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Excerpts from a sermon by Archbishop Rowan Williams at his enthronement at St Woolo's Cathedral

Posted on: March 6, 2000 4:00 PM
Related Categories: Wales

St Woolo's Cathedral, Wales, 26 February 2000

Weak-spirited, we abuse power more by avoiding it than by seizing it, says Rowan Williams, enthroned last weekend as Archbishop of the Church in Wales.

Two things have brought Wales on to the front pages of the national newspapers in the past few weeks. First there was the crisis in the Assembly; and then there was the Waterhouse report on the North Wales children's homes, a heartbreaking reminder of how easily what we call "care" can slip into a nightmare of abusive power. Do we know, as a nation or as a Church, how to manage power and responsibility?

Power is something humans both seek and fear. At its best, it can be a generous impulse: we are eager to share what we know is good, to make others see its goodness, too. Yet the prospect also frightens us: to have power exposes us to criticism, to the difficulties of choice, to the expectations of others and the inescapable knowledge that we are not going to be able to fulfil them. There is something bizarrely satisfying about the role of a bystander or even a victim: we can be the challengers, not the challenged; the prosecution, not the defendant.

And so we do strange things in relation to power. We draw back from the cost of responsibility; we allow our vision to be narrowed to little local contests about status and advantage between ourselves and others. Can we wholly deny that the first few months of the Welsh Assembly have shown signs of this? But there are far worse things: we can try to avoid the risks of adult power by latching on to the most vulnerable, guaranteeing that we shall always have dominance and control by selecting the victims least likely and least able to challenge, and trapping them in the murderous secrecies of abusive violence.

We seek and we fear. Reaching for power and avoiding power account between them for a surprisingly wide range of human sinfulness and folly. And if we can't cope with power ourselves, we locate it in someone else. "Lead us," we say, meaning, "Take the risks we don't want to take, do what we want to do or say but spare us the responsibility - and leave us free to lead the opposition when you don't do what we want." Weak people, notoriously, are fascinated by strength in others; it is what makes possible the worst kinds of totalitarianism.

And into this tangle the gospel speaks. The life and the death of Jesus Christ are a ceaseless struggle over what power means. The people wanted, we are told, to "take him by force and make him king", and he won't co-operate.

They want by violence to make him take the power they both need and fear, to exercise power over him, so that he can dominate them.

But, as Jesus tells Pilate, his kingship will not work like this; it is something more disturbing, something that only exercises power by giving power. Which means that it is most decisively shown in the moment of complete relinquishing: death. No wonder we'd prefer a Christ who reflects back to us the power we need and fear; no wonder we speak again and again, we Christians, about our weakness and his control - forgetting that his power is fulfilled in weakness, and in him our weakness is made strong. To know Christ and the power of his resurrection, says Paul in Philippians, is to share his death: that is, to let go of both the need and the fear. In Christ we need not fear to act in hope, even though we know we risk hurting ourselves and others, because the resource of divine mercy in Jesus is never exhausted, for us or others. Christ's power is known when we know that we are set free. So to know his power is also to know our own; to know that is authority is given us to use as he uses it.

To us is given the freedom to make free, and so to challenge the need of power and the fear of power. By being in him, alive with his Spirit, we become the agents of this power, this kingship. We are the voices of liberation, of the hope that human beings can grow beyond guilt and rivalry, self-hatred and self-serving.

The New Testament doesn't encourage us to think that the power of Christ in his Spirit is something exercised at a distance from us by an all-powerful problem-solver; it is rather the gift of being where Christ is, in cross and resurrection, letting what he gives be given in and through us, through our prayers and words and acts.

If we have begun to understand what is different about the power of Jesus, if we "know him and the power of his resurrection", we shall see that the only leadership the Church can give to the society around it which is not a betrayal of its Lord has to be through its capacity to give life and freedom - not the abstract freedom of an empty, all-purpose tolerance, which does nothing to transform our humanity, but that freedom from guilt, self-obsession and anxiety that enables people to grow into their proper destiny before God.

If we want to see a society capable of this adult and creative liberty, we as a Church must be an adult and creative community; we must be wary of all the things that draw us back towards the tangled fantasies about power that we started with. If the stillness that comes from being where Christ's power is

can be felt in and around us, what we do and say takes on an immeasurably greater weight. It is not at all that we choose between action and prayer, but that out of the stillness comes the ability to act with a different kind of integrity.

Every pastor, perhaps even more every bishop, knows the betrayals of Christ that litter a ministry, what a correspondent called the silencing of the voice of prophesy and the voice of despair. There are always expectations already disappointed, mistakes made, hurts unhealed.

But those charged with authority in the Church have to learn, as everyone does, in repentance. What a strange community we'd be if our pastors and teachers were incapable of growth and of human error and sin! The community's job is to call them back to that only right and proper expectation: not of being the sources and managers of power but of being where power is, where Christ is.

The hardest task for us, but what is inexorably laid on us: to be, faithfully, where the power of God, that is utterly other than all we can imagine, comes.