Simon Heans examines Rowan Williams’ contribution to The Religion of the Incarnation, and his claim that conversion and judgement are the basis of dogma

It is often said that Archbishop Rowan is a Liberal Catholic. But what does that mean? A Catholic with liberal opinions on political and social issues? But this cannot really be the case, because if it were, many members of Forward in Faith would be Liberal Catholics. The UN Millennium Development Goals, which liberal North American bishops set such store by, are obviously admirable, although I suppose one might want to argue about the policy means to those ends. The problem, as Michael Heidt pointed out in last months New Directions, is that they have largely replaced the Christian religion in their minds. Rowan Williams’ essay in the book published in 1989 for the centenary of Lux Mundi shows how this might have happened.


This book is, like its successor, a collection of essays on Christian doctrine. It is usually taken to mark the beginning of Liberal Catholic theology in the Anglican Church. One of the features of this Liberal Catholic scholarship was its openness to the new ideas about biblical interpretation coming from German Protestant universities.

However, the earlier Tractarian generation was not so keen on this ‘historical criticism’. The issue was particularly divisive at Oxford, where the contributors to Lux Mundi were (or had been) college chaplains and fellows. But, although it was important at the time, historians have focused on a different Lux Mundi theme as being of more significance in the long term for the identity of Liberal Catholicism. Geoffrey Rowell writes of Lux Mundi ‘recasting Anglican theology in an incarnational mould.’

‘The Religion of the Incarnation’ was the title once suggested for Lux Mundi, but it was chosen as the title for the centenary essays. The contributors to The Religion of the Incarnation were each assigned an essay in the original volume on which to comment. Rowan Williams, then Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, was given The Incarnation as the Basis of Dogma, by R.C. Moberly.

Dr Williams begins by defending ‘the legitimacy of dogmatic statement’, and applauding Moberly’s engagement in it, quoting with approval his stark either/or:

‘Is it true that he was very God? It is either true or false… If it is not absolutely true, it is absolutely false.’ However, by the end of the essay, Dr Williams has changed his mind, finding ‘Moberly’s expression of it [the doctrine of the Incarnation] unhelpfully positivistic.’ In fact, he seems rather irritated, even offended, by Moberly’s approach: ‘His robust ‘true or false?’… short-circuits the details of doctrinal discussion in a way I think many a patristic writer would have found alarming…it is harder than Moberly makes it sound to find a single brief formulation that intelligibly expresses the doctrine of the Incarnation.’ So too bad, one is tempted to say, for the Creeds! But by what argument does Dr Williams arrive at this judgement?


‘It is not the Incarnation that is the basis of dogma,’ claims Dr Williams, ‘but judgment and conversion worked out through the telling of Jesus’ story’ But how does the latter activity differ from expounding the doctrine of the Incarnation? Dr Williams begins by suggesting that the issue is one of comprehensiveness. The doctrine, he explains, is ‘in danger of being a rather baroque formulation relating to the origin of Jesus’ ‘earthly career”, although he then seems to take back this criticism in accepting that ‘part of the force of the doctrine of the hypostatic union is precisely to deny that ‘Incarnation is an isolable event in or prior to the biography of Jesus.’

The real difference between Incarnation and ‘Jesus’ story’ – and the reason Dr Williams insists on the latter in preference to the former – lies in the subject of each. ‘Dogma about Christ,’ he writes, ‘stems from this primitive sense of a truth being told about us as human beings implicated in a network of violence and denial.’

By contrast, as Moberly argues, the origin of the doctrine of the Incarnation is in the Twelve’s sense, primitive or not, of the truth about Jesus. Moberly writes of ‘the question which He would never let them escape, the question by which they were to be tested and judged; ‘What think ye of Christ?’ ‘If ye believe not that I am He, ye shall die in your sins.” And, as Moberly’s way of putting it shows, ‘judgement and conversion’ is very definitely involved in the formation of the dogma. Dr Williams writes of’the long-standing enthusiasm of Anglican theology about the incarnational principle’, an enthusiasm which he clearly shares. But his is not the same as the principle Moberly expounds and defends. Dr Williams calls this ‘the image of Incarnation, and his attitude towards it is iconoclastic: ‘the slippage into ideology is perilously close, to the extent that such theology can lose sight of that element underlying the history of incarnational definition that is to do with the radical testing of the human ‘sense’ before the tribunal of Jesus.’ The instrument of his iconoclasm is ‘the story of Jesus’ which, he explains, ‘is not one of a miraculous suspension and interruption of the human world, nor is it a story of human moral and spiritual heroism; it involves us in a self-declaration and a self-discovery’

Liberal or Catholic

But this is surely wrong. The story of Jesus is about both the miraculous and the heroic. These are each elements in the Catholic definition of the incarnational principle, which is of course a summary of’Jesus’ story’. But Dr Williams’ redefinition of the Incarnation as se//-declaration and se//-discovery means that it concerns everyone’s identity – except Jesus’. Thus the question, ‘How shall we speak of Jesus in a way that is faithful to the fact that it is human existence in which he meets us…?’ (emphasis original) can only have one answer: by not speaking of the Incarnation at all, since its subject is a human existence that is also divine.

It is easy to see that here ‘the slippage into ideology is perilously close’, and it is reached with Dr Williams’ ‘refinement’ (!) of Moberly’s title: ‘Conversion and Judgement as the Basis of Dogma.’ And that, rather than the Incarnation, is the basis of Liberal Dogma. \ND\