Illustration by Michael Rea

Rowan Williams: Changing my mind about same-sex partnerships affected what I did—and didn’t do—as archbishop of Canterbury

The former archbishop reflects on his regrets, awkward public moments and interfaith dialogue
November 3, 2022

What is the first news event you can recall?

The Suez Crisis in 1956, with a very faint memory of the village street party in Ystradgynlais for the coronation in 1953.

If you could spend a day in one place at one moment in history, what would that be?

Good Friday in Leipzig for the first performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to experience, for the first time, this immense expansion of voice and ear and instrument. But it must have been a feeling of speechless amazement and joy.

What is your favourite quotation? 

From Measure for Measure: “Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once,/And He that might the vantage best have took/Found out the remedy.”

If you were given £1m to spend on others, what would you spend it on and why? 

Any scheme of proven effectiveness that supported young people with alternatives to gang culture in major cities.

Which of your ancestors or relatives are you most proud of? 

Both my children—a primary school teacher in London, and a writer and actor just starting out; and my niece, already making her mark as a poet. 

As a poet and editor of a new poetry collection, what can the medium communicate that no other can?

Poetry tells us that language is odder and more resourceful than we suspected. It points us into a world where things connect and interact in ways beyond what we’re used to.

Your collection aims to be “a shared space for believers and non-believers to explore together”. What are the opportunities and limits of interfaith dialogue? 

Interfaith dialogue shows you what someone else’s face looks like when turned to the God they believe in. It’s not an argument that someone has to win; it’s a conversation after which you are both (or all) aware of more to absorb and reflect on. I don’t think that it’s relativism—more the willingness to let the truth you are convinced about be probed and deepened by perspectives from elsewhere. Good dialogue starts from a place of confidence in your belief that is deep-rooted enough to be able to risk the challenges and learn new questions to ask.

What has been your most awkward public moment? 

Too much choice. Possibly misremembering and mispronouncing the name of a Mori queen at a ceremony in New Zealand some years ago. Or trying to avoid having my hand held by Robert Mugabe for a photo-op at the end of a long and rather acrimonious meeting about human rights in Zimbabwe: the photographs show him making a grab for my little finger…

What have you changed your mind about?

It’s about 40 years since I changed my mind about the morality of same-sex partnerships; in one way or another, that change affected a lot of what I did—and failed to do—as archbishop of Canterbury.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I’m not sure it would surprise that many people, but I don’t use a mobile phone. The sense of being uninterruptedly on call can be hard going, and when I was archbishop this was one way of keeping a little space open. When I did Desert Island Discs, one thing that surprised listeners was my soft spot for the Incredible String Band; some sounds of the late 1960s have very long echoes. 

What is the last piece of music, play, novel or film that brought you to tears?

This year, the Easter Hymn from Cavalleria rusticana, when I heard it sung at the end of a strenuous Holy Week that had included a trip to Ukraine.

What do you most regret?

Perhaps four people whom I have let down badly by promising more than I could give. I can find reasons, but that doesn’t amount to absolution. And—predictably—not spending enough time with my children, especially my daughter, when they were small.

“A Century of Poetry: 100 Poems for Searching the Heart” edited by Rowan Williams is out from SPCK