I Once Met… Rowan Wil­liams

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Wil­fred De’ath

It was Christ­mas Eve in Cam­bridge. I was sit­ting out­side my favourite wine bar, quite near Mag­da­lene Col­lege, sip­ping a warm­ing glass of mulled wine, when what I took to be a shock­ingly unkempt tramp, dressed in a filthy old brown rain­coat, clutch­ing a large plas­tic bag, passed just by me.

Closer pe­rusal re­vealed him to be Rowan Wil­liams, for­mer Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, now Mas­ter of Mag­da­lene, bent on last-minute Christ­mas shop­ping.

The founder-ed­i­tor of this mag­a­zine, Richard In­grams, was al­ways urg­ing me to get an in­ter­view with Rowan, the bearded leftie, or ‘Beardie’, as Richard called him. But what with his be­ing an Arch­bishop and me a down-and-out, it proved dif­fi­cult.

Also, I was feel­ing a bit guilty about what I wrote about him in The Oldie, that ‘he had the mark of the fence firmly im­printed in his bot­tom’, a ref­er­ence to his typ­i­cal aca­demic’s ten­dency to see ev­ery point of view and the con­se­quent in­abil­ity to make up his mind about any­thing and ev­ery­thing: eg gay mar­riage and priests. That does not make for strong lead­er­ship.

How­ever, in Cam­bridge it would be eas­ier, I thought…

I pur­sued Beardie to the rail­way sta­tion early one morn­ing but failed to catch him be­fore he boarded his train. I caught him at the cash ma­chine on an­other early morn­ing, be­moan­ing the fact that, like me, he had hardly any money left. How come? Per­haps be­cause he of­ten gave to beg­gars and Big Is­sue­sellers on the streets of Cam­bridge; I fre­quently saw him do­ing this – a very gen­er­ous, as well as hum­ble, man. I of­ten saw him at Mass at Lit­tle St Mary and at St Giles (next to Mag­da­lene) but was re­luc­tant to in­ter­rupt his de­vo­tions. He of­ten says the early Eucharist at St Benet’s, the old­est church in Cam­bridge – so I started go­ing along there. He said it beau­ti­fully with a truly en­chant­ing voice and man­ner. It was there, at St Benet’s, af­ter the Mass, that I fi­nally nabbed him... I in­tro­duced my­self as a for­mer press sec­re­tary to his great pre­de­ces­sor Michael Ram­sey, once vicar at St Benet’s. Rowan’s face lit up. ‘Oh yes. St Benet’s was Michael’s church of course. How did you find him?’ ‘It was tricky in­tro­duc­ing him to jour­nal­ists, par­tic­u­larly lady ones be­cause he had no small talk,’ I said. ‘He would dis­cuss the the­ory of atone­ment till the cows came home, but the names of the flow­ers in Lam­beth Palace gar­den eluded him. No small talk at all.’

‘Yes, I know,’ said Beardie. ‘I don’t have much my­self.’ ‘How do you find life at Mag­da­lene?’ ‘Very nice,’ he said. ‘I don’t in­ter­fere too much with the other dons.’

Rowan tact­fully re­fused to com­ment on his suc­ces­sor, Justin Welby, the busi­ness­man-in-a-dog-col­lar.

‘But it must be a re­lief no longer to have the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of an Arch­bishop.’

‘Quite so,’ he said. ‘You need a very thick skin. I used to get it from all sides, par­tic­u­larly on gay mat­ters and Sharia law.’

‘I ad­mire your writ­ings in the New States­man – very well thought out,’ I said creep­ily.

‘Well, be­ing back in academia gives me a chance to think things through.’

‘Do you still find it dif­fi­cult to make up your mind about any­thing and ev­ery­thing?’ I ar­ro­gantly asked. ‘Yes, but I do not apol­o­gise for that.’ Rowan drifted off into the ear­ly­morn­ing mist. I wanted to tell him to get his hair cut but I lacked the courage. I was also tempted to ask him if he re­ally be­lieved in God.

True faith: Rowan Wil­liams

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