Simon Mayo interviews Rowan Williams on Radio Five Live

BBC Radio 5 Live, 6 December 2005

Fulcrum Transcript

Note: The transcript has been made by Fulcrum with BBC permission and section headings have been added. The headings, on this page, are hyperlinked into their sections.


C S Lewis and Narnia

True Spirit of Christmas

Leadership as Archbishop of Canterbury

Central Values and Priorities

Philip Pullman and 'His Dark Materials'

Schism and the Anglican Communion

Lesbian and Gay Anglicans in Nigeria

Civil Partnerships and Christian Marriage

Sex and Religion

Encouraging Marriage

Gee Walker and Forgiveness

Earthquake in Pakistan and God's Action in the World

Prayer this Christmas

Reading the Bible

The Simpsons

Conclusion: Joy in the Job?


Simon: Good afternoon to you, Dr Williams.

Rowan: Good afternoon.

Simon: How do we find you, sir?

Rowan: You find me full of anticipation for Christmas, and rather busy.

C S Lewis and Narnia

Simon: I'm sure. Well, thank you for your time. We've just been speaking to William Moseley, one of the stars of the new Narnia movie, 'Chronicles of Narnia' - he plays Peter. Are you looking forward to this film? Were you a C S Lewis fan?

Rowan: I was, yes, I'm looking forward hugely to it. And it's quite a challenge to see how it will come on the big screen. I suppose I associate it a bit with those BBC adaptations of some years ago, which we've got all of on video. This is a quite new thing, a step into a new level of exposure, I think, for the stories.

Simon: Were you a fan of C S Lewis as a boy?

Rowan: Very much so, yes. Yes, very much. And in my teens as well, when I read some of the books about religion and about prayer and so on. Yes.

Simon: Did you have them read to you? Do you read them to your children? I don't know, C S Lewis is taken by some Christian groups as almost a mythical, iconic figure that you can't really argue with. Where do you see him?

Rowan: I don't know. I think that is rather a pity, because any real author with a real imagination - you can't make a myth out of them. You've got to read them on their own terms. I certainly do read them aloud and think they wear amazingly well. I don't think Lewis was infallible, but think he was one of the great Christian imaginations of the twentieth century.

Simon: How many of the young people who go and see this film, do you think, would be aware that it is - and I know that Douglas Gresham has said that it is not a Christian allegory - but, if we just use that phrase for the moment - how many of the children, and the parents, will be aware of that, do you feel?

Rowan: I guess rather a small number, but the whole point of doing - if you like - a Christian story, in heavy disguise, is that you do get some of the message across, so that if anybody comes across it later in life, maybe they'll think: 'Oh yes, - click - I see now' and make a connection.

Simon: The Bishop of Oxford was writing an article at the weekend. He said: 'You don't have to be a Christian to enjoy the C S Lewis Narnia stories, but they do contain a profound message.' What is that message?

Rowan: I don't think there's just one message, because, really, the Narnia stories are a set of fantasy stories based on the idea that the Christian narrative, the Christian picture of the world, is true. So, there's a lot about sin and forgiveness, there's a lot about acknowledging your failures honestly. There's a terrific amount about honesty in those books, if you look hard. The thing that really gets Aslan annoyed, in the books, is when you don't own up to your failures, when you try and lie about yourself, or to yourself. That's a big message. And then, of course, in 'The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe' there's this great central theme of sacrifice: that somehow, everything is made alright, by this massive act of self-sacrifice.

Simon: I believe C S Lewis was slightly worried about it ever becoming a movie because he was specifically afraid of Disneyfication.

Rowan: He was.

Simon: And, of course, Disney are involved. It must be very difficult to get that Aslan character right, because he has to be loveable, on the one hand, but also terrifying.

Rowan: That's right. And that is one of the most interesting things about the picture of God, if you like, that is given through the figure of Aslan. Yes, this is somebody who is more warm, who is more welcoming than anything you can imagine, and at the same time, really terrifying because he is completely incapable of being bribed or talked out of his views. There is absolute integrity in him, and that's a frightening thing.

Simon: Do you think, - I think Father Christmas actually appears in the story - it is being released in December. Is it an opportunity for the church to, sort of, renew its Christmas message, do you think? Can it use that?

