I think any real leader has to engage with these issues. The question is what does it mean to engage? In the view of the people at the Vatican, to engage with the issue is to state very clearly what your position is, and then to keep stating it in every situation. Rowan Williams engages somewhat differently. He insists that these are issues that have to be discussed as questions, and that people on all sides have to admit that we don't know everything. It's not simply a matter of politicking – that whichever side has a more convincing argument prevails. All of us have to look at our own experience, and the experience of people unlike ourselves. Having empathy with the other seems to be quite Christian.
You write in your piece that "The Body's Grace," Williams’s 1989 lecture to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, has been highly controversial. Can you talk about why it’s so provocative and powerful?
Well, one of the many ways that it’s striking is that Williams isn't speaking as a manager or politician. He's responding as a human being and as a pastor. He's concerned not so much for the structure of the church but for the experience of the people in his care. And he roots his argument in a novel, not in scripture or doctrine. He must have been reading Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, four novels about colonial India and the British there, when the expression "the body's grace" grabbed him. So in the talk he midrashes the expression and finds his way back to some home truths about Christianity. Here he is a married man, a church leader, working off a novel. It’s a very striking way to approach gay sexuality.
Williams seems to be someone who draws on both tradition and experience.
It's very easy, especially for traditionalists, to deride experience, and to talk about any leader who is mindful of experience as a captive to the most extreme trends of the day. "We can't have experience alone be our guide," they say. "Rather, we need tradition to help us understand our experience."
Of course, I do think we need tradition to help us understand our experience. To be a Roman Catholic, as I am, is to look to the Catholic tradition in that way. The bishops historically are understood to be teachers. But for many of us, bishops are not really teachers: they are instructors. We don't sense that the instructor's experience of life informs his teaching. In fact, his teaching is a rejection of experience, of his and of ours alike. What you sense in "The Body's Grace" is that Williams is doing what real teachers do, which is mediate between the text at hand and the experience of life.
The passage you quote from is truly moving:
There may be little love, even little generosity, in Clark's bedding of Sarah, but Sarah has discovered that her body can be the cause of happiness to her and to another. It is this discovery which most clearly shows why we might want to talk about grace here. Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted.
It seems obvious once you’ve read it, but I was knocked out by it. I'm 43 years old, and I'd never come across an explanation of grace that was at once so straightforward and so beautiful. The woman in the passage felt wanted by another person; she felt wanted sexually by a man. He wasn't perfect. But she understood herself as wanted, apparently for the first time, and that changed her. The point Williams draws out from this is that grace is the experience of being wanted – wanted by God. It is a desire for us that comes from outside of us. It’s so often said that “God loves us,” but to say that “God wants us” – that somehow gets to the heart of the matter.