The Wilts and Glous Standard interviewed Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams during his visit to Gloucestershire last week
Thousands flocked to see the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams during his visit to Gloucestershire this week. Standard Reporter Ian Craig met with the Archbishop during his visit to discuss a range of issues including the role of religion in local politics, the importance of involving young people in the church and a number of others.
In the Cotswolds we have one of the youngest District Councillors in the country – 19-year-old Joe Harris, who was also recently elected as the deputy mayor of Cirencester. In that regard young people in the Cotswolds have become quite engaged in politics – how is the church trying to engage young people in the same kinds of ways?
The church has various kinds of outreach to young people in parishes and communities, but I also think it’s important that we have youth representatives in our general synod.
There is a certain fixed number of people who have to be under 13 to come into the general synod – the Parliament of the Church of England – and we always have a lot of young people as observers at the synod as well.
Recently we had a couple of meetings of the Archbishop's Council, which is another one of the national bodies, where again we’ve invited a group of young people in to share their perspectives, so we try to do it at that official level as well as in the parishes context because it is very important that their voices are heard.
So that’s how their voices are being heard in, as you said, an official manner – what about encouraging young people to join congregations?
It’s very difficult to generalise about young people because they have very different attitudes to the church – not many are hostile but a huge majority really don’t know much about it and don’t
care about it so you really have to start from quite a long way back.
I always say the one thing you mustn’t do with young people is assume you’ve got to entertain them all the time, they need to be taken seriously and stretched a bit and engaged with.
They don’t want to just be given a lot of easy stuff and loud music – they want opportunity to think.
There are a couple of diocese within the Church of England that take quite large groups over to a monastery in Burgundy in France which has a particularly large ministry of young people and really does help young people to meditate quietly and to discuss in depth.
I met with a group a few years ago and there were 400 youngsters from the UK then.
In other ways there’s the campaign we’ve had for the last seven years or so which we call Fresh Expressions which is taking the church to where people are, not assuming they will turn up on Sunday morning and give them opportunities at other times in the week.
I know of one or two skateboarding groups that are run by the church to help them engage in that way.
Since 2005 the rough estimate is there are about 2,000 youth groups of that kind.
Cirencester Town Council recently voted to replace the prayer they said at the start of their meetings with a general pledge the argument being that they didn’t want local politics and religion intertwined. Do you think religion of any kind has any place in local politics?
Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan WilliamsI think sometimes in the church nationally we’ve been a little quick to close rural churches and not look for other ways to use them and support rural communities.
I think so because religion has a place in people’s lives and if it has a place in people’s lives it’s got a place in people’s politics. it’s as simple as that.
You can’t airbrush it out – how you deal with it publicly and whether a group wants to have public prayers they have to decide, but whether or not they want to have public prayers it would be a great mistake to think that pushes religion out of it.
The Cotswolds has quite a disparate makeup with a lot of small villages, and some of these can be quite disconnected especially for older people. Do you agree that the church plays an important role in connecting people in communities such as these?
I think sometimes in the church nationally we’ve been a little quick to close rural churches and not look for other ways to use them and support rural communities.
I know in rural Gloucestershire as in other rural areas public transport is pretty tough and the church can do a lot more with carpools and mini buses and making sure people are involved in that way and a lot of that goes on.
It gives people a sense of identity and continuity.
You described as the Big Society ethos as “aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable" – should those who have the ability fill the void left by a shrinking welfare state or should we leave needs exposed for all to see so that there is a call from the people to restore things back to the way they were?
Two points – the first is that what was quoted so widely was just half of a sentence. I said the Big Society is aspirational waffle etc unless we step up to the plate.
The second point about should you just leave it to get worse so that somebody feels they’ve just got to make it better – I used to hear that one in the 70s about international aid, that you shouldn’t be giving aid to starving people because we were glossing over the problem.
I think that’s fine for us but it’s not much use for the starving people, saying ‘I’m sorry, we’re going to let you starve to prove a point’.
So, I think we do the best we can in the circumstances and we keep up the advocacy in other ways.
Using people to make a point is never a good thing
I’m sure you were shown the painting by a local artist, Simon Morriss, who painted the picture of you with Richard Dawkins. He painted that following your debate with Professor Dawkins earlier in the year so, with that in mind, How would you say that not just Christians but people of all religions can work with atheists for the benefit of society?
The first thing to say is this – it’s quite important to remind atheists and agnostics that, quite often, the God they don’t believe in isn’t the God we believe in either, they’ve got a very
strange view of what religious people believe and that’s part of why public debates are not a waste of time.
There are values that we should all have – values about kindness towards each other and Richard Dawkins is absolutely passionate about cruelty.
He thinks cruelty is so vile and appalling and he says religion is responsible for some of it which is why he’s against religion but that’s where we say ‘Yes, that’s the right sort of passion to have’. We want to devote all our strength to this as well.
Do you have an overall message for the people of the Cotswolds?
In Winchcombe this morning I saw what was done with revitalising the youth club there with the churches’ resources - a tremendous project, and it made me think communities have more resources than
The smallest community, when really motivated can develop itself with its own internal essence.
Very often I think the church has a big role in showing people what’s there and who they really are
Worship’s got to be there at the start of it but the church takes the motivation it gets at the start of it and draws people in to the heart of it