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Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, Argues Liturgy’s Relevance


By Tom Stoelker

In an era in which religious experiences often take place at venues, and concerts have replaced ritual,

Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, came to Fordham University Church to argue for the ongoing relevance of the liturgy.

Archbishop Williams made his case in a lecture, “Liturgical Humanism: Orthodoxy and the Transformation of Culture,” which he delivered after accepting an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham.

The Sept. 30 event was part of the Orthodoxy in America Lecture Series, sponsored by Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

Archbishop Williams, who served as senior bishop of the worldwide Anglican Communion from 2002 to 2012 and is master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, is a noted scholar of Orthodox Christianity. His particular interest in Russian Orthodoxy focused on Vladimir Lossky, the influential 20th-century theologian. His dissertation on Lossky, done at Oxford, set him on a path to become one of today’s leading experts in contemporary Orthodox Christian thinking.

Father McShane introduced Archbishop Williams as “the greatest theologian in the English-speaking world.”

“With word and action, you have sought—with telling results—to convince the world that the encounter with God is transforming, life-giving, and exhilarating. As you have done so, you have become Pontifex Anglicanus: the Anglican bridge builder.”

In his talk, Archbishop Williams built yet another bridge by focusing on a religious experience shared by Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians: the liturgy.

“In every era, the divine liturgy is a way for humans to experience [God] in reality, not in theoretical principle,” he said.

The liturgy, he said, maps out an alternative reality and must remain relevant to contemporary culture—lest it become perceived as “enclosed in a world of ritualized code.” He added that the liturgy should not become an alternative to other kinds of engagement, social or otherwise.

“We need to keep liturgical action at the center of our vision,” he said. “The question isn’t whether it’s instructive or entertaining, but it’s whether it looks as though it’s credibly changing the vision of those participating.”

He said that as a “Christian interruption,” liturgy should also not be expected to offer solutions to complex problems, but rather to pose questions. As a general heritage, the ritualized activity in the liturgy “specifies and incarnates a culture, [one]that asks serious questions of our own culture.” And sometimes those questions are on the most uncomfortable cultural topics, such as concern for the unborn or “the power of death in the world we occupy—and trying to understand a world [heaven]where that doesn’t exist.”

“Our popular culture refuses or trivializes our location in time,” he said. “It has a very limited understanding of past and future.”

Conversely, the liturgical act exists in the past, present, and future, he said. It also explores how the period of time from one world can be connected to that of another world, namely the Kingdom of God.

Today’s trivialization of time has led to all sorts of short-term gain pursuits that have affected the planet’s future, he said.

“If we do want to live in the future kingdom, we must be aware of how short-term comforts . . . affect the health of the natural world.”

In addition, Archbishop Williams warned against politics that “fail to protect the vulnerable, add to the degradation of the material world, or shore up inequalities.”

“Any and all of these deserve a critique in the liturgy,” he said.

“The believer is one who takes seriously an openness in art, science, and politics. Approaching this through liturgical practice, he or she physically enacts this in a straightforward act. Here, in this space and time, it is enacted in a charismatic event.”


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