Rowan Williams and responsibility

In ordinary language, “to take responsibility” for someone or something means to tell them what to do and then take the blame when it goes wrong. This is not at all what Rowan Williams means by the phrase — at least it is not at all what he thinks that Dostoevsky means by it. Anyone who has followed his career as Archbishop must suspect that he thinks Dostoevsky is right. But his view of responsibility is the most surprising of all his inversions of normal belief in the book. The three I noticed before we got to responsibility were all fairly conventional among modern Christian intellectuals: God is not an actor in the world; nor an explanatory factor among others; while “an answer to the plain question ‘Do you believe in God’ is going to tell you almost nothing about the meaning of faith”.

It was still shocking to me to discover that “taking responsibility” in Rowan’s world involves a passionate refusal ever to tell anyone what to do: “there is no circumstance in which it is either impossible or useless to seek whatever action or involvement one can that will give space or time to the other for his, or her, flourishing before God … taking responsibility in this sense of allowing space and time is itself a ‘novelistic’ virtue. The person who takes responsibility assumes the burden and the freedom of a kind of authorship. Responsibility is an invitation to others to be freely what they are. This will sound like a paradoxical definition, but … the way the Dostoevsky sets it out … to take responsibility is to act and speak so that the options of others are clarified and not controlled.”

At the very least one can say that this is a view of authority, and of responsibility, which is absolutely alien to the conservative mind and to almost all evangelicals — certainly to evangelicals as a party within Christianity. It is also notably less realistic than the opposite view, which would, I suppose be Brecht if you were being vulgar “Sink down into the slime: embrace the butcher” — I’m sure Mrs Tilton will be along in a moment with the proper German quote — or Machiavelli if we’re being subtle. It is also, I think, a monstrous abdication of the actual responsibilities of an Archbishop. If everyone is entitled to go to heaven in their own way, they are in practice left to get to hell in their own way.

An Archbishop is not an author. Outside the confines of a book, none of us are. We don’t possess the power over others that Rowan wants us to abdicate. Very occasionally, perhaps, in some kinds of loving contact, we might behave like that, but the vast part of our lives, especially in public, involve the exercise of limited power, not the abdication of all of it. To pretend otherwise is just bad faith.

“It is no part of Dostoevsky’s ethic”, he writes “to commend anything like an invitation to the other to take one’s place, a passive acceptance of annihilating injustice”. But I’m buggered if I can see how not. Nor am I helped by the subsequent elaborations of this thought: “Finding an identity in dialogue and finding an identity in taking responsibility converge because finding an identity that is resistant to the demonic and therefore ‘life-bound’ is always in the Dostoevskian world finding an identity in freely creating time and space for the other and voicing their perspective and interest.”

This really does mean — if it means anything — that making decisions, acting, and imposing meaning on the world is somehow demonic. But in that case, all I can say is that everyone in public life is called to the demonic.

“Responsibility” in Rowan’s sense, involves a life which only a hermit, or a revered monk can manage. One does wonder who someone who believes that ended up as an archbishop, and why he persists in the job. I also think this casts some light on what is, to me, the shocking part of his record as Archbishop: the way in which he has betrayed subordinates in trouble. From the treatment of Richard Harries over Jeffrey John — backing him to to the moment when he stabbed him in the back — to the similar treatment of Tom Butler in the row over a Reform curate in Wimbledon, the message that Rowan has sent out is that you can’t trust him in a fight. He will sympathise with the weak, then stand up for the strong. But on the Dostoevskian view of responsibility that he expounds, this is all you need to do, and all you can do: you clarify the options of the weak, which are to do what the strong want; and if this does not satisfy them, well at least you haven’t controlled anyone.

This may not matter in the Kingdom, where the lion lies down with the lamb. But that’s not where we live. There is a very great deal in this book about the beginning of true morality and real love being in a recognition of our own contingency and our limited and time-bound nature. “Watering the earth and asking forgiveness from the natural order shows that that the isolated self has acknowledged its its given limits, its locatedness and materiality, and so the inescapably other character of what it encounters. The person weeping over the earth is repenting of the compulsion to to abandon the present actuality of the earth, and this compulsion is, in [The Brothers Karamazov] especially, a distinctive mark of evil.”

But the whole pattern of Rowan’s archiepiscopate has looked from the cheap seats like a refusal to acknowledge the actual circumstances of being Archbishop of Canterbury. Time and again he has acted as if being the public figure that he is were a burden that would be lifted if he simply acted as if it weren’t there, and he were arguing with friends and pupils in his kitchen and not — for example — talking on the World at One.

This whole argument is of course vulnerable to the charge that Rowan doesn’t himself really believe anything he is saying about responsibility, that he is merely laying out what he supposes Dostoevsky to believe. And I can’t entirely disprove that; but I can’t take the defence seriously either. I don’t think Rowan’s interpretation of “responsibility” could occur to anyone who does not find it attractive and compelling. It seems to me quite clear that this is exactly how he believes Dostoevsky understands the role of Christ in the world, and that he thinks Dostoevsky is right in this understanding. Isn’t it then his duty to follow Christ’s pattern himself?

This post has gone on for long enough, and I have been rather neglecting my own time-bound and materialistic obligations to earn a living. But I might later return to the only idea which makes any sense of this concept of responsibility, and at the same time pins it firmly on Rowan as well as Dostoevsky: the question of to whom, or what, one is responsible when “taking responsibility” in this curious sense. Presumably it’s God. A God who is not an actor in the world presumably demands (and here has found) an Archbishop who isn’t one too. But the God who does not act in the sense of actually doing anything must act all the more in the sense of dramatising and making visible the truth. It’s that quality of public theatre which Rowan’s term in office has most conspicuously lacked.

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One Response to Rowan Williams and responsibility

  1. Mrs Tilton says:

    Zu Befehl, Herr Helminthologenmeister. It’s from Die Maßnahme:

    Versinke in Schmutz
    Umarme den Schlächter [and, as he went on], aber
    Ändere die Welt: sie braucht es!

    Sink into filth, embrace the butcher, but change the world: it needs it!

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