Former Archbishop of Canterbury praises Pope Benedict for his “gift of teaching”

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Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gave a moving address last night, 24 January, at a service of ecumenical vespers in Westminster Cathedral to celebrate the life of Pope Benedict XVI and to pray for the repose of his soul.

The event was attended by representatives of different Christian denominations, including the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, as well as delegates from other faith groups.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols presided over the service which was also attended by a number of Catholic bishops from England and Wales, as well as the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London.

Archbishop Williams said: “Pope Benedict taught us much about respect. The deep gestures of respect which he offered to those in other Christian unions, the deep gestures of respect with which he approached other religious families, will stay in mind.”

He also lauded Pope Benedict’s “unwillingness to accept any theology which has as its centre anything other than the gift of God in Christ.”

Full Text

‘Love each other as much as brothers should and have a profound respect for each other.’ (Romans 12:10)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

To be brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ is to recognise that our connections are connections of love; that the deepest of the gifts we have to exchange with one another is love; that we are conjoined in the Body, so that our love will give life. And if we are to give life to one another, we must know and be able to speak about that which gives us unity.

This means a unity which is not simply a set of compromise formulae, not simply a set of pained but highly successful negotiations, but a deep and grateful sense that we receive life from our neighbours, in the first instance from our neighbours in the Body of Christ, but also from our neighbours who belong to the wider human family but are all welcomed to oneness in the sight and in the love of almighty God.

Pope Benedict believed with all his mind and heart in unity of that kind. He was not a man for easy ecumenical settlements, not a man for doctrinal compromise. And yet precisely because he believed that the Church existed simply because of the call of God in Jesus Christ, he was able to direct our thoughts and our prayers constantly to that deep level of connection and mutual gift in which alone we can flourish as Christ’s friends, Christ’s brothers and sisters, and ultimately, as those who, together in the human family, reflect God’s own glory to God as God’s image and likeness.

To approach Pope Benedict in this way is perhaps to begin to make sense of two aspects of his thinking and his witness which will be of lasting value to all the communities that call themselves Christian – and, we hope and pray, all communities that call themselves human.

The first has to do with the way Pope Benedict did his theology. Often misunderstood as simply being conservative, Pope Benedict’s deepest theological commitments belong in that great theological movement in the middle of the last century which sought for ressourcement: going back to the sources. Going back to those resources of understanding, imagination, prayer, and thought which the early centuries of the Church had developed. 

Those resources, especially within the time frame of the first millennium, remain deeply alive and life-giving for all Christians. In returning, along with many theologians of that school, especially in France but also in Germany, to those sources, Pope Benedict was in effect saying that for us as Christians, one of the greatest, most significant priorities is that we are able to recognise one another’s language as grounded in that formative experience of the Church’s youth. 

The Church’s youth. Is that a turn of phrase we use very often, which comes to mind in looking at the Christian community? Not always, it has to be said, in the practical life of congregations. And yet, the early Church is the young Church; and when we return to the vision of the first Christians, we are not reverting to something that is old, but identifying ourselves with something that is new, something that is fresh with the newness of the Gospel and the theology that flows from it.

In Pope Benedict’s three great encyclicals on faith, hope, and charity, you can see the youth of the Church at work. Those three models of theological composition and exposition seek to draw out, in the full light of traditional exegesis, prayer and understanding, the riches of the scriptural vision of life lived in faith, hope and love. 

They are not weighed down by scholarship, though they are impregnated with it. They are not neatly scholastic, though they are closely reasoned. In those texts as a whole, we hear Pope Benedict as teacher and preacher to the Body of Christ. 

‘If your gift is teaching then use it for teaching, let the preachers deliver sermons.’

And so he did. His gift for teaching, his gift for preaching, was indeed a recall of the Church to its youth.

A second aspect of his thinking which again, I believe, is of lasting and profound value is the emphasis he placed upon human reason. A strange thing to insist on, we might say, at a time when we’ve been taught to be very suspicious of ‘rationalism’ both by believers and unbelievers. 

