Rowan Williams’ Doctrine of Radical Reconciliation

By his own admission (for example, in his recent interview with Mary Ann Sieghart in The Times), Rowan Williams is not the easiest person to understand. Nor is he a systematic theologian. Neither of these comments is intended to denigrate. Kierkegaard was also difficult to follow and Luther was no systematic theologian either. In combination, however, it means that Williams is open to significant misunderstanding by foe and friend alike. He was given a rough ride by Reform and others when his appointment was announced, and some vitriolic comments have been made about him by LGCM since then.

Significantly, Williams has been perceived from both sides as a ‘compromiser’. For traditionalists this has been no surprise, though for revisionists it has clearly come as a shock. Yet a closer analysis of Williams’ work suggests that, far from compromising, he has endeavoured to remain faithful to a principle which has far reaching implications for the Anglican Communion at this time. For at the heart of Williams’ beliefs is a doctrine of radical reconciliation which not only controls his own understanding of God but has direct significance for his handling of the present Anglican crisis.


This doctrine springs from Williams’ perception of the nature and significance for us of the crucifixion and resurrection, as set out, for example, in the first chapter of his Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982). According to Williams, through the first preaching of the Apostles described in the book of Acts, the crucified Jesus returns to the leaders of Israel ‘as the judge of his judges’ (p3) – a reversal which, Williams suggests, is not-untypical of Jewish apocalyptic. ‘But’, he continues, ‘the gospel of the resurrection goes on to a more profound and startling reversal’:

The exaltation of the condemned Jesus is presented by the disciples not as a threat but a promise and hope. […] The rulers and the people are in rebellion; yet they act ‘in ignorance’ […]. And grace is released when the judges turn to their victim and recognize him as their hope and their saviour (p3, emphasis original).

This encapsulates the core of Williams’ soteriology. Preaching the resurrection is, in every subsequent case, ‘an invitation to recognize one’s victim as one’s hope’ (p5). This (and only this) is why the Apostles can say there is salvation in ‘no other name’ than that of Jesus (Acts 4.12), because ‘he is the particular victim of that court’ (p6). The same specific claim cannot be generalized to all mankind. However, we are all of us ‘victimizers’ and,

When we make victims, when we embark on condemnation, exclusion, violence, the diminution or oppression of anyone, when we set ourselves up as judges, we are exposed to judgement … and we turn away from salvation (p6).

This, according to Williams, is true of all those whom we judge, whether ‘deserving’ or not:

The hard thing to accept … is that it is not unjust or misplaced violence that needs penitence … but the oppressive, excluding act as such (p10).

Hence, although there are social contexts in which there is a mutual cycle of destructive violence which is easy to condemn, nevertheless ‘any society that revenges itself on those who have offered it violence stands in the same rank’ (p12).


Yet just as there is a radical reversal in the crucifixion of Christ, so there is a radical opportunity in all our acts of victimization arising, paradoxically, from the fact that God always sides with our victims. The fact that ‘the powerless sufferer, whether ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’, is the one who belongs with God’ (p10) might seem to be as bad news to us as the resurrection was to the Jewish leadership. Yet, by the same token and in the same way, our victim is the one – and the only one – in whom we can find ‘the saving presence of God’ (p10):

Conversion is always turning to my victim – even in circumstances where it is important to me to believe in the rightness of my cause (p10).

Of course, the victim may actually be – indeed frequently is – in the wrong! Williams is at pains to point out that, apart from Jesus alone, there are no ‘pure’ victims, and being in the role of victim does not make one righteous. On the contrary, the tendency to self-justification on the grounds of ‘sharing the sufferings of Christ’ is quite pernicious (see pp70–71). ‘What is at issue’, he stresses, ‘is simply the transaction that leads to exclusion’ (p10). Nevertheless, this always necessitates repentance on our part:

To judge is to be exposed to judgement. Conversion is the realization that this equation shows us where we look for our vindication: the relationship we have set up, of judge to victim, is first of all to be reversed and then transcended (p6).

The ‘victim’ excluded in judgement is thus both the occasion of condemnation and simultaneously the occasion of salvation. And this, ultimately, is the gospel. My victim is my hope:

The formulation, ‘Repent and believe’, stresses that God’s forgiveness cannot be abstract and general: the authentic word of forgiveness, newness and resurrection is audible when we acknowledge ourselves as oppressors and ‘return’ to our victims. (p14).


All this, of course, has implications not only for individual living but for social and ecclesiastical politics. Thus, for example, when Williams writes of ‘Christ as criminal, Christ as madman, Christ as alcoholic vagrant’ (p12), we may wonder if his famous penchant for inviting down-and-outs into his Cambridge home was not an example of working out his own salvation in fear and trembling!

We see it also in Williams’ sermon delivered at St George’s Anglican Cathedral, Jerusalem, in January 2004, where he called for a breaking down of the dividing walls of hostility and the creation of a new situation where ‘all share one goal; each recognises that what is good for them as they journey is good for all.’

And there are interesting, though perhaps unwelcome, implications for ecclesiastical politics, since all sides in the present disputes are ‘victimizers’ insofar as they judge and exclude one another. God is therefore to be found by each side in the opposition, and hence it is only as Reform turns to LGCM and as LGCM turns to Reform that either can know what it is to be ‘saved’ through conversion.

