A review: Rowan Williams, Why study the past ?

Rowan Williams, Why study the past ? The quest for the historical church (London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005)

[This review appeared in the Bulletin of the Christianity and History Forum some years back, but has not been available online before now; and re-reading both it and the book itself suggests that it might usefully be made available now. It seems to have attracted very little attention from reviewers either at the time or since.]

The study of the history of the Church often has both added complexity and urgency for those working within a framework of personal faith or institutional allegiance. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2003 Sarum Theological Lectures, subtle studies of the self-awareness of the early church and of the writing of church history during the Reformation period, offer a stimulating series of meditations on the particularities of approach and attitude that might conduce towards a critical yet useful church history.

Williams rightly rejects an uncritical acceptance of past belief or practice as automatically normative for contemporary Christians, or as easy practically to apply. Also rejected is the related of habit of mind that tends to idealise a particular period of time as one of, as it were, pre-lapsarian purity, whether that of the early church, the Reformation period or of an Anglican ‘Golden Age’ in the seventeenth century.  The assumption of a past that is simply ‘the present in fancy dress’ leaves us incapable of being challenged or surprised by that past.

Williams however also comes down equally firmly against a glib assertion of unknowability; the sense that the gulf between ourselves and the past, far from being so easy to traverse, must in principle be unbridgeable. Such a counsel of despair leaves us adrift in a perpetual present, unable to engage with the causes of our present condition.

Such a centrist position is of course not new, and arguably reflects the working practice of most historians, whether religious or not. The core of Williams’s argument is however much more than the familiar rehearsal of the epistemological problems of historical knowledge, so often heard in the last ten to fifteen years.  Christians must necessarily have both a particular interest in, and a particular approach to, the church’s past. Williams sees the task of engaging with the past as one not purely of historical empathy for its own sake, but as a form of understanding and engaging with one’s fellow Christians in a way as necessary and as profound as cross-cultural and ecumenical conversation in the present. A robust, if perhaps uncomfortable, theology of the church as the Body of Christ would suggest that there is only the thinnest of veils between our own life as the Body and that of Christians in previous times, and that the church of today is the autonomous author of its own experience in a much more circumscribed way than is often supposed. Ever mindful of a constant and profound tension between the strangeness of the past and its urgency as our ‘family history’, it is the case that ‘our immersion in the ways in which they responded becomes part of the way we actually hear the call ourselves …’ (p.31) This leads Williams to a brief, yet to this reviewer, profoundly important, consideration of the degree to which the worship and conversation of the churches should embody languages and visible practices that both act as symbols of contemporary unity and enable a continuing ‘conversation’ with Christians of previous generations. This, Williams argues, may be equally if not more important than questions of structural or legislative unity that have tended to be the primary focus of current thinking on unity. By here eschewing direct engagement with the major issues facing the Anglican communion today, Williams offers a general approach with profound implications for them all.

The implications of Williams’ argument so far are equally as significant for the approach of the individual historian, and in places make uncomfortable reading for one drilled in the scrupulous agnosticism of the secular academy. His focus is not so much on the technique of church history or its sources, but on the attitude in which it might be conducted. This provokes, for this reviewer,  much thought not only on the role of the ‘specialist’ church historian within the churches, but on the potential fruits of greater engagement of all Christians with their past. The attitude he suggests is one that Williams worked out in greater detail in his Anglican Identities (2004), (an attitude he there described as ‘passionate patience’) in which we find ‘moments of bewilderment and moments of triumphant grasp’. In an attitude of ‘respect and patience’ we ‘acquire not so much a confidence in our solutions as a capacity to continue, a trust in the process.’ (p.90). The task of engaging with the past as Christians emerges then not so much as a disinterested, ‘scientific’ dissection  (a product of modernity par excellence) but as a form of spiritual discipline. If it is to learn from its past, the church must engage in a process of radical ‘de-centering’ and recover a sense of living ‘in the wake’ of divine action. It is only through a voluntary loss of self that the church can hope to recognise and come to grips with the history of divine action, and recognise the otherwise bewildering diversity of the manifestations of that action. Our collective wish to control and then deploy the past uncritically for present aims remains the barrier to a truer apprehension of that past.

In short, Rowan Williams has produced a series of meditations that are challenging and often profound, and may be read with profit by both Christian historians and historians of Christianity of all traditions and working in all periods.

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