Archbishop Rowan Williams has made both conservatives and liberals in the Church angry with him because of his refusal to play church politics by their rules, both sides at times accusing him of remaining too much in the realm of theory and not engaging the “reality” we live in. Yet, the more I read and hear of him, it seems that the apparent abstraction of his theological thought belies one of the keenest minds for cultural criticism since the late Neal Postman. While I often find myself at odds with Williams on politics and his pursual of relations with Islam, he can always be counted on to bring up thought-provoking points. His critique of our culture’s objectification and sexualization of children is second to none (check out “Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement” for an example). In 2003 Williams gave a series of interviews for Britain’s Channel 4, this is from Doug LeBlanc’s take on them…
Rowan Williams has continued his predecessor’s friendly relations with the mass media, and arguably improved on them. Conversations With Rowan Williams, hosted by former Independent editor Ian Hargreaves, appeared on Britain’s Channel 4 in September 2003. It features 30-minute conversations on four broad themes: “Playing God,” “Rights and Responsibilities,” “Bringing Up Children” and “Faith, Politics, and Tradition.”
In each episode, Archbishop Williams welcomes two guests into a pleasant room at Lambeth Palace. Hargreaves introduces the topics, tosses some icebreaking questions to Williams and — true to his decades-long experience as a journalist — politely asks Williams for more specifics when the archbishop offers a bit too much abstract theory.
Each episode creatively pairs Williams with guests who feel passion for the topic. In “Playing God,” Williams brings his doubts about embryonic stem-cell research into conversation with Sir John Sulston of the Human Genome Project. Sulston invokes ensoulment — the debate about when a developing baby acquires a soul — in explaining why he’s uncomfortable with limiting such research.
Williams responds that ensoulment “is, to me, a rather artificial question, since I think good theology always tells you that the body and soul belong together, at whatever point you talk about a body.”
Williams also talks with Shahana Hashmi, a Muslim who is relying on in-vitro fertilization to create a genetically screened baby. (Stem cells from that child’s umbilical cord would help her young son, Zain, fight off an otherwise fatal blood disorder.)
Mrs. Hashmi is reflective and unapologetic about her efforts to help her son. She says she’s absolutely opposed to genetic screening for cosmetic reasons, and would not consider any technique that meant harm for the baby she hopes to create. When Williams raises concerns about whether the life-saving baby will feel valued as a person, her response is uncharacteristically casual: “Any child, any teenager, finds something to rebel about, whether it be shoes, hair clothes, or ‘You’ve brought me into this world to save my brother.'”
In “Bringing Up Children,” Williams talks with Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, fierce critic of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and one of the stiffest-necked atheists in all of the United Kingdom. Williams keeps Pullman’s claws sheathed, however, by concentrating on something they share: an appreciation of children’s imaginative life.
Pullman sounds downright conservative when explaining why he believes today’s children are “deprived in a sort of sensory sense”: