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Sunday, 24 June 2012

In praise of Rowan

Photograph: Tim Ireland/PA

   Rowan Williams, said Colin Thubron, introducing him at a Royal Society of Literature event on Wednesday, is not only perhaps "the most distinguished occupant of his seat since St Anselm", but a scholar, a historian, a theologian, a linguist fluent in "ancient and modern Greek, and even Syriac, and a poet and a translator. "God gave you all these gifts," Thubron went on turning to him and paraphrasing the words of Richard Harries, "and as a punishment made you archbishop".
   This wry tribute set the tone for an evening (with a theme of religious and poetic language) in which the society's members welcomed the archbishop of Canterbury sympathetically as a fellow author.
   Interviewed by Fiona Sampson, Williams linked poetry to liturgy as twin modes of "exploring", driven by a need to to go beyond mere naming - "the impulse to say more than is there , more than you have to". What drives the poet is "wanting to feed into a conversation. Poetry that sets out to have an improving effect on society is doomed. When Auden said, 'poetry makes nothing happen' he was exaggerating, but you know what he means. It's not propaganda, it's an invitation, an offer."
   On liturgy, the archbishop was at his boldest, extolling the Book of Common Prayer and scornfully dismissing modernised liturgies where "the aim is to make things clear". Instead, Williams favoured using "rather wild phraseology and pushing the boundaries, as that way we might discover something unexpected. Pile on the ritual."
   Urged by a questioner to "say something about joy", as he'd provided an overly grim account of poetry, the archbishop complied, talking of joyful moments in Eliot and the need to "give full weight to exhilaration too". But the lover of Geoffrey Hill and Dostoevsky conceded that "I will always go on about struggle", possibly due to "ancestral Celtic gloom". - John Dugdale, The Week in Books, Review, Saturday Guardian 23.06.12.

Those privileged to know Rowan understand why he is often referred to simply as Rowan, rather than by his formal title. An unusual distinction for an archbishop but this sums up the man, the man who has been described as perhaps "the most distinguished occupant of his seat since St Anselm". No pretensions, no desire to humiliate, a man of great learning presenting things as he sees them. It has been said that if he has a fault it his inability to say no. Some of the less scrupulous have played on this getting him into hot water and leaving him open to criticism but often from a different perspective. A summary based on Rowan's valedictory book Faith in the Public Square can be read here.

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