Ben Myers' study of the theology of Rowan Williams is a good read for three reasons, well it would be three wouldn't it, given that Williams is one of the most subtle Trinitarian theologians writing today.
First, Williams' theology is explored with sympathy, explained with clarity and expounded with critical affection. Myers traces the intellectual mileposts of Williams' theological itinerary so far, taking time to look at the landscape before moving on. The study is both chronological and thematic. Some of the chapters are significant theological reflections in their own right, underpinned by Williams' theological style and convictions, but in conversation with a sharply observant friend.
Second Myers brings the theology of Rowan Williams into the rich and at times bewildering company of those who have shaped and stimulated, shaken and stirred, subverted and converted the ideas and insights of a mind too much in love with God to settle for simplicity, tidiness or finality in theology. Williams' travelling companions are as diverse as they come: the Russian Orthodox theologian Bulgakov, the German philosopher Hegel, Augustine and Von Balthasar with Barth, the granite polymath Donald Mackinnon and the Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky, Gillian Rose the French scourge of post-modern philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, T S Eliot and Dostoevsky, and from a different but no less powerful theological genre, Andrei Rublev and his Icon of the Trinity.
Third, this study allows Rowan Williams to speak, and creates both space and congenial environment for him to be heard. The endnotes to each chapter direct the reader to Williams' scattered corpus. One of the features of Williams thought is that much of it is occasional, thought out and thought through in the midst of discussion, debate and not a little controversy. But always, you have a sense of a mind that is original and unafraid of the inconvenience of hesitation, qualification and deferred answers. This can make him a frustrating provisionalist, a thinker reluctant to claim more than can be rightly said. Intellectual humility seldom goes with such high intelligence, and when it does in a Christian leader, it is usually one of the more persuasive criteria for holiness. I think Myers is right to suggest that Williams is deeply influenced by, and is himself an example of, the holy fool.
To be a fool for Christ's sake is no small achievement in the scale of sanctity. Diplomacy and political nous, administrative acumen and managerial competence, religious entrepreneurship and judicious statement, strategic foresight and relational leadership - all these are desirable in an Archbishop in an established church. Unlikely a search consultancy will put holy fool amongst the essential attributes, indeed it may, rightly, be reason enough to quietly drop a name from the long list let alone the short list.
But Myers uses the phrase in its strongest biblical sense of a prophet who speaks a different language and come from a different country and sees things we don't, because we are all so busy we cannot be bothered looking. In that sense the fool is the one who sees the folly of our seriousness; the one who refuses to prioritise the wisdom of the world; the one who speaks truth to power from a place where the view is different; the one who is never seduced into going along with the crowd who are so duped they aren't prepared to see, let alone say, that the emperor is naked.
In his retirement I hope Rowan Williams has time, space, energy and opportunity to leave to the church a substantial corpus of uncomfortable theology. Goodness, not because I would nod assent to everything he says and writes - just as often I find him frustrating, at times annoying, frequently hard to follow, but seldom trite, predictable or irrelevant. Because deep springs of prayer and a contemplative intellect dedicated to loving God give life and reality to Williams' theology.
I still remember years ago reading The Truce of God, an Archbishop of Canterbury Lent Book, when Williams was a young academic theologian. It too was a tough read, but it changed the way I look at movies, it alerted me to the fears that pervade consumerist culture, and it converted me to a view of Christian discipleship in which reconciliation, justice and peacemaking are essential digits in the bar code of Christian lifestyle. Since then I have read Williams with gratitude and anticipation - with considerable respect, and with just about equal measures of agreement and disagreement. And maybe I've learned most when I have disagreed with him, and had to clarify in my own mind and heart why.
One last thought - how can you not like an Archbishop who describes the impact of hierarchical church leadership on his soul by saying it's like 'the effect of coca-cola on your teeth'!