On Rowan Williams Critical Essays

The moral theology of Rowan Williams has had a significant impact on the ongoing debate on Anglican views of homosexuality and has been cited both by opponents and defenders of the gay movement within the Anglican communion.

The Body's Grace[edit]

The Body's Grace is a lecture and essay written by Rowan Williams on the topic of Christian theology and sexuality. It was composed when he was Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford in 1989. His writings on the subject were perceived as quite liberal before he became the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is now part of a series of essays collected in the book "Theology and Sexuality" [1]

Abstract deployment of ambiguous biblical texts[edit]

In the conclusion of this address, he asserted:

"In a church that accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous biblical texts, or on a problematic and nonscriptural theory about natural complementarity, applied narrowly and crudely to physical differentiation without regard to psychological structures."

Efforts to study Christianity and sexuality[edit]

The same year as he made the above comments, and as a practical consequence of the views he expressed, Williams founded the 'Institute for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality' (which in 1996 became the 'Centre for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality'[2]). He was then Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, and this work characterised him amongst liberal Anglicans as a significant figure in the effort to make the Anglican Church's moral stance on homosexuality more accepting.

Homosexual relations among the clergy[edit]

Further information: Homosexuality and Anglicanism

When he became Archbishop of Canterbury, questions of whether and how Williams would apply his views, specifically with regard to homosexual relationships among the clergy, were put squarely in the spotlight, through the issue of the proposed consecration of a gay priest, Jeffrey John, as Bishop of Reading. Following protest from a number of bishops from various parts of the Anglican Communion, Williams asked John to withdraw his candidacy, but then arranged his appointment as Dean of St Albans, one of the oldest Christian sites in England, in a move that was widely seen as a moderate compromise to maintain the latitudinarian unity of the Anglican Communion.[citation needed]

Though acknowledging that he was simplifying the Church's position, Williams said in September 2010 that "There's no problem about a gay person who's a bishop. It's about the fact that there are traditionally, historically, standards that the clergy are expected to observe." Asked what was wrong with a homosexual bishop having a partner, he said: "I think because the scriptural and traditional approach to this doesn't give much ground for being positive about it."[3]

Welcoming but not inclusive[edit]

In a 2006 interview with the Dutch newspaper Nederlands Dagblad, Williams discussed the Episcopal Church in the United States of America's increasingly liberal policies regarding homosexuality, saying that "in terms of decision-making the American Church has pushed the boundaries."[4] Williams argued that the Church had to be "welcoming", rather than "inclusive", a distinction he characterised by saying: "I don't believe inclusion is a value in itself. Welcome is. We don't say 'Come in and we ask no questions'. I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ."[5]

However, in a later interview with Time magazine in June 2007, he stated that he had not changed his own mind, although he is now constrained from expressing personal views at variance with the corporate view of the Church. In answer to the question "You yourself once thought it possible that same-sex relationships might be legitimate in God's eyes" he responded: "Yes, I argued that in 1987. I still think that the points I made there and the questions I raised were worth making as part of the ongoing discussion. I'm not recanting. But those were ideas put forward as part of a theological discussion. I'm now in a position where I'm bound to say the teaching of the Church is this, the consensus is this. We have not changed our minds corporately. It's not for me to exploit my position to push a change."[6]


He has indicated support for a pro-life viewpoint; writing that, for himself, "it is impossible to view abortion as anything other than the deliberate termination of a human life."[7] He is a lifetime member of the pro-life group SPUC.[8]


Archbishop Williams stated that he remained opposed to voluntary euthanasia despite seeing his mother's painful months of decline and dementia.[9] He has voiced similar opposition to assisted suicide. [10]

Ordination of women[edit]

Prior to a planned visit to the Vatican on 21 November 2006, he was interviewed by the Catholic Herald and pressed on the issue of the ordination of women. He was reported as having said, "I don't think it has transformed or renewed the Church of England in spectacular ways. Equally, I don't think that it has corrupted or ruined the Church of England. It has somehow got into the bloodstream and I don't give it a second thought these days."[citation needed] He did not discount the possibility that the issue might be revisited. His remarks were interpreted as a revision of his former support for the ordination of women. In a subsequent statement he refuted this view, saying, 'I feel nothing less than full support for the decision the Church made in 1992 and appreciation of the priesthood exercised'.[citation needed] There was a certain amount of critical press coverage of his comments in the interview.[citation needed]

Civil and human rights of homosexuals[edit]

In contrast to his diminished outspokenness on the acceptability of homosexual relationships as a matter of theology, however, he has continued to affirm the civil and human rights of homosexuals. For example, in his Advent Letter for 2007 he said: "…it is part of our Christian and Anglican discipleship to condemn homophobic prejudice and violence, to defend the human rights and civil liberties of homosexual people and to offer them the same pastoral care and loving service that we owe to all in Christ's name."[11]

Defence of LGBT people against violence and bigotry[edit]

