Lost Icons

The following is a selection of highlights from a lecture Archbishop Rowan Williams gave in June at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Anyone who has read Williams’ theology knows that it is both very cruciform and concerned with avoiding any sort of gnosticism. His essay–thought experiment really–that he presented several years ago to the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement in England entitled “The Body’s Grace” was both very good and troubling in the questions it presented about how we’re to treat same-sex attraction. It was very good in that it avoided many of the cliches we see in current rhetoric, and troubling because of some of the questions raised about the permissibility of homosexual behavior from a Christian perspective. The lasting impression it made upon me, however, was its refocusing of the debate away from strict heterosexual= intrinsically good and homosexual= intrinsically bad thinking, and more toward a consideration of motivation and what it actually means to have a disordered sexuality, i.e. any sort of sexuality that seeks to deprive the other of individuality, objectify or in any other way use another person toward our own ends. That traditional Christian theology sees homosexuality as inherently disordered does not take away from the positive fact that Williams challenges us to examine all of our relations to ensure that we are not forcing our own meanings onto another, or denying the image of God in which they are created. He pushes this understanding forward very well, I think, in his book Lost Icons: Reflections of Cultural Bereavement, where he talks clearly, for example, about the many ways in which our culture deprives children of their childhood and instead forces them to become sexual subjects at younger and younger ages, putting them in a situation where they are made to become both overly sexual at earlier ages as well as parentified children to childish adults who’ve never learned to tell the difference between a child’s wants and needs and those of a grown up.

Since he has being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, it seems that Archbishop Williams’ personal beliefs have taken a more conservative turn in the area of human sexuality, and he has indicated as much in various interviews, though never going into much detail. I doubt his views are “conservative enough” for some still, but he has also maintained consistently that there is a difference between an academic theologian asking certain questions in order to engage in a conversation on a given topic and a Bishop or Archbishop who must always teach what the Church teaches on a given issue, especially one that is controversial. Hence his support for Lambeth resolution 1:10 and his insistence that the various transgressions of the American and Canadian Churches cannot be justified by rights talk.

The video below, I believe, demonstrates very well why Williams takes seriously the question of what it is Christians are supposed to do with our bodies. He reminds us of something very important in our Christian tradition: the fact that bodies matter. It really makes a difference what we do with them. In contrast to various paganisms and mystery cults that inhabited the Greco-Roman world, and the sort of neo-gnosticism that has taken root in our own day, for Christians the body is of utmost importance. As someone put it, it is never appropriate for a Christian to talk about someone “having a body” for Christians we are bodies. Enjoy this selection (it’s a little over 3 minutes) and if you have time, watch the whole thing here.

Note that these highlights begin in an odd place, in the midst of one of Williams’ thoughts. He’s just finished talking about how odd it is that so many modern people are enamored with philosophical systems that Christianity “saw off” in its first few centuries, systems referred to as gnostic, “we can see” he says, “how an affirmative view of the material world began to take root within early Christianity,” and then he says “but surely, people may say, surely early Christianity was neurotic” which is where the clip begins. Williams himself is not saying that early Christianity was neurotic (at least not totally), he’s actually showing why that is not the case. Interesting editing.