Rowan: Yes, I think so. People write a bit cynically about the Church exploiting this, but - well, the truth is rather the other way round, I think. This is a story, this is a film, which trades on the Christian message. It would not be what it is, were it not for the Christian story.

Simon: In America, of course, they're marketed it specifically to some Christian groups, I think, they have learnt from Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of The Christ' which played very well. That was a tactic that would have worked less well here. Do you have any reservations about the way it can be marketed to, sort of, almost exploit religious interest?

Rowan: I don't think that's the way it's likely to go here, frankly. And Lewis does not really need that sort of exploitation. He's already built into most peoples' mental world - or a lot of peoples' mental world - people who know about the books or have seen something of them.

True Spirit of Christmas

Simon: Do you see much - as people would start seeing this film - thinking about Christmas and a winter that starts to include Christmas, as the film suggests?. Do you see much of the true spirit of Christmas around this year, Archbishop?

Rowan: Yes, I do. I was down in Canterbury at the weekend, doing the annual St Nicholas parade through the streets of Canterbury. You always get, on that occasion, a big collection for local charities. Last weekend, it was for young carers in Kent - young people who have to look after disabled relatives and so forth: a huge outpouring of generosity. I don't think that sort of thing gets any less, year by year.

Simon: There's a vicar, called the Revd Robin Harvey, who carried out a survey of shops and he found that out of 2140 packets of cards, only 23 packs, 1 per cent, were of a religious nature. His church is fighting what he described as, in a statement, 'the manufacturers of political correctness, taking Jesus out of Christmas'. He's got a point, hasn't he?

Rowan: I don't know that it is political correctness, though. I think, ever since there's been Christmas cards, there have been non-religious Christmas cards. When I was a boy, I can remember asking myself: 'what on earth have stagecoaches got to do with Christmas?' - because half the cards we had seem to have stagecoaches on them, or robins for that matter, really. There they all are. It's really just a question of the fact that all through the history of Christmas cards, people have shied a bit away from religious scenes, quite often.

Simon: I'm just trying to think if there is anything of spiritual significance in a stagecoach...

Rowan: Well it's on a journey from somewhere to somewhere, so I suppose you could make something out of that, if you're really desparate.

Simon: Yes, I suppose you could. You switched on the Christmas lights in Lambeth, didn't you?

Rowan: Yes, I did.

Simon: Lambeth is often one of those areas of London where you get, you know, 'Christmas isn't happening this year'. So, what's the truth of the matter?

Rowan: Well, the truth of the matter is that I was asked to switch on the lights and say something about the meaning of Christmas and I talked about the Christian meaning of Christmas, as I'm bound to do, I think. So, I think we can get a bit overanxious about some of these stories. There's certainly a trend in some quarters to be overanxious about the public visibility of Christianity.

Simon: Which does, in a way, tie back to the Narnia story about having 'winter without Christmas', and you do hear stories of having 'Winter Lights'.

Rowan: Yes. It's the old pagan thing, really. This is the midwinter festival and the Church, very early on, latched onto the idea that it was good to have a festival in midwinter, but that they had a better story to tell. And that's still true.

Leadership as Archbishop of Canterbury

Simon: We're going to be talking about leadership after three o'clock, because, as you know, there is a new Conservative leader about to be announced. If you were to describe your job, to someone who didn't really know anything about the Anglican Communion, how would you go about writing a job spec?

Rowan: How long have I got?

Simon: Well, as long as you like. You're the Archbishop.

Rowan: I think what I'd say is, the very first thing in the job is to try and set a tone. That sounds a bit pompous, but what I mean is, you try and talk about and model ways of getting on with other people, that aren't just about bullying or manipulation or whatever. You try and encourage an atmosphere in the Church of people listening to each other, and being grateful for each other. That's at the top of my list, and second, I think is: 'Can you help make sense of people to one another?' Imagine you've got a room with two people shouting at each other. How do you then set about getting each of them to listen to the other and begin to learn their language a little bit? So, a lot of - not shuttle diplomacy in the literal sense but - a sort of shuttling backwards and forwards between different groups of people saying: 'Look, listen, this is what they are really trying to say. Don't jump to conclusions.'

Simon: And how is the tone setting going?

Rowan: Patchy, I think, is probably the answer. But it's bound to be. That is what human beings are. Some people get a terrific adrenalin- rush from conflict and public dramas, and some people don't. And I think you've just got to work at that, and keep working at the idea that it is worthwhile - understanding each other - and that it is actually one of the things that the New Testament suggests Christians might do with each other.

