Tuesday 2 September 2008

Rowan Williams and kenotic ecclesiology

My paper in Rome today discusses Rowan Williams’ theological conception of Christian tradition. Here’s an excerpt:

“There is a profound apocalyptic dimension to Williams’ thought here. The meaning of doctrine is not latent within doctrinal history itself. The truth of doctrine is not immanent within the church’s own history and practices. Rather, the truth of doctrine comes to the church from beyond the church’s history. This means that an essential discipline of Christian theology is the practice of self-dispossession, of renouncing the claim to any final vision or any authoritative grasp of the truth.

“Following Donald MacKinnon, we might speak here of the ‘kenotic’ shape of doctrinal identity. Even where orthodoxy emerges as the historical winner from the struggle with heresy, that same orthodoxy must relinquish the right to claim a total vision or to interpret the direction of history. In relinquishing this right, orthodoxy preserves its own essential vulnerability vis-à-vis its founding event – and it confesses that the church can receive truth only from outside itself, as a gift that enters history from beyond history, tearing history open in the apocalyptic rupture of God’s advent.

“Williams’ role as Archbishop of Canterbury in recent years illustrates precisely this dialectic of kenosis and apocalypse. As a churchman, he combines an uncompromisingly rigorous commitment to the truth of doctrinal orthodoxy with an absolute refusal to grasp the truth as a possession or to wield it as an instrument of power. Indeed, the most striking thing about Williams’ conduct as Archbishop of Canterbury is his willingness to fail, his refusal to pursue any ideal of ecclesial ‘success’ in abstraction from the church’s spiritual identity as a community defined by weakness, fragility and self-dispossession.

“This rejection of the idolatrous notion of a ‘successful’ church, this willingness to fail, is at the same time a profoundly apocalyptic gesture: the church’s identity is not immanent within its own practices and institutions; its identity is that which exceeds it, that which comes to it as gift, that which fills its own emptiness and abasement. Williams’ approach here stands not only as a witness to the church’s proper identity, but also as a sharp critique of the tendency among some contemporary political theologies to hanker after the fleshpots of Christendom, or to envision the ecclesial polis as existing in any way other than that of discipleship and crucifixion. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has observed, the church’s suffering is infinitely more dangerous to the world than any political power it may retain – the church’s only authentic power is its weakness.”


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Ben. It was worth reading twice over... Those whose personal identity is bound up in the church failing or succeeding are very conscious of this.
I guess if we are going to think carefully about kenosis, which we all know is a slippery concept, we have to qualify Williams' willingness to fail, as a determination not to fail at being the church in it's 'proper identity' (as you put it). This kenosis is not so much a loss of the church's being as a mode of being within the world which tends towards martyrdom because of the shape of the world's life.

Unknown said...

Great. Will this paper be distributed via e-mail? :)

Anonymous said...

Is your lecture going to get published somewhere?

"Scripture and tradition require to be read in a way that brings out their strangeness, their non-obvious and non-contemporary qualities, in order to that they may be read both freshly and truthfully from one generation to another. They need to be made more difficult before we can accurately grasp their simplicities. Otherwise, we read with eyes not our own and think them through with minds not our own; the 'deposit of faith' does not really come into contact with ourselves. And this 'making difficult', this confession that what gospel says in Scripture and tradition does not instantly and effortlessly make sense, is perhaps one of the most fundamental tasks for theology". (Williams 1987/2001, p 236)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting... and generous assessment of Rowan Williams role in the current Anglican debacle... certainly one to ponder over in whatever contxt we find ourselves looking at the issue of authority.

Unknown said...

Very generous, indeed.

Anonymous said...

"Generous"? Okay. I mean, who is going to demur at such an apple-pie adjective? More to the point, however, Ben's assessment of Williams is, quite simply, accurate, demonstrating how Williams' thinking radically and coherently informs his life and work. Williams was a good friend of the late make-it-difficult Gillian Rose, and one might describe both his theological project and his archepiscopal vocation as a struggle to occupy what Rose called the "broken middle".

For those who have not yet read Williams' new book Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction (2008), here are a few gobbets which supplement Ben's fine paper/post.

"To engage in this venture [of dialogue] is to accept at the outset that no speaker has the last word, and that the position taken up in an initial exchange is going to be tested and shifted and renegotiated in the process. It is to accept that at the outset no one possesses the simple truth about their own identity or interest, and to treat with the deepest scepticism any appeal to the sacredness of an inner life that is transparent to the speaker" (p. 132).

"It is this fusion of a surrender to the claims of an independent truth and a surrender to the actual risks and uncertainties of asserting this truth in word and action that makes the entire enterprise of spiritual - and specifically Christian - life one that is marked by the decentering and critique of the unexamined self" (p. 242).

"Self-emptying need not be a noble and deliberate act of self-sacrifice; how should we know what hidden egotism might be buried in that? It may be the sheer abandonment of oneself to animal terror and childlike wretchedness. What matters is the defenselessness" (p. 232).

St. Augustine meets the Desert Fathers!

I hope you enjoyed the Eternal City, Ben. Now onto Geneva - oops, I mean Princeton!

Bryce P Wandrey said...

Very interesting. I explored a similar theme in Balthasar's theology on the "unkown god". I appreciate what Williams is getting at and what you are drawing out of his theology.

the don said...

ben, great job today. the paper ruled. it was great having lunch too.

- josh

michael jensen said...

