101 Watson Street, Camp Hill, Brisbane QLD 4152

Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (2016)

Rowan Williams Being Disciples Essentials of Christian Life

Rowan Williams teaches us that discipleship is about stillness.  It is a contemplative stance towards to the world — “an openness to the real roots of transforming action” (17).

This is a happy vision at a time when Christianity is marketed as some kind of verbalistic ideology [1].   We are not ideologues, but wayfarers on a journey to God.  As St Thomas might have said, we are on a journey into the radiant caritas of God, who bestows friendship and wisdom.  Contemplation is at the heart of it all.

Williams has been thinking along these lines for some time. As Archbishop of Canterbury he memorably told the Roman Synod on the New Evangelisation (2013) that

… contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world, and other subjects in the world, with freedom – freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.

In the present work, Williams says that Christ himself is our Master in the way of discipleship–something perhaps savouring of Zen.  At the feet of Christ we must keep an attentive and expectant attitude:

Disciples are expectant in the sense that they take it for granted that there is always something about to break through from the Master, the Teacher, something about to burst through the ordinary and uncover a new light on the landscape. The Master is going to speak or show something; reality is going to open up when you are in the Master’s company and so your awareness … is a little bit like a birdwatcher.(4)

Christ the Master reveals to us new dimensions of reality, leading us into new relationships. So, in our human encounters, we should ask “what is Christ giving me through this person, this group?” (8) We can expect to be led into the company of “the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased”—for this is the company Christ keeps. (11)

We must learn, ultimately, to be ourselves the place where the act of God can come through. We must let Christ’s action come through us, as the Father’s act comes through Christ. (16)

Faith, Hope, and Love

We come to the central section on faith, hope, and love — the Corinthian three which have formed the basis of Christian instruction at least since St Augustine’s Enchiridion (“the Manual”). These three, deep and attractive, can still correct an often intellectualist emphasis on faith alone.

Faith for Williams is not a system or an exhaustive answer, but an attitude of trust implying a “dependable relationship.”  Only in trusting encounter can the truth emerge.  Faith strives beyond ideology to the truth that always reveals itself.  This is the truth which, as St Augustine says, is held in common and is “above our minds”: “[i]f we both see that what you say is true, and if we both say that what I say is true, where is it, I ask you, that we see this? Certainly … both of us see it in the unchangeable Truth itself, which is above our minds. ” (The Confessions, Bk XII)  Truth entails reasoning in relation — faithful dialogue.  And this is counter-cultural in a world grown impatient with “argument, real mutual persuasion.” (Williams 23)

Hope, too, is in relation to another. To imagine a future in hope is to gather up the whole past and to stretch out to the One who lies ahead, so to speak. For Williams, like Augustine, God is this unbounded horizon who makes possible continuity through time — the One who “knows and sees and holds who we are and have been.” (28) As he says in another of his works, God is the “Presence to whom all things are present“ (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (1983)). When we hope, we lean into this reality. Then is our selfhood be secure, for “[i]n the eyes of the presence that never goes away, all that you have been and are is still present and real; it is held together in that unifying gaze” (28) and “[w]hat you don’t understand or see, the bits of yourself you can’t pull together in a convincing story, are all held in a single gaze of love” (28).

Notice that the God in whom we hope gazes back at us, conferring being and identity—a theme which, to my knowledge, Williams develops most fully in Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement. In that work he diagnoses our present disenchantment as the loss of the sense that we are in relation to Another, who interrogates us, forms us, and confers identity. We have lost the sense that we are embedded in community and in time. In his discussion of hope, Williams diagnoses the present crisis as one of continuity, a “social amnesia” — a loss, that is, of the God to whom the past and present lie open, and in whom a future comes to be.

Williams turns to love. He reflects upon our strange loss of love (eros), “…in the sense of the profound desire that makes me who I am, that makes the whole of my life drawn towards something beyond myself which gives meaning—the other person that I love, the God I seek to love” (30-31). It seems that, in consumer capitalism, the great river of our desire runs into a million slip-streams, and is dissipated. And the rhetoric of choice-maximisation (as, for instance, in debates about education) tends to reduce choice to the domain of the “supermarket shelf” (30).

The soul has deeper loves that cannot be satisfied by commodities. Think of the Prophetess Diotoma’s saying, in the Symposium, that some creative souls are “pregnant” with noble conceptions, longing to bring forth wisdom and virtue:

And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name… But the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of states and families, and which is called temperance and justice. And he who in youth has the seed of these implanted in him and is himself inspired, when he comes to maturity desires to beget and generate.

The deepest desires of our lives, our loves, cannot be satisfied in the supermarket. If we are to discover them, says Williams, we need freedom “to discover slowly and patiently the deepest rhythms of our life, and to find the context in which we will grow as God means us to.” (31)

Williams addresses the social and neighbourly dimensions of love (agapeic love) in the succeeding chapters on forgiveness and holiness. Christianity, he says, nurtures our sense of dependence on God, and our dependence on one another. When, in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for daily bread, we ask for that life which is beyond our own resource; when we ask for forgiveness, we renounce any claim to moral independence. We renounce the “privilege of being right or safe” including the safety of the “offended victim” (38). We remember “the humanity that draws [us] into mutual relation”—humanity vulnerable and permeable (37). What is this but love?

For Williams, Jesus brings about a decisive change in the nature of holiness. It can no longer be about being set apart from others, somehow superior, and outmatching them in a contest. Rather it is about being with other people, being “absolutely involved” in the common life (48). He says:

“holy people … actually make you feel better than you are. … [T]he holy person somehow enlarges your world, makes you feel more yourself, opens you up, affirms you. They are not in competition. They are showing us something that it’s wonderful simply to have in the world.” (50)

To arrive where we began

So Williams concludes: the basis of all this is nurturing an openness to the act of God in silence, in stillness. Silence is “the sacrament of the age to come” — as the Syrian saint Isaac of Ninevah beautifully said — for in silence we live the life of the future, the life of the kingdom (80). The truth shines out; past and future are enlivened, and we know God as the desire of our lives. Growth becomes possible for us, as we are led into God’s future; and joy breaks forth as “something overflowing, pushing outwards”. (80)

Being Disciples is a welcome contribution at a time when the Church is anxious for new ways of nurturing believers. We are waiting for something deeper and more attractive than what has gone before—and, we might say, something less doctrinaire. Williams offers a very accessible work which complements his recent introductory works on Christianity — Tokens of Trust, Being Christian, Meeting God in Mark, and Meeting God in Paul.


Chris Tyack


[1] Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, p. 63