As every year, I asked for a book by Rowan Williams for Christmas. Invariably it takes me the whole year to read and digest but is always transformative and this year’s no different: R Williams The Edge of Words https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4H-aAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Rowan+Williams+the+edge+of+words&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Yi2yVIjkCsztauncgaAO&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Rowan%20Williams%20the%20edge%20of%20words&f=false
So far it is a great book and is intersecting some other areas of interest, notably what it means to become fully human, and how we relate to our bodies is an implicit part of that, which leads to the issue of physicality and how material and matter communicate God to us (great book on this by McDannel, link below)
Williams’ book is fascinating on language and how we speak, and what that communicates in itself. In speaking of pioneering and mission, we run aground on issues of language really quickly these days and spend so long defining terms, over against the terms and meanings of others, that the debate gets lost at times, so this is a live issue I think. He says in the introduction: “..language is unmistakeably a material process, something that bodies do; so thinking about the oddities of language may help us see new things about bodies, indeed ‘matter’ in general: it may open up for us some thoughts about how the material world carries or embodies messages…
…what we need is a metaphysics that thinks of matter itself as invariably and necessarily communicative..” (Williams, 2014 px-xi)
One of the reasons I find this enlivening is that it explains to me what anthropologists have shown about the human need for ritual in order to make meaning; basically things / items / artefacts / rituals / rites / ceremonies are communicative of God, and we instinctively understand that. Being from a non conformist background that stripped all of this out after the Reformation, believing all of it to be ‘unnecessary,’ it has helped to explain why I have found such relief in rediscovering these things recently in the high end of the Anglican church, and in creating these things afresh along with people who are new to the faith. Ritual is a huge part of how people engage with God and working to find ways to engage the body in ritual is the best part of what we do together, either in cooking together, eating together, anointing hands with the oil of gladness, or preparing a room to celebrate in. The material and how we shape and engage with it is hugely sacramental and redolent of God, and this book is a fantastic help to explaining and understanding that.
He also speaks powerfully about how we need to seek out language that does not trap God in the confines of our historical understandings of her, another issue which is huge for pioneers: “..to find ways of speaking about God that were not vulnerable to history – to the contingencies of politics and power and social imagination that had shaped the doctrine of believing communities, but simply to counter this with the insistence that we can only begin from tradition and community doesn’t necessarily help…
…ordinary language is much less ordinary than we usually suppose, much more liable to rupture and strangeness…where things become interestingly difficult, where the ordinary comes under pressure.” (p2-3) He goes on to speak about how the use of certain language about God has led to the conclusion that what we know is all sewn up and that by it, God is now predictable, understandable.
For me, one of the gifts of pioneers to the church in this generation is this iruption, bringing a challenge to this comfortable language and set of assumptions that we know how this works, what God does and will do, where and in whom he is to be found, and the common shared language of a certain class and social group holding power and sway has made that possible. It is the language the liturgy of the church speaks to us in, by and large. I have written about this a lot before so won’t get out that hobby horse again. But the introduction of new groups into the church – whether they be the voices of women, children, ethnic voices, poor white working class voices, youth and LGBT voices, all are iruption. They speak in different words, with different accents, and different underpinning assumptions about everything, especially power and access. And God speaks to them, and through them, in ways that challenge and reintroduce her as the stranger, the alien and challenge all our thinking afresh.
Williams describes these as “moments when we have to think through afresh what the ultimate and most radical possibilities of our humanity might be.” (p7) That seems like the best place to start a year, wondering about those possibilities and how and where we might glimpse them.