Rowan Williams on Sneezing and Muddying the Waters

I recently had a student write a book review of Rowan Williams’ short book Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer for my summer systematic theology course.  Williams, who is perhaps best known for having served as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, is one of the most erudite and learned theologians of his generation.  That being said, this brief introduction to “the essential elements of the Christian life”1 may possibly go down as his most important work.

The elegance and accessibility of Williams’ prose in Being Christian belies the author’s deftness in mining the depths of the Christian theological tradition to bring forth treasures new and old.  Among my favourite passages include a discussion of baptism in terms of stirring up the mud of the Jordan River and the employment of sneezing as an analogy for prayer.  Here are those passages in their fuller context:

On Baptism:  “Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave us untouched and unsullied.  And the gathering of baptized people is therefore not a convocation of those who are privileged, elite and separate, but of those who have accepted what it means to be in the heart of a needy, contaminated, messy world. To put it another way, you can’t go down into the waters of the Jordan, without stirring up a great deal of mud!” 2

On Prayer:  “The prayer of baptized people is a growing and moving into the prayer of Jesus himself and therefore it is a prayer that may often be difficult and mysterious.  It will not always be cheerful and clear, and it may not always feel as though it is going to be answered.  Christians do not pray expecting to get what they ask for in any simple sense — you just might have noticed that this can’t be taken for granted! Rather, Christians prayer because they have to, because the Spirit is surging up inside them. Prayer in other words, is more like sneezing — there comes a point where you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can’t help yourself, it can feel dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about.” 3

  1. Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), vii.
  2. Williams, Being Christian, 6.
  3. Williams, Being Christian, 8.

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