In "The Challenge and Hope of Being an Anglican Today", an address to the Anglican Communion in June 2006, he said: "It is possible–indeed, it is imperative–to give the strongest support to the defence of homosexual people against violence, bigotry and legal disadvantage, to appreciate the role played in the life of the church by people of homosexual orientation, and still to believe that this doesn’t settle the question of whether the Christian Church has the freedom, on the basis of the Bible, and its historic teachings, to bless homosexual partnerships as a clear expression of God’s will."[12]

Reflecting the love of God[edit]

In 2008, it was reported that Williams had stated in 2000 or 2001 that homosexual relationships could "reflect the love of God" in a manner comparable to heterosexual marriages, and that he believed that passages in the Bible which are often cited in support of the view that homosexuality is a sin, in fact are aimed at heterosexual people seeking variety in their sexual experience, rather than at gay people.[13]


  1. ^(ed. Eugene Rogers, Blackwells 2002).
  2. ^"Contents". Cscs.co.uk. Archived from the original on 2009-01-22. Retrieved 2008-12-28. 
  3. ^Bloxham, Andy (25 September 2010). "Anglican Church has 'no problem' with gay bishops". The Daily Telegraph. UK. Retrieved 30 April 2011. 
  4. ^Nederlands Dagblad: "The Church is not inclusive", 19 August, 2006 (URL last accessed on 28 April, 2007) Archived June 2, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^Moreover, the Archbishop appeared to distance himself from his more liberal 1989 essay, explaining, "That was when I was a professor, to stimulate debate… It did not generate much support and a lot of criticism–quite fairly on a number of points."
  6. ^"Keeping the Faith". Time magazine. 2007-06-07. 
  7. ^"People are starting to realise we can't go on as we are". TimesOnline. 2005-03-10. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  8. ^"SPUC congratulates Archbishop-elect of Canterbury". SPUC. 2002-07-23. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  9. ^Clergy opposed to euthanasia bill
  10. ^Church urged to clarify its views on assisted suicide[dead link]
  11. ^Rowan Williams (2007-12-14). "Advent Letter". Anglican Communion website. 
  12. ^Rowan Williams (27 June 2006). "Archbishop's reflections on the Anglican Communion". 
  13. ^Rowan Williams: gay couples reflect the love of God, Riazat Butt, The Guardian, 7 August 2008 (accessed 7 August 2008)

1 While enjoyable, learned, and otherwise quite thorough, Benjamin Myers’ recent work, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: T&T Clark, 2012) makes virtually no reference to Williams as a reader of scripture. Likewise the works in RussellMatheson (ed.), On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009) contain no sustained analysis of Williams’ scriptural hermeneutic. Higton'sMikeDifficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: SCM Press, 2004) is a slight exception; see his brief analysis on pp. 62–8 of that work.

2 For Webster on Williams see ‘Rowan Williams on Scripture’, in BockmuehlMarkus and TorranceAlan J. (eds), Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), pp. 105–24. See also Bockmuehl's critically appreciative engagement with Williams in his Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), pp. 82–6; and Bockmuehl's comments on Williams in ‘Reason, Wisdom and the Implied Discipline of Scripture’, in FordDavid F. and StantonGraham (eds), Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 59–60. More recently, SariskyDarren, Scriptural Interpretation: A Theological Exploration (Oxford: Blackwell, 2013) offers two chapters of analysis on Williams as a reader of scripture, largely in the tone of his teacher, John Webster (see n. 18 below).

3 See WilliamsRowan, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, in FordDavid and StantonGraham (eds), Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 217–28; ‘The Discipline of Scripture’, in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp. 44–59.

4 Williams, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, p. 221.

5 Rowan Williams, ‘The Bible Today: Reading and Hearing’, The Larkin-Stuart Lecture, 16 Apr. 2007. www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2112 (accessed Apr. 2013).

6 For Williams’ diachronic approach, see ‘The Discipline of Scripture’.

7 Williams, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, p. 228.

8 See esp. ‘The Discipline of Scripture’, p. 52.

9 Williams, ‘The Bible Today’. For example, the Apostle Paul's argument in Romans 1–2 seeks to facilitate a certain movement within the reading community: ‘The change envisaged is from confidence in having received divine revelation to an awareness of universal sinfulness and need.’

10 ed. IpgraveMichael (ed.), Scriptures in Dialogue: Christians and Muslims Studying the Bible and Qu'ran Together (London: Church House Publishing, 2004), p. 21.

11WilliamsRowan, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1982), p. 49.

12 See Williams, ‘The Bible’, p. 90.

13 Key to Williams’ analogical reading of scripture is the sense in which the eucharistic celebration, along with the scriptural texts, tells a story into which participants are invited. Williams would surely suggest that one without the other is inadequate.

14WilliamsRowan, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 121.

15 Webster, ‘Rowan Williams on Scripture’, p. 120.

16Ibid., p. 122.

17Ibid., p. 120.