Simon: The political comparison is interesting. Charles Kennedy's style of leadership was questioned by one of his former speech writers, who said that the party wants to be led, rather than necessarily being chaired. What does the Church of England want? Does it want to be led, or does it want to be chaired?

Rowan: A very interesting question. Somebody said yesterday, actually, in a discussion that I was part of, that people often talk about wanting 'leadership' but they don't know what 'followership' means. And often when people say: 'Give us firm leadership' they mean: 'Just play back to us what we want to hear, and we'll feel better about it.' But the notion that leadership might be trying to find, perhaps a rather fragile common view that can pull in enough people together to make a difference - I'm not sure that's quite so popular.

Simon: Who needs to learn about 'followership' then?

Rowan: All of us do. All of us do and Christians generally.

Simon: Well, you have to lead and we have to follow? That would be suggestive of that, wouldn't it?

Rowan: I'm not sure I'd buy into that completely. I've got to, as I see it, to witness. I've got to stand up and say that certain things are true and that certain things matter and certain things are priorities. And I think that's leadership of a kind. What I hope is that people can see not that it's worth following me, but that it's worth putting some energy and investment into, and even making some sacrifices for those values, those priorities.

Central Values and Priorities

Simon: What are those central values and those priorities?

Rowan: The central things for me, what I want to witness to, that the Church doesn't exist because we've decided that it will, because we like the idea, because we get on with each other - it exists because of God. So everything in the church has to begin and end in the worship and praise of God. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than that. And the most important form that takes for a Christian, is gratitude. Something extraordinary has happened to us, something has overtaken us, something we could never have expected. Back to Narnia again, really. What happens is a surprise. The winter breaks, the weather changes. So, that's at the very heart of everything, and that, I think, ought to put a little bit into perspective our absolute passion for trying to get everything right at every point. We have to try. We make mistakes. And there is always a God great enough to pick up the pieces and give us a fresh start.

Philip Pullman and 'His Dark Materials'

Simon: A question from Phil in London from email. Speaking of children's books and films, I saw the Archbishop having a debate at the National Theatre with Philip Pullman. I wonder if he would echo the Vatican's views that books such as 'His Dark Materials' are divisive or whether he saw them as positive, by getting children involved with deeper questions of life, spirituality and morality and would you let your children buy and read them?

Rowan: The answer is yes, I would and yes, I do, because I think they are important for getting children involved in these deeper questions. I don't agree with his world picture, in all kinds of ways, and - well - we've had that debate in public. But I think the questions raised are extraordinarily deep. And, I think I said at the time, when I went to see it at the National Theatre - the play's on at the National Theatre - in the interval a crowd of schoolchildren came on and came to talk to me and asked, was I shocked by it all? And what did I find difficult? And we had a very searching conversation about it, of the kind, I think, which is just the sort of conversation that ought to emerge from those plays. What sort of God is being portrayed in those books? The real God, or a particular kind of fiction? What are the real values - what matters most in this world? What do people give their lives for?

Simon: Philip Pullman, of course, detests C S Lewis...

Rowan: Can't stand him, absolutely can't stand him.

Simon: Did you manage to change his mind at all?

Rowan: No, not yet, I'm afraid.

Simon: Did he change your mind on anything?

Rowan: No.

Simon: So, there wasn't a meeting of minds there at all. I think he respected you, judging from some of the comments he made afterwards.

Rowan: Well, we had a very, very engaged discussion and I think the real - to me the nub of the discussion was when I got round to asking why isn't there a Jesus figure in his books. His God is almost entirely a kind of remote authority figure. There isn't a Jesus, a Saviour figure. So why not? What is going on there? And that opened up some new things. When I say 'neither of us changed out minds' I don't think that that happens in these debates, but 'did either of us enlarge the other's mind?' - I hope so, he certainly did mine.

Schism and the Anglican Communion

Simon: We were talking about what your job involved and there are some grand themes which are interesting to discuss. There's the nuts and bolts of being the Archbishop. There are 'Church of England parish notices' and some of these are very important issues. And most of the headlines recently about the world-wide Anglican Communion have featured words like 'rebels' and 'schism' and 'row'. Is there anything wrong, in your opinion, with schism. Is it always a bad thing?

