The Mystery of the Missing Messiah

If you can’t explain a doctrine simply, it’s probably because you don’t understand it yourself’. Such was the repeated message of my training incumbent to his curates. Donald probably had a point. But does it extend to theodicy?

The crisis following the Asian tsunami has left Dr Rowan Williams open to the sort press criticism which Lambeth Palace must be striving to avoid. A piece in The Sunday Telegraph was given an unsuitable – even misleading – headline. The palace objected. The Daily Telegraph responded with a robust attack on the complexity and incomprehensibility of the Archbishop’s original article. The Telegraph agreed with my old Vicar. ‘If Dr Williams hopes to teach and inspire his flock, he really must learn to express himself more clearly, otherwise he will be forever doomed to be the victim of his own erudition.’ Harsh words; but were they justified?

Dr Williams has been coming in for this sort of criticism for some time. One can see why the press dislikes him. A clever archbishop is a new kid on the block. After a decade of enjoying the spectacle of George Carey, foot in mouth, hobbling around the public arena, a leader of the Church of England who merits five columns of praise from A.N. Wilson in The Spectator [18/25 December, 2004] must have come as something of a surprise.

On the other hand, as the ladies and gentlemen of the press will no doubt have reflected, a good review from Andrew Wilson is not necessarily a welcome testimonial. And Wilson’s praise was itself mitigated: ‘He may express this…in an extraordinarily convoluted manner at times, which might well sound better if translated back into ancient Greek or modern Welsh…’

What the press has latched onto in terms of Rowan’s developing public persona is his complexity of language and expression. They are right to do so. (How many of the bishops present at his celebrated lecture on ethics at the last Lambeth Conference could have told you, immediately after delivery, what it had all been about? And how many found it of practical help in making decisions and taking action?) But what ordinary Christians will have noticed about his piece in The Telegraph and his message of sympathy to those affected by the disaster as summarised by the Anglican Communion News Service, is the absence of Jesus.

The latter, of course, because it is only a summary, may tell one more about Jim Rosenthal than Rowan Williams; that is always the danger of being served by a bureaucracy which one did not choose and cannot control. But the absence of Jesus from his Telegraph stab at theodicy is both remarkable and telling. How is it that the leader of a world-wide Christian Communion can address the problem of pain and suffering in the world and not mention, plainly and explicitly, the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ?

The Archbishop ended his piece with words both moving and true. ‘What can be said with authority about these terrible matters can finally be said only by those closest to the cost. The rest of us need to listen; and then to work and – as best we can manage it – pray.’ But he failed to spell out for his readers the full implications of those words.

It is, of course, a commonplace of post-modern ethical thinking that only those who have experienced a thing can speak with ‘authority’ about it. So, by a perverse logic of transference, divorcees have been accorded the last word about marriage and homosexuals the last word about human sexuality. The old adage has now been reversed: hard cases are thought to make good laws. The Archbishop has been partly complicit in this distortion – even to the extent of suggesting that orthodox Christians were somehow complicit in the murder of the barman of the Admiral Duncan. But if he was merely rehearsing all that again, he was telling people what they already assumed.

So what did Rowan mean? That, as the press point out, is far too often the question. Surely, as a Christian believer, he was seeking to assert the ultimate authority of God in Christ, who entered our human predicament precisely to share its cost. Surely he was saying that, in listening to Jesus, we hear both the voice of the victim and the ultimate wisdom of God. Such, surely, is the Christmas message to this crisis at Christmas: that one who knew the ineffable glory of Godhead humbled himself to experience the contingencies of human existence. More even than that: he chose to die the most painful and ignominious of deaths so that no human agony was beyond the divine empathy and comprehension. The Jesus who is the judge and ultimate measure of all things is so precisely because of his humanity and vulnerablility.

But if that really is the Archbishop’s faith and belief (and I am sure that it is), then why not say so? Why not explicitly make the connection between the authority of the victim and the authority of the eternal Judge? One possible explanation for his failure would lie in the seductive glamour of elegant allusion.

There is a post-Christian world, with which Dr Williams has strong intellectual and emotional ties, which has a sort of literary nostalgia for the truths of the gospel, but cannot bring itself to anything as vulgar and unstylish as actual assent. Often this has something to do with the lifestyle choices of those who are disaffected.

Diarmaid MacCulloch has spoken for them all in his characterisation of Robert Runcie: ‘He was exactly the sort of Christian who sees the complexity of the faith and reflects upon it deeply and with humour. He could be said not to have taken religion too seriously, which I mean as a compliment – he was my idea of a true prince of the Church’. The same is true of MacCulloch’s characterization of himself: ‘I love the Anglican tradition, or a particular form of it – the thoughtful, complex, tentative side. To some extent I have withdrawn from the Christian package – I no longer have doctrinal commitments; I describe myself in the book [Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, 2003] as a candid friend of Christianity’.

For people like MacCulloch (Wilson is another such) the Faith is a web of images which decorates and dignifies contemporary existence, but without making any specific demands upon it. It offers a ‘Thought for the Day’, full of compassion and concern; appropriately situated somewhere between the News Headlines and the Weather.

These people are charming and clever. They have come to dominate the world of academe and its social fringes (Williams’s natural habitat). They are difficult to dismiss, easy to get along with and almost impossible to convert. An Established Church – which is co-incidentally a church of the Establishment – rubs along with them pretty well. If they wanted to be, they could make very good bishops. (Andrew Wilson’s oration at the end of Jennifer Paterson’s funeral at the Brompton Oratory was as compassionate and as doctrinally sound as any Anglican Episcopal effusion I have heard.)

It is easy to see why the Archbishop should fall in with these people. But in the end The Daly Telegraph is right. The tortured syntax and agonised empathy which pleases them does not make converts or save souls. To do that you must talk about Jesus.

Wilson’s article in The Spectator was headed ‘Holy Sage’. Holiness we must leave for God to judge; but to omit mention of the Cross in a piece about the role of God in human suffering surely cannot be called ‘wise’.

Geoffrey Kirk was once Donald Thompson’s curate at St Aidan’s Leeds.