18 Darren Sarisky has recently argued in a similar vein, claiming that Williams’ conception of scripture betrays a ‘certain vagueness in the doctrine of God’ and that Williams is relatedly ‘skittish about applying theological categories to depict the way things really are’ (Scriptural Interpretation, pp. 170, 34). Sarisky notes that ‘Christ is primarily an interrogative presence for Williams, not a commanding one’ (p. 168). He concludes, ‘what holds the text together is more readerly response than it is robust theological description. This is the upshot of Scripture's unity being diachronic rather than synchronic’ (p. 170). In this, Sarisky claims, Williams ‘makes the Bible seem too much like other texts’ (p. 171). Part of Sarisky's own project is to suggest that both diachronic and synchronic approaches to the text can coexist within the same theological hermeneutic, and that an operative doctrine of providence (which Williams allegedly lacks) allows for this coexistence.

19 Webster, ‘Rowan Williams on Scripture’, p. 113.

20Ibid., p. 122.


22WebsterJohn, Word and Church (London: T&T Clark, 2006), pp. 9–10.

23 In this regard, see WebsterJohn, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), particularly the first chapter, ‘Revelation, Sanctification and Inspiration’, pp. 5–41.

24WebsterJohn, Domain of the Word (London: T&T Clark, 2012), p. 32.

25 Webster, Word and Church, pp. 2–4.

26 Webster, Domain of the Word, p. 45.

27 Webster, Holy Scripture, p. 72.

28 Webster, Domain of the Word, p. 24, emphasis original.

29Ibid., pp. 27–9.

30Ibid., p. 6.

31Ibid., p. viii.

32Ibid., p. 12.

33Ibid., pp. vii–viii.

34Ibid., p. xi.

35 This recent emphasis perhaps stands in somewhat of a contrast to Webster's earlier work on Jüngel and Barth. As examples of Webster's recent writing on the doctrine of God, see ‘Life in and of Himself: Reflections on God's Aseity’, in McCormackBruce (ed.), Engaging the Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), pp. 107–24; ‘Webster's Response to Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, Light in Darkness’, Scottish Journal of Theology 62/2 (2009), pp. 202–10; ‘Trinity and Creation’, International Journal of Systematic Theology 12/1 (Jan. 2010), pp. 4–19; ‘Perfection and Participation’, in WhiteThomas Joseph (ed.), The Analogy of Being (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), pp. 379–94.

36WilliamsRowan, ‘Language, Reality, and Desire in Augustine's De Doctrina’, Journal of Literature and Theology3/2 (July 1989), pp. 38–50.

37 Williams, ‘The Discipline of Scripture’, p. 56. See also his conclusion to ‘Word and Spirit’ in On Christian Theology, p. 127: ‘I hope what I have written may suggest some affinities with the hermeneutic expressed by Luther in the words crux probat omnia.’

38WilliamsRowan, ‘Reading the Bible’, in A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 136.

39 Williams, Resurrection, p. 92.

40 Williams, ‘Historical Criticism and Sacred Text’, p. 225.

41WilliamsRowan, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with the Icons of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. xviii. Williams more explicitly relates icons to scripture on pp. 33–6 of this work.

42 Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 122.

43 Donald MacKinnon, God the Living and the True, p. 22, quoted by RobertsRichard, ‘Theological Rhetoric and Moral Passion in the Light of MacKinnon's Barth’, in SurinKenneth (ed.), Christ, Ethics, and Tragedy: Essays in Honour of Donald MacKinnon (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), p. 5.

44 See e.g. WilliamsRowan, ‘Barth on the Triune God’, in HigtonMike (ed.), Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), p. 127; Williams, ‘Word and Spirit’, pp. 110–15.

45 See Williams, ‘Word and Spirit’, p. 110.

46Ibid., pp. 115, 126.

47Ibid., p. 109.

48 Williams, Wound of Knowledge, p. 70.

49 Williams, Christ on Trial, p. 7.

50 Williams, ‘Word and Spirit’, p. 125.

51BarthKarl, Church Dogmatics, IV/3.1, trans. BromileyGeoffrey W. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961), p. 377.

52 Williams, Wound of Knowledge, p. 20.

53Ibid., p. 15.

54 For the notion of revelation as ‘generative’, see Rowan Williams, ‘Trinity and Revelation’, in On Christian Theology, pp. 131–47.

55WilliamsRowan, ‘Knowing Myself in Christ’, in BradshawTimothy (ed.), The Way Forward? Christian Voices on Homosexuality and the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), p. 18.

56 For a recent take on Williams’ theological habits, see Medi Volpe, ‘“Taking Time” and “Making Sense”: Rowan Williams on the Habits of Theological Imagination’, International Journal of Systematic Theology, article online posting date: 24 Mar. 2013. DOI:10.1111/ijst.12004. While congenial to Williams’ theology, Volpe helpfully questions whether Williams assumes the importance of Christian habits without ‘describing a process of formation that might cultivate these habits’ (p. 11).

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