This also means that Williams himself is not going to ‘take sides’ in the sense of siding with any one group over against another, for that would be to expose himself to judgement and to turn away from salvation. The result may be to confuse some and disappoint others, but that may just be the price he has to pay. And if he in turn is rejected as a ‘compromiser’, at least it creates further opportunities for people to experience the grace of God by returning to Williams himself.


But all this highlights the problematic nature of Williams’ theology, first and not least because it is not the theology of the Church. Williams is widely misunderstood because his theology of ‘God in the victim of the victimizer’ is not widely shared. On the contrary, most of us operate on a ‘common sense’ notion that there are people whom we judge because they are in the wrong and whom we exclude, whether it be from society as criminals we imprison or from the Church as false brethren whom we anathematize, for the health of our institutions and even, it may be, for the salvation of others. The required ‘conversion’, we are convinced, lies not in us turning to them, but in them turning from their wrong.

Williams, of course, agrees that people can be in the wrong, and he equally agrees that it is right to point this out to them. It is only the act of exclusion which he believes to be finally wrong. But it is hard to see how we can hold that someone is radically wrong and yet include them in, for example, the active community of the Church. This is certainly not an attitude which we find in the pages of the New Testament, and we may therefore wonder why, if it is indeed at the heart of the gospel, it does not find a clearer expression in the apostolic witness.

And there is a further difficulty, in that Williams’ dynamic of salvation is ultimately a psycho-social response to enlightenment. It is as I realize that God is on the side of my victim, and as I respond appropriately (by ceasing to exclude the other), that salvation becomes an experiential reality. Christ crucified and resurrected may well be both a demonstration and an embodiment of God’s radical reconciliation towards me, but this is not the focus of my reconciliation. That, it seems, is only found concretely (rather than ‘in the abstract’) in those towards whom I must turn. And this itself raises questions about the very nature of sin and atonement in Williams’ theology.


Doubtless Williams would understand the biblical account of Adam and Eve in non-physical terms. Yet there is no reason to suppose he would dismiss it as wholly unhelpful, and we may therefore reasonably ask where, on his reading of this story, would lie the ‘sin’ and the necessary ‘conversion’. Is the sin against God, and, if so, can it be characterized in terms of ‘victimization’ in the same way that Christ was ‘victimized’ by the powers in Jerusalem? Or is the sin of Adam and Eve against one another? Clearly, there is a sense in which they become alienated from one another: ‘The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree [..] Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ Even their fig leaves might be construed as an act of exclusion. But in the narrative all this follows, rather than constitutes, their sin. And if between them is where sin is to be found and where reconciliation must occur, why does the serpent address their obedience towards God rather than their attitude towards each other? This archetype of our separation from God – which is dominant in the Pauline understanding of reconciliation (see Rom 5.12–21) – does not readily suggest that the issues lie where Williams locates them.


There is also a subtle difficulty regarding the theological function of the victim, whose moral insignificance Williams is at great pains to emphasize. God sides with the victim only as an object of victimization, not ‘in themselves’. But this being so, God is present strictly in regard only to the victimizer. If reconciliation is effected, then God is not thereafter to be found in the former victim any more than in anyone else. An alcoholic vagrant may often be the location of ‘the saving presence of God’ for others but is not as such the particular locus of God. Indeed, as this ‘gospel’ takes hold of us – as we exclude fewer and fewer people – we approach the point at which God is nowhere to be found ‘salvifically’ at all.

And here we come to the main difficulty with Williams’ theology of reconciliation, for it has shifted the dynamic of salvation from the structured relationship between God and mankind as a whole – a relationship variously characterized as Creator and creature, Judge and sinner, Redeemer and redeemed – to the attitudinal relationship of human beings to one another, whether as individuals or groups. Salvation is no longer an act of God achieved through the cross, but an attitude of God demonstrated in the resurrection and enacted between ourselves. And God is not to be found by us via a relationship with Christ (who was, after all, only the victim strictly of the leadership in his day), but in those whom we have excluded and yet who, as soon as we are reconciled to them, cease to be the location of God for us.


All of this illustrates the profound difficulty of constructing a new yet coherent theology without it being thoroughly critiqued by the wider Church. Williams’ theology of radical reconciliation (allowing for the caveats about my own understanding of it) is imaginative and bold, but without more exposure and examination it is unlikely to supplant more traditional understandings. Yet this also raises problems for the Anglican Communion. All acknowledge that we are in decisive days. Yet it would seem that a formalized division of the Church would go against what Dr Williams would regard as the very essence of the gospel, making it almost impossible for the Church to express in its own life what it should be preaching to the world. At the same time, however, there are many misunderstandings of his own position and questions that could be raised about his theological stance, as well as other powerful voices saying that a split is inevitable. It is vital, therefore, that we are as open and as clear as possible about the theological assumptions with which we are, or should be, working. A ‘fudge’ at this moment would surely be far worse than any imagined compromise!

John P Richardson is Senior Assistant Minister to the United Benefice of Henham, Elsenham and Ugley