Rowan: I think if schism were always a bad thing we would not have had the Reformation and the Church of England wouldn't be here. You know there are life and death issues, I think, where some people in the Church have to say: 'This is a real major conscience question: we can't stick together.' That's what happened at the Reformation. It's what happened in the German churches in the 1930s. And I think it's important that we remember those cases are there in our history. I think we've also got to be aware of the danger of - something again really - romanticizing, overegging our present situation and thinking, perhaps, we've got to those situations when we haven't, we're just dramatizing.

Simon: So, in your opinion, can this divide between the African churches - to oversimplify it - on one side and the liberal churches of Canada and America and, to an extent, this country, can that be bridged?

Rowan: I don't know yet. I think we've got a lot of work to do. I think it means that everybody has to make some sacrifices in this. And it's easy to say that, but I think it has to be true. If we behave as a church, that is as a body, trying to find a mind together, rather than just a group of pressure groups, interest groups, maybe we can. But that does require quite a change of heart.

Simon: Do you see any evidence of people changing their minds, changing their heart? Because to an outsider, it might appear actually that schism has already happened.

Rowan: Absolutely. It looks like a stand off, doesn't it? The fact is though, that both the United States and Africa, to use your two polar opposites, are much more varied than any view from Mars might suggest. And the trouble is that a lot of public discussion is the view from Mars, it's the long distance picture, where the extreme opposites seem to stand out more clearly. Now, I have to spend a fair amount of time traveling around bits of the Communion outside the North Atlantic world - I had a time in Burundi this summer, and a visit to Sudan is coming up next year sometime - and on the ground, what matters most often is the kind of support that is given informally by Christians in one bit of the world to Christians in another bit: the links that exist through the Mothers Union, through informal networks of friendship and partnership.

Lesbian and Gay Anglicans in Nigeria

Simon: On that subject, in the current issue of the Church Times, there's a story about 800 lesbian and gay Anglicans from all over Nigeria, who met together. I don't know if you've seen this story. They met for the first time. Their organization being 'Changing Attitude of Nigeria'. Their Director has said that: 'The Archbishop of Nigeria, the Most Revd Peter Akinola, has been telling the other Primates and Provinces an untruth when he says that gays and lesbians did not exist in Nigeria and that the church should stop colluding with cultural repression and discrimination against lesbian, gay and bisexual people. It's the first time gay Anglicans in Nigeria have met together, I think. Judging from this account, they were quite scared, actually, as to what the implications might be. What would be your message to them?

Rowan: I think my message into the whole situation would be actually what I tried to say this time last year really, in my Advent letter, that there are all sorts of complicated questions about the ethics of same-sex behaviour. What I think there is no question about, is the right of homosexual people to tolerance, civil rights, and public respect, from Christians as from everybody else. And it's very difficult when the questions - these complex questions of ethics - get tangled in with a whole set of cultural prejudices. I hope we can pull those apart a bit.

Simon: And we can look at the situation in this country in just a moment. And so your message to these gay Anglicans in Nigeria would be: 'Hang on, keep talking'? Because it doesn't sound as though Archbishop Akinola even is prepared to accept that they exist.

Rowan: My message, I think, would be: 'They have a right to be listened to, to be respected as human beings, as in any culture.'

Simon: Do you think they're going to get that respect? Do you think they are going to get that right?

Rowan: We'll have to wait and see.

Simon: But they should have it, in your opinion?

Rowan: Yes.

Civil Partnerships and Christian Marriage

Simon: It's an issue in this country, as well of course. And, as from yesterday, Civil Partnerships are legal and legislation came into force permitting civil ceremonies. Is this a welcome development?

Rowan: I think, in so far as it gives people certain rights in the public sphere, certain economic and property rights, which wouldn't otherwise exist, yes. I think the difficulty is, there's a sort of muddle about this, both in some of the Government language about it and some of the media language about it. It's instantly been dubbed 'gay marriage', as if that were the only thing it were about. But as several of the papers have remarked - I've seen things in The Guardian, The Telegraph and elsewhere about this - it's a legal arrangement between two people. It's about certain commitments that allow certain legal dispositions and economic dispositions to be made. It doesn't presuppose there's a sexual relationship, it doesn't presuppose that there is anything like - well, anything like? there is exactly like - what we would call, as Christians, a marriage. But it's very hard to keep those two things apart in the public eye.