But remember where Pope Benedict’s theological inspiration comes from. It comes from an era in the life of the Church when ‘reason’ was seen not as a tool of argument, but as a vehicle of vision. It was our capacity to reason that allowed us to behold and wonder at the world together, to see the order of creation and to participate joyfully in it.

A human family which does not believe in reason is a family terminally and fatally divided – not because some people know how to argue better than others but because we’ve lost sight of the notion that what God gives us is the capacity to listen to one another and learn from one another in a common world.

Without that gift of reasoned, ordered language that we share with one another, we shan’t ultimately share the same world. We shall retreat into our corners. We shall battle for our victories.

Pope Benedict’s approach to those outside the Christian Body and outside the Roman Catholic Church was deeply rooted in that vision of the possibility for human beings to talk to one another, to listen to one another, to wonder at the world together. 

‘Come and let us reason together’, says the Lord to Isaiah in prophecy and it’s a reasonable conclusion – as you might say – that the Lord doesn’t mean ‘let us argue together’. 

Let us reason together, let us explore together, let us find together what it is that makes us human, in the firm hope and the confidence that there truly is a humanity we share. As Pope Benedict approached other communities of faith, he did so with this hope and confidence that we could find a way of reasoning together.

When Pope Benedict, in the earlier part of his career, worked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was seen by many – famously or notoriously – as a watchdog of orthodoxy; ‘God’s Rottweiler’, as was sometimes said. And yet if you examine what Pope Benedict actually had to say about the theologies about which he was unhappy, again and again what seems to come into focus is his unwillingness to accept any theology which had as its centre anything other than the gift of God in Christ. 

He believed deeply and consistently that a theology that depended for its criteria, its hopes and its categories, on anything other than what God had given us, was a theology which would end up being another tool of ideology, of exclusion, of privilege and conflict. And as he exposes his theology in the three great encyclicals, this is the vision he wants to share. 

This is what binds the believing community together. It may express itself in and ally itself with the languages of other visions and other philosophies from time to time; yet, what is it that makes it the daily bread of a believing community? Only Christ, the Bread of Life, at its heart.

So as we look back at the life, the witness and the teaching of Pope Benedict, these are two of the themes which we are to dwell on, to celebrate, and to learn from. 

Looking back to the youth of the Church, not in an idealised vision of primitive purity (it’s not as if the first millennium of the Church was entirely free from conflict…), but looking back to those years when the novelty and excitement of what Christ had done drove people to those great flights of inspired reasoning which gave us the creeds and the councils. Out of that youthfulness of Christ-centred doctrine, we can find the energy and the confidence to speak to one another as Christians, even across the deep divides and hurts of the centuries that have elapsed since then. 

And then, as we as Christians turn to the wider world, turn to our brothers and sisters of other religious confessions, the question in our minds should be, how shall we reason together? How shall we recognise the world we share? And in recognising the world we share, recognising the respect we can exchange? 

‘Love each other as much as brothers should and have a profound respect for each other.’ 

Pope Benedict taught us much about respect. The deep gestures of respect which he offered to those in other Christian communions, the deep gestures of respect with which he approached other religious families will stay in the mind. He was aware that, in the Church he led and served, respect was not always historically so visible; and he was willing more than once to say where some in the Church had failed in respect, and failed in faithfulness to those God had given them as partners and brothers and sisters. 

May God then renew us in the youth of the Church. May God teach us afresh what it is to be overwhelmed by the discovery of the newness of God’s act in Christ, so that our words and our thoughts, our minds and our hearts, take wing by the guiding of the Spirit.

May God renew in us that life-giving word and reason, that wisdom which gently and peacefully pervades all things, so that we may find a language in which to speak and listen, and to begin to build a world in which we are delivered from that death-dealing separation which God’s work, constantly throughout history, seeks to overcome. 

May God bring us, in that constant prayer which the Apostle recommends to us, to the unity of the human family in the vision of the Almighty, the vision in which faith and hope and love set us free to live the divine liberty for which we are created, that divine liberty for which our departed brother Benedict so laboured and which he so loved.