He discerns three themes common in each of these writers: prayer is God’s work in us; there is a deep connection between praying and living justly in the world; and prayer is about faithfulness or ‘sticking to it’. There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, echoes between how Williams summarises the second theme about prayer and what he said earlier about baptism and Eucharist: “Prayer is the life of Jesus coming alive in you, so it is hardly surprising if it is absolutely bound up with a certain way of being human which is about reconciliation, mercy, and freely extending the welcome and love of God to others”. (p.81)
Perhaps more so than Williams' other popular books, Being Christian is highly accessible, both in terms of content and style. The book would be a great conversation starter for any small group wanting to explore some of the basics of Christian existence. I could also imagine it would be very useful in an adult confirmation class. It could also richly reward – as it did in my case – a solitary reading.