Simon: So this is a limited welcome.

Rowan: A limited welcome. Welcome in so far as it rectifies injustices or inequities that there may have been before.

Simon: And if one of your priests wanted to become involved in a civil partnership?

Rowan: Well, the guidelines issued by the House of Bishops are quite clear. If a priest wants to enter into a civil partnership, then he or she has to give an undertaking that this is not an active sexual relationship, because I don't think it's proper that the Church should have its doctrine and discipline changed by the decision of the State. That's the bottom line there.

Simon: Do you think these couples who are going to have a civil partnership shortly and have some kind of ceremony - do you think that they should be able to have it blessed in church, or there should be some kind of ceremony which would give blessing?

Rowan: Well, again, the Bishops of the Church of England have said, no, they don't think that is appropriate. It's partly because, I don't think any of us would know quite what we were blessing in any particular instance. The danger of making...

Simon: ...presumably you'd be blessing two people who are saying publicly that they want to commit themselves to each other for the foreseeable future - same as in a wedding.

Rowan: A wedding includes rather more than that. A wedding is between a man and woman. It has the possibility, normally, of family. It's a social fact. It's got two thousand years, or more, of theology behind it. And I think what the Archbishops of the Anglican Church said, a couple of years ago when they met, was: 'You need to be clearer about having a theology before you have a service - or something like that.' So, I think it's right to hold back on that. We don't want this confused with marriage, at the moment. We don't want orders of service which, if you like, run up to the frontiers of marriage and then just pull back a little bit. It's a very complicated issue, and I think how people deal with it pastorally, in individual cases, is going to be difficult.

Simon: But in the fullness of time, maybe once people have thought about it, and the theology has caught up, might it be something that...?

Rowan: We'd need to have changed quite a lot before - well, I won't speculate about that.

Sex and Religion

Simon: Well, here's a sort of broader question, Archbishop. You could probably fill hours with this one as well. 'Could you explain why religion in general seems to have such a huge issue with what people do in bed?'

Rowan: You're quite right, you could about this one for hours.

Simon: We mustn't run into the news. It does seem to be that wherever you look in the world, or wherever organized faith is, there are restrictions on sexual behaviour, or they like to lay down some rules. Why do you think that might be?

Rowan: I'll give you a good reason and a bad reason. I think the good reason is that religious people think that every aspect of your life ought to manifest something about what you believe about God or the Sacred, and that includes sex. And therefore it's as important to get that right as it is to get anything else right. That's the good reason. The bad reason is that religion is often about control, anxiety and sex is an area where control and anxiety can run riot. If you are afraid of being out of control, you got to control other people's behaviour. Religion can sometimes be a good tool for that.

Simon: And are those things constantly in some kind of balance? And it would be unhealthy if we're tipped towards your second reason and we're slightly...?

Rowan: I think the second reason is very questionable, very unhealthy. I think we've got to keep our eyes very firmly on the idea that if sex matters, in religious terms, it's because God wants it to show something about the kind of God he is.

Simon: As you move around the Anglican Communion, do you see too many people, or just some people, more interested in your second reason there, rather than the first?

Rowan: There are some. There always have been. There have been people here in England, and there are people in the States, and it's not only supposed conservatives, who have these hang ups. It's often people who call themselves liberals as well, frankly.

Encouraging Marriage

Simon: You may well have seen comments today from a former senior judge, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Schloss, saying that the Government isn't doing enough to encourage us to get married, and to stay married. Is she right?

Rowan: I think she's got a very serious point. I think she's underlined some of the ways in which certain privileges, certain extras, have been taken away from marriage, and I think she's identified the fact that we're just deeply confused by what we mean by marriage, as a society. The notion that this is a life-long partnership which is somehow fundamental, is central, in the bringing up of children. Even if you grant there are other forms of family life, other forms of nurture, this remains the heart of the matter. I think we're losing that sense rather rapidly, rather worryingly.

Simon: I suppose the squaring of the circle here is to promote marriage, to encourage marriage, to believe in marriage, and yet also to include people for whom that is not an option.

Rowan: It's the biggest pastoral challenge, I think, and I guess the Church has some experience of this in how it has dealt, at times, with marital breakdown and divorce. People would say: 'This is not how it ought to be, but this is how it is. How do we deal with what is, without betraying out commitment to what we think is central, what really matters?'

