Of Rowan and Charles Williams

Where Rowan Williams meets Dostoevsky (excerpt)

Rowan Williams divides us, even those who are not church hobbyists with an obsession (pro or anti) with gay bishops.

Some, such as myself, rejoice that at the heart of public life, we at last have a person who reads books, who takes the life of the mind seriously, while being so patently a good egg. Others are less sure. Even his fans agree that his utterances can be impenetrably obscure. This must be a drawback in a public figure.

The anti-Rowanites include, paradoxically, both atheist intellectuals, who dislike so clever a man for appearing to side with the most conservative Christians, and those Christians themselves, who suspect that behind the complex rhetoric there lurks a crypto-unbeliever.

"He's someone who's chaotic, sometimes pretentious, sometimes waffly, sometimes unbearably clotted, and yet in the middle of it, there are so many gems."

Who is speaking? Why, it is Rowan Williams himself, speaking of his near-namesake, but no relation, Charles Williams - an obscure taste nowadays, but a strong one.

Charles Williams worked as a publisher all his life. When Auden, still an agnostic, met him, to discuss the Oxford Book of Light Verse, he felt himself in the presence of something like holiness, and began his journey back to faith. Charles Williams wrote long Arthurian poems, and a series of supernatural thrillers, including one which culminates in a Eucharist celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"Ah! The great Mass in Lambeth Palace!" exclaims the Archbishop, clapping his hands in delight, and smiling beneath the huge bushy eyebrows. He does not on this occasion speak - though he has written about them - of Charles Williams's peculiar mingling of piety and concupiscence, and Dantean crushes - sometimes out of control - on office secretaries at the Oxford University Press.

Like the subject of the Archbishop's latest book, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Williams was not an entirely savoury character. Were the Archbishop to present either Williams (chainsmoking lover of women and member of the Order of the Golden Dawn) or Dostoevsky (gambler, political prisoner, anti-Semite) to colleagues on the General Synod, there would probably be some prim intakes of breath.

I thought of these things, as I was led into the presence of the bardic Archbishop at Lambeth, and remembered the spluttered outburst of disapproval that I heard last year from a senior layman.

"He's supposed to be the Archbishop of Canterbury! The Church of England is collapsing around his ears! And where is he? In America for two months! Writing a book about Dostoevsky!" The speaker's tone suggested that it was bad enough for the Archbishop to be taking any time off, but to be writing about a novelist who did not even have the decency to be English - well, that really took the biscuit.

Yet the Church of England has not collapsed - not quite, anyway. And the result of the Archbishop's sabbatical in the United States is a splendid book on the wild, strange genius of Dostoevsky.

A N Wilson discovers why, amid turmoil in the church, the Archbishop of Canterbury has written a book about one of his literary passions: Dostoevsky

Daily Telegraph – 27th September 2008 (Introduction)

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