Hey, hope the paper went well Ben.

But: isn't this all this hand-wringing about power (which isn't actually so different from a certain tendency within liberal culture) a bit hard to swallow coming from the man who sits on the throne of Augustine in Canterbury, who lives in a palace, who is chaplain to the nation, who is the most powerful churchman in England, if not the Anglican Communion? Isn't he still propping up Christendom (not that I share your distaste for it, actually)? Doesn't he still dress in the luxurious robes which signify his power? This man was chosen by a secular liberal government as their champion churchman, let's not forget (and a Labour one at that). Whatever he did was pleasing to them. And this was his second such appointment: the chair at Oxford was another Westminster bestowal.

Granted, he stood against the war in Iraq. But the government has already ensured that the church's voice is held in open contempt by the English nation. I don't think any of his social criticism has been particularly effective or prophetic.

I am fascinated by Williams as a theologian and a person, and I respect him greatly. But all failure is not evidence of godliness in and of itself, just as all success is not evidence of God's blessing.

Anonymous said...

Ben, thanks for your comments on Rowan Williams. Like others, I'd be interested in reading the entire paper. But I have a couple of comments about the small section on the blog. Firstly,I think your combination of apocalyptic and kenosis that you ascribe to RW is very powerful and ideally I think it would be great if it were accurate. Perhaps it once was and perhaps in intent it still is, but I have to say that I see little trace of it in his final address at Lambeth 08. Secondly, I do not know whether he is willing to fail, but given his tenacity in holding fast to the Anglican Communion, that, at least, is one thing where he wills not to fail. I agree that much of the discourse is replete with the imagery of kenosis but then I find myself weighing up just how this comports with his desire for an Anglican covenant.

As the polarisation in the Anglican church becomes more entrenched the present RW begins to sound less and less like the RW pre-Canterbury. As unity begins to harden into uniformity (remembering that he is one of the 4 instruments of unity)I find myself wanting to believe your observations, if only because they don't seem to reflect the reality. By the way, I should say that I've not read his latest book but perhaps a literary sojourn to Russia at least removes him from some of his day to day problems.

Unknown said...

Kim, if by accurate you mean what we get when a scientist examines a jellyfish, then I'd agree.

Seriously, though, yes, RW occupies the broken middle, and I don't envy him in the slightest. Only time will tell if his was a paralyzed or persuasive episcopate.

MM said...


Warmest congratulations on your presentation- and envy! How amazing to participate in that conference.

An interesting counterpoint might come from Paul's impassioned plea for edification (with its attendent sense of empowerment, cohesion, health, battle-readiness, etc) to serve as the guiding norm and criterion for adjudicating 'doctrinal' discourse within the ecclesial community... I'm thinking of I Cor 14 in particular.

βασίλης ψύλλης said...

1/ Ben, it is a blessing to meet one who shares the same messianic vision in that 'e-church', though there is not a real personal contact...
well done!

2/ Kim, let me say (out a personal love for the late Gillian) that since Williams is at the same time a man of authority he occupies a broken-broken middle...
(i make this pun having in mind a similar case in the face of Archbishop of Greece Ieronimos; a man who struggles to keep his messianic freedom being the head of an institution of power)


Mike Bull said...

Hello, I'm just a passing visitor.

A very interesting post. I think, though, that there should be some distinction made between:

A the church renouncing the claim to any authoritative grasp of the truth because the truth comes into the church from outside


B the church using actually renouncing the truth it is supposed to be the signpost for.

The church does NOT have to make a choice between doctrinal 'bones' (truth) and social 'flesh' (vulnerability). Modelling church on only one of these is a disaster, whichever one is chosen. The truth, then, is bones from God, not from the church, but they are still bones.

Or, to clarify, renouncing an unbiblical authority of the church concerning the truth, should not mean renouncing the authority of the truth itself, which is where Williams does often fail, and why there is such a rift in the Anglican Communion. Saying one is not the final authority on doctrine is no excuse for being deliberately blurry on unpopular doctrines.

I am happy to be corrected if I have misunderstood your point.

Dave Belcher said...


The first part of the week, Ben's daughter was pretty sick, and then Ben caught what his daughter had, and so missed the last couple of days of the conference...he is likely still recovering -- and he is also heading to Princeton right away from what I recall...

So, be patient...

I'll put up my own report on Rome perhaps tomorrow -- I'm still very jetlagged at the moment, though!


dave belcher

Anonymous said...

In what way do you feel Gillian Rose`s work impinges on Williams overall work. I am reading Shanks and Fraser`s work on Rose. They feel Rose`s Broken Middle articlulates Williams attempts towards the importance of unity over particularity I particularly would like to read the whole article. I also am going to read Williams Dosteovsky

Anonymous said...

"who lives in a palace,"

Actually, Williams lives in a modest apartment with his family.

michael jensen said...

Yeah, fair enough. I guess my point was: square the Erastianism of the C of E with this power-critique. It's hard to do.

Ben Myers said...

Sorry for the slow reply, and sorry to those I'd planned to talk with on the last two days of the conference -- I wasn't very well last week, and I just wasn't able to make it back to the conference.

Anyways, on the question of publication: yes, this paper was based mainly on an essay which is coming out shortly in a collection on Rowan Williams (details here). Other parts of the paper (including the excerpt here on "kenosis and apocalypse") are from a different essay which I'm currently writing about Williams' theology in relation to the Anglican crisis.

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