Rowan Williams returning to playfulness

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has announced he will step down at the end of the year. He has been leader of 77 million Anglicans for a decade during a particularly fractious period.

So who can blame him for wanting a different kind of life?

Why is he moving on?

I returned to his own writings for some hints and clues.  In his insightful 2000 book, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement, he speaks about how we have become, in his words, a “non-playful society.” In an essay on “Charity” he writes,

The skewed character of work in our society is intensified all the time by the lack, the thinness or the impotence of the remaining social rituals that embody charity.  In such a situation, these surviving practices that point to the social miracle bear too heavy a load, and buckle out of shape, becoming prolongations or displacements of, or compensations for the destructive-compettive activities of non-playful society. Things are not helped by the intensity of media attention: sport, from football to chess, is defined in the media as what-professional-others do. For the professional, there is need, spoken or unspoken, not only to win within the terms of the game, but also to win in terms of the rewards that publicity can confer, the odd and fragile ‘goods’ that are supposed to go with celebrity.  For the mass audience, this has largely ceased to be their ritual: it is something enacted for their entertainment, rather than an activity that might affect their own modes of behaving and understanding themselves. (p 62-63)

As I watched the NCAA tournament last night, part of the annual spectacle we Americans call “March Madness,” I was struck by how deadly serious these young men were. They played basketball, but there was little that seemed playful about it. There is truth in Williams’ observation that as sports becomes ever more serious and commodified the rest of us are deprived of the rituals of playfulness, except as spectators (and consumers.)

Williams has lived long enough with celebrity under the glare of the media. He has done his part.

But we have not heard the last from him. He is one of our finest theologian, an astute social critic, and a first-rate poet. Freed from the burdens of the primate’s office I expect he will grace us, both church and world, with new contributions.

But perhaps what he seeks most is play.

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4 thoughts on “Rowan Williams returning to playfulness

  1. Rick, I was once a pretty serious athlete. Nowhere near as good as the young men in March Madness, but decent; my team won a state championship. Your observation is correct; during the game the mood is deadly serious. Athletes rarely have time to step outside of concentrating on the game in order to savor or enjoy it. That comes later. To put it another way, athletes are too busy with the action phase to undertake much of the reflective phase. The spectators have fun during the game. For athletes the satisfaction comes afterwards.

    • Dave. That’s right. I was (am) a big jock and played some high stakes high school basketball, so I know just what you mean. But my illustration of Williams’ point is that for many, unlike you and me, the spectating is all they do. It is like the increased popularity of cooking shows, but a decrease in home cooking, This is part of what he means by the non-playful society, I think. A society where more and more of us merely watch professional celebrities perform.

  2. Rick, I wonder if the lack of participation is related to the cult of celebrity. If no one applauds, if one will not become famous, perhaps some people feel the enterprise is not worth the effort. People may fear being average. Perhaps shows like American Idol actually discourage “ordinary” people from singing around the piano or picking up a guitar.

    BTW: I like soccer better than basketball. Basketball rewards height. In soccer you legs only have to be long enough to reach the ground. 🙂

  3. Dave. Yes. I think you are right. And Williams links the cult of celebrity to his notion of the non-playful society. His essay is on Charity, and he worries that the loss of the rituals of playfulness are diminishing us. The subtitle of Lost Icons is Reflections on Cultural Bereavement.

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