Simon: Do you think the Church, then, does enough to promote marriage? Can it do more? Could you do more?

Rowan: I don't know. I think we probably need to have a more robust and more positive view of marriage which we get across, because...

Simon: What do you mean by that?

Rowan: I mean, quite often, religious people tend to talk as though marriage were the kind of default position: 'This is what you ought to do. In the absence of anything better to do, you can get married. And you ought to get married.' Now, set that aside, and put instead the idea that marriage is a 'calling', that actually God wants most of the human race to take this amazing enterprise, this rather exciting, risky enterprise, of committing yourself to one person, which is a colossal risk. Because somehow, by taking that risk, you become more yourself and they become more themselves and thereby you make a really, really nourishing atmosphere for other human beings to grow up in. It's that kind of positive view, that 'calling', and that sense of exciting risk and adventure that I don't think we're communicating very well.

Gee Walker and Forgiveness

Simon: You will have been struck, Dr Williams, as many people were, by the comments made by Gee Walker, the mother of Anthony Walker, forgiving the two young men convicted of his murder.

Rowan: Extraordinary. I had the privilege of meeting Gee Walker a couple of weeks ago, and listening to her on this subject. And I think what is impressive - what is more that just impressive, in some ways, just staggering - is that she's not pretending it's easy. She's saying that her life has been ruined and yet that there's no other thing she can think of doing, but working to forgive. And that, in its honesty about the cost and in its clarity about what is demanded, is just so exceptional.

Simon: And given the hideous brutality of her son's murder, many would have - while being full of admiration for her - wondered if they would be able to respond so generously.

Rowan: I guess we all wonder that, when these cases come up. What is striking, I think, is that in at least some cases where it looks the worse - you know, the Omagh bombings, this particular horrendous murder - it seems to me the people who suffer the most do sometimes have the freedom to say these things. And the very fact that happens, I just think is something of a miracle. I look at it, I think: 'OK, if it's possible for them, it's possible for me.'

Simon: Is forgiveness a concept you would always advocate in all circumstances? I was just wondering if anger and retaliation, you know, ever have their place?

Rowan: Anger is a very slippery, a very dangerous thing to get involved in because - what does it serve? Who does it serve? Does it just make me feel better, or does it change things? Very often people get caught up in anger which gives them a feeling of energy, but doesn't actually change them or anything else. That's what has got to be looked at. And it's because of that, I think, that forgiveness is always put before us as what we have got to work towards. But, the trouble is that in a sentimental society, people sometimes think forgiveness is just shrugging your shoulders and just saying: 'Oh, well that's alright then.' And it's not that. It can't be that. And there are times, I think, when I have to say: 'Well, I can't forgive Anthony Walker's murderers, it's for Gee to do that. I don't know. I stand back. The work of forgiveness has to be between the people most hurt and the people who have been doing the most hurting.'

Earthquake in Pakistan and
God's Action in the World

Simon: You visited Pakistan recently. I wonder, could you describe some of the scenes of the earthquake devastation you saw?

Rowan: Well, the scenes that we saw most closely were in a refugee camp in Islamabad, where we saw a couple of very, very impressive projects going forward. The most striking, I think, was children from the Kashmir region, where, of course, the devastation has been about the worst, - children there being taught by teachers from their own area in the syllabus would have been used back home, if they were still in Kashmir. Teachers from the areas who had been displaced being trained, having their skills enlarged. It was as if the disaster had been seen by some people as a real opportunity to do something creative. And what stuck me most, in case after case in those camps, was people were not just left to be victims, they were involved in making decisions about the running of the camp. Every subdivision of this big camp had a council, making decision about its workings in which people had been affected were involved. And the teaching drew on the skills of the people who had been affected by the earthquake. So people were being given something to build on.

Simon: Do you understand people's reaction which occurs after the tsumani, or whatever particular disaster that we're talking about, where they said they really want to have nothing to do with any religion or any God that permits or allows this sort of heart-breaking activity to take place?

