Anarchy, Church and Utopia: Rowan Williams on Church

Hobson, Theo
Darton, Longman & Todd (2005)
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An Archbishop ought to care about ecclesiology and we ought to care about what he cares about. Thus, Theo Hobson's Anarchy, Church and Utopia was a smart choice; and although he makes his enquiry slightly more mysterious than it need be, it is a very sound attempt to map Rowan Williams' extreme ambivalence towards the institutional church.

Early influences were diverse: he started off in a nonconformist family in Wales before moving to Anglicanism; developed a teenage interest in the Celtic church; he flirted with Rome but rejected Papal infallibility; and then at Cambridge he came under such diverse influences as Anglo-Catholicism, theological liberalism, Barth, Donald Mackinnon (closely associated with George Steiner), Eastern orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Liberation Theology and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Perhaps surprisingly for an Anglican, the three that turned out to be the most important were: Mackinnon, who, apart from being an opponent of an institutional church saw earthly witness in a tragic, Dostoyevskian light (Williams' favourite novelist); Barth who balanced Williams; tendency towards Catholicism with his emphasis on the personal journey; and Wittgenstein who gave his theological 'post modernist' approach to theology which, in this context, means that he sees the value of process, of how we do things, as opposed to product, what we produce.

The only real puzzle in the book is not Williams' complex view but Hobson's supposed puzzlement. Surely anybody who does not realise that the institutions individually and collectively known as The Church or Churches are deeply flawed mechanisms for realising the Kingdom of God on earth is not fit to lead it. Hobson states the problem thus: "... his true allegiance is to the church in general rather than any particular institution, ... He sees the need to join any particular church as a regrettable necessity. He yearns for a non-denominational, supra-institutional Catholicism". A risky claim for the boss of the C of E!

As I write, we are gearing up for the Lambeth Conference, possibly the nastiest ecclesiological punch-up since the 30 Years War, in which context the following from its President is instructive: "Christianity is simply the tradition of speech and practice that transmits the question of Jesus ... It is to this that the church answers, not primarily to considerations about doctrinal accuracy or institutional coherence", but its mission is obscured by "neurotic efforts at control." From the man who thinks his private views on homosexuality have to be ditched because of his office and the chief proponent of the Anglican Communion Covenant, another layer of ecclesiological policing and boundary-setting, these are fascinating insights.

At the heart of Williams dilemma is squaring the imperfect earthly church with the ideal church which is the realisation of the Kingdom. What fuses these is the Eucharist. Ultimately, you can read Williams to mean that the Eucharist is the sole raison d'etre for the Church. Hobson says that although this is coherent it obscures a wide variety of other issues. Williams might be better off ecclesiologically if he were less eucharistically committed.

Overall, this is an immensely readable book and his snapshots of topics and theological controversies which set the context are sharper than the discussion of the major issues. Perhaps for this reason he misleads himself to the conclusion that The Archbishop has missed his way when it seems to me from the material Hobson quotes that there isn't really a way to be missed.