Theo Hobson

Mainly monk

Mainly monk
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The main thing that struck me, as I read Rupert Shortt's biography of Rowan Williams, was how amazingly sheltered the Archbishop of Canterbury's life has been. I don't mean economically privileged (most of us are pretty much on a level in this respect), or emotionally easy (whose is?) – I mean ideologically and institutionally fixed.

He decided as a boy that he would be a priest and theologian, and never had any trouble getting there. (His career plan met as many obstacles as that of Martin Amis, who is one year older, which feels a bit wrong.) He never had a period of adulthood, or even adolescence, in which he wondered what to do with his life, in which he dipped even a toe into another form of life. He has always belonged to the subculture of Church, and since undergraduate days it was obvious that he would have a successful career in it, and the universities joined to it. Contemporaries rightly saw him as a donnish prelate-in-waiting.

So his life has been sheltered by the institutions of Church and Oxbridge, to a remarkable degree. He has never had to seek employment, or existential meaning, outside this world. He has almost always been housed by either Church or university, thus being spared a major form of worldly responsibility and angst. He happens never to have driven a car, another reprieve from dirty worldliness. I bet that his computer has never malfunctioned without some institutional employee on hand to fix it. He has never quite lived in the difficult modern world.

This is of central relevance to his thought. The authority of the Church is utterly non-negotiable to him, for the simple reason that he has never imagined living outside of its subculture. His reforming radicalism has always been analogous to that of the young aristocrat, who is hot for change, as long as nanny and cook are still there to look after him. In a recent Telegraph interview he said that he had never really wavered in his belief in God, and the same is clearly true of his belief in the Church (though there was a period in which he flirted with moving to Catholicism or Orthodoxy).

Yes, he has married and had children. But this doesn't detract from the fact that he is mainly monk.