Rowan: It's not a surprising reaction, because we want the world to make sense and it seems really to fly in the face of the notion of a loving God in charge of things. Yet, once again, so often the people on the front line, the people most affected, are the people for whom that's least an issue. They say: 'This has happened. I don't know what it means. I know what I've got to do to honour God in this situation. And that's to help, that's to love, that's to rebuild.' And there are often cases, I think, where, just as with Gee Walker, people say: 'Well, if she can do it, maybe it's possible for me.' So when I see somebody in the front line of relief work in Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, in these circumstances, I can say: 'Well, if they can do it, it can be done.' And, the explanations? Well, put that on hold. No explanation is going to do the work. It's not going to make you feel: 'Oh, it's alright then.' But, God is still visible, somehow, in the compassion that people offer.

Simon: You used a phrase 'a loving God in charge of things'. Is that how you see it? I know you believe in a loving God, but 'in charge of things'? Is he actually in charge of the way the earth is working?

Rowan: I think we mean very different things, don't we, sometimes when we use language like 'being in charge of things'. You might think: 'Oh, that means supervising every single event, having it on a sort of work-plan for the day, ticking it off - time for an earthquake in Pakistan.' I don't think that's the way that God is in charge. I think it's much more a question of God sustaining by his energy, by his action, the whole system of the universe, and that means that, at times, you know, that system of the universe brings about collisions, tragedies, tensions, and God's action continues through that, enabling people to respond properly, enabling rebuilding to happen, people to recover - or even resurrection, you might say.

Prayer this Christmas

Simon: We have very limited time left, and we appreciate the time you are spending with us. The questions from listeners are many and varied. Here's a specific one, from Andrew Hamet: 'For whom should I pray this Christmas?' That's an easy one. Well, maybe it is.

Rowan: Well, certainly pray for those who are most deeply affected by the aftermath of the earthquake and the children suffering from cold in Pakistan. But also pray for your next door neighbour, and pray for the person you're finding most difficult.

Reading the Bible

Simon: Archie, on this, to what extent does Dr Williams - another one you can talk for hours on - does Dr Williams think the Bible should be read as a text, replete with contradictions, historical, cultural and political biases and translations issues, and less as the immutable law of God. It is my impression that people cherry pick from the Bible to find passages that support their preconceived views, particularly in respect of homosexuality.'

Rowan: I think there is a good deal of selective reading of the Bible by liberals, conservatives, more or less everybody. As I read the Bible, I read it as the way in which God communicates to me how he deals with human beings. He deals with them by creation, by the very fact that he makes us, chooses us to be, by saving from slavery, by committing to them in a very demanding, sort of promise-relationship, and finally he deals with them in Jesus, and in the effect of Jesus - his death and resurrection - on the people around him. And everything, everything, in the Bible, I think, has to be fed into that great, grand narrative, the central story, the big story.

The Simpsons

Simon: You've spoken before of your love of 'The Simpsons' on television. And, in fact, before you came on, I noticed an advert on one of the televisions we have in the studio for a new Christmas episode of 'The Simpsons', which we'll need to follow. Why is it that you are a particular fan?

Rowan: Well, cutting through all the philosophy for a moment, it's mostly because it's funny. That apart, what I see is a family of very, very fallible and muddled people, rather like us, who somehow cope with their failings, who come through in a kind of faithfulness to each other. It's not spectacular, it's not poetic, it's not grand, it's very human. But quite apart from that, all the layers of reference that every episode has, the multiple stories that go on, the skill with which all the balls are kept in the air, I think is extraordinarily skillful.

Simon: You're probably the most famous Christian behind the Pope and Ned Flanders.

Rowan: There's a problematic trinity for you!

Simon: I suppose the two most prominent Christians in there would be the Revd Lovejoy and Ned Flanders. Would you enjoy going to the Revd Lovejoy's church, do you think?

Rowan: No, I don't think I would, frankly. I think he's a terrible preacher. He's got a boring voice. And, well, I'm afraid he's a sad, pompous chap, all told. Ned Flanders, at least, is ludicrous and foolish, but generous. He actually does forgive people, and I think, he's a sort of - as a Christian - you might say he's a 'fool for Christ's sake.'

Conclusion: Enjoying the Job?

Simon: We appreciate your time with us very much, Archbishop. Are you enjoying the job?

Rowan: It depends which day of the week you ask me, really.

Simon: How about Tuesday, the 6th December 2005?

Rowan: Just at the moment? Fine, thanks.

Simon: Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, thank you very much indeed for spending some time with us today.

Rowan: Thank you.

Simon Mayo is a presenter for BBC Radio 5 Live

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