Interview with Rowan Williams

The former Archbishop of Canterbury discusses religious leaders’ obligation to promote equality, the challenges of meeting controversial heads of state, and concerns about the growth of populism

April 13, 2017
Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams is a theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury. He spent his early career as an academic at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, before becoming Bishop of Monmouth and Archbishop of Wales. He led the Church of England between 2002 and 2012. After stepping down, he was appointed master of Magdalene College, Cambridge and chancellor of the University of South Wales, and awarded a life peerage. He has recently taken up a visiting fellowship at Cumberland Lodge, the educational foundation.

When and where were you born?
Swansea, 14 June 1950.

How has this affected you?
It gave me a human life. Being born in Swansea and being brought up in South Wales continues to be a sort of base that I look back to and relate to.

What was your most memorable undergraduate experience?
The long conversation, in, I think, my second evening at the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate, with a homeless person. And spending some time just walking round the streets with this person and getting another perspective on Cambridge…it was something that enabled me to remember that Cambridge wasn’t entirely about the university.

What motivated you to take up your new role at Cumberland Lodge?
Cumberland Lodge has for a long time been an extraordinary environment for discussions of major public’s a unique kind of study centre. Our society desperately needs places where people can simply have that kind of honest sustained conversation. Looking back to its origins in the difficult days after the war, I think that we’re reminded of how continents and cultures can fracture and we very badly need those spaces where bridges can be built.

What guidance can religious leaders offer in these times of political uncertainty and polarisation?
I think that religious leaders have an absolute duty to be crystal clear about human equality, about the porous nature of national boundaries, about the indivisible character of human interests and well-being. In other words, you can’t have a globe in which one bit of the human race profits indefinitely at the expense of another, or in which the suffering of one part of the human race is irrelevant to the well-being of another. I think that’s built into the DNA of every major religious tradition and that’s perhaps what religious leaders should be saying.

Have academics and religious leaders become more politicised recently?
I think they have always been political. If you look at the history of the university in the 17th century, the great political arguments get hammered out in universities as much as in court or in Parliament, so I don’t think that there’s anything new about academics or religious leaders having a political profile. I think that sometimes we nurture a bit of a fiction that, in the old days, clergy and dons just kept to themselves; they never did.

How has higher education changed in the past five to 10 years?
The public rhetoric around it has become much more oriented towards the idea of the student as a consumer, and a great deal of publicity has been predicated on that. It has brought a competitive strain – and of course that’s always been there – [but this is] a particular kind of institutional competition. The other thing that I want to say about change is that higher education in this country is immeasurably more international than when I was first studying and teaching and I regard this as a very good thing. It is, strangely, a reversion to the earliest days of the university in the Middle Ages when the university was quintessentially an international body.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what would you try to achieve?
I’d want to ask some serious questions about how you preserve the genuine independence of universities and how you devise a system of accountability that takes seriously the professionalism of people working in the system. I hope that one thing I’d achieve is not to assume the worst about the academic profession as if it were entirely composed of lazy and self-serving people.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?
Most challenging? Apart from doing assemblies in primary schools [it] was meeting Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and having to talk to him about human rights. Perhaps almost as challenging was meeting President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and having to talk to him about gay rights.

What keeps you awake at night?
Apart from a middle-aged bladder? Well to be honest, growing concerns about our understanding of democracy in this country [and] concerns about the growth of populism. That’s using “keeping me awake at night” rather metaphorically and broadly...but that’s the thing that I genuinely worry about, that we’ve become sort of illiterate about what democracy really means.

What brings you comfort?
Faith, family, my students and music.

What’s the most unusual gift you’ve ever received?
Probably the most startling was a pair of sand paintings from West Africa of my wife and I. They were both based on photographs [taken] at a certain distance I think, and both showed my wife and I standing with kneeling African figures in front of us. That was the most unusual and the most embarrassing.

What’s the worst thing that anyone has ever said about your academic work?
There’s a bit of competition. “A loosely disciplined stream of consciousness” was one that I remember; that was referring to an early book of mine.

What would you like to be remembered for?
Primarily for trying to be an honest Christian believer.


Jon Timmis has been appointed pro vice-chancellor for partnerships and knowledge exchange at the University of York. Professor Timmis, who is head of the department of electronic engineering, will develop York’s engagement with business and industry, and extend the institution’s fundraising activities. “There are real opportunities for the university to develop its business and industry partnerships, develop robust intellectual property and innovation strategies, and create new opportunities to embed knowledge exchange across our academic departments,” he said. He will take up his role on 1 August.

Jane Elliott has been appointed professor of sociology at the University of Exeter. Currently chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, Professor Elliott will join Exeter in September. Prior to taking up her role at the ESRC, she was professor of sociology and head of the department of quantitative social sciences at what is now the UCL Institute of Education. “I’m delighted to join a university with strong synergies in my research areas,” Professor Elliott said. “Exeter is an attractive place to be, both
geographically and having soared up the rankings over the past decade.”

Conservatoires UK has announced Linda Merrick, principal of the Royal Northern College of Music, as its new chair.

Nigel Gilbert, director of the University of Surrey’s Centre for Research in Social Simulation, has been appointed a member of the council of the ESRC.

Colin McInnes, an expert on global health and international relations at Aberystwyth University, has been appointed vice-chair of the United Kingdom National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

Jayne Rowley, deputy chief executive of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit and its subsidiary Graduate Prospects, will serve as acting chief executive from 1 July.

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