Rowan Williams on the “accessibility” of the church

Rowan_Williams_1110959cThrough various blog links I stumbled upon an interesting interview with Rowan Williams. If you spend any time on TF you know I am an avid  – though novice – reader of the Archbishop. I wouldn’t call it a scholarly investment; I simply find him provoking and refreshing in equal measure. Williams helps get me excited about theology and the church again when I start losing hope in either (his sermons particularly).

The interview touches on the “accessibility” – or relevance – of the church in our contemporary setting. While there is certainly food for discussion on that topic, his comments are illuminating about the “downward spiral” of having low expectations of young people. I see this in the classroom almost every week: so little has been expected of my students in the past that I fear many of them expect little of themselves.

Ian Hislop: How do you balance that attempt to be of the age, to be accessible, and yet not be banal.

Archbishop of Canterbury: The point is often being confident enough about what you are inviting people into, which is not simply an entertainment but a journey and process of change. ….I went with the family to Taize for a few days in the summer…. one of the things I shall remember for a long time is the sound of 5,000 teenagers being quiet. That was an environment that didn’t make any concessions to entertaining anyone. It assumed that if you were there, you wanted to be taken a bit deeper. That’s the crucial thing.

IH: I remember being told by my teenagers that Church was boring and thinking, good it’s meant to be boring. You need a lot more boring in your life and in the middle of it, you’ll find something.

ABC: I have to confess that has been in the past one of my regular confirmation sermons. Get used to it. It’s not always going to be fun. Life isn’t always going to be fun and there’s something to be said for sitting things out.

IH: This particularly applies to young people…there is a tendency to assume they have no attention span….

ABC: We set our assumptions and expectations very low…. It’s a downward spiral.

IH: Keeping it simple may not be good enough, enriching enough.

ABC: That’s right. While I hope that I don’t set out to be boring in church – shut up everyone! –  I also hope that when I stand up and perform the liturgy, I am doing something that is not just reflecting to them what they already know and what they feel comfortable with. That somehow there is a journey forward to be undertaken. We expect people to grow…. if we don’t provide an environment where people grow we only have ourselves to blame. Very often what the Church past and present has been in danger of doing is offering people a thinned down experience whereas I would like to say it is utterly the opposite.


7 thoughts on “Rowan Williams on the “accessibility” of the church

  1. Point taken – very helpful words (though I always find it interesting how high church folk always seem to wear their boringness as a badge of honor!).

  2. The experience of many teachers has been that to get students paying attention, you have to get them personally invested. And to to that? Get subjects that relate to their real lives and concerns. Which means here … find out which theological issues really matter to them.

    Suppose you start a debate where you argue that God is a Republican. Or God does not exist. Or you saw God yesterday at the pizza place.

    Then tie that to academic concerns and method?

    Just a few teaching tricks. Granted, you have to be entertaining at first; but then, once the students understand that these stuffy ideas relate to issues they really do care about … then teaching the academic stuff is a little easier.

  3. Good thoughts Kent …

    Our community is going through a tough excommunication at the moment and it us really waking all of us up…

    Glad that you students can have someone to wake them up!

  4. I was doing a google search for Rembrantd’s “Prodigal Son” and your blog was in the list of places to find an image of that painting. Upon scanning the “recent posts” box the phrase ‘”accessibility” of the church’ caught my eye as I just finished some sermon prep study time on Romans 5:1-11 one part of which includes “…we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”

    What got me going on the search for an image of Rembrant’s painting was a reference to that painting in one of my sources, Ben Witherington III’s “Paul’s Letter to the Romans.” Access… accessibility… may the Lord help us to be points of access to the accessibility won by our Lord into the grace of God for any and all… and may he forgive us when we blockade that access.

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