Some of you probably kept up with news coverage of the recent “Global South” international Anglican conference that just met in Egypt. During the conference, some questions were put to the Anglican primate, Archbishop Rowan Williams. Archbishop Williams was finally asked to “please share with us your testimony of how you came to faith in Christ” (this is the report from the Times). What will follow is most of his very interesting response.
This response reminded me of part of a recent interview with Cardinal Edward Cassidy. The former president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity said, “The great thing for me in ecumenism is that, though you know the goal may be difficult and a long way away, we can still rejoice in the fact that we have come from where we were before — i.e., either hostile to each other or indifferent — to what John Paul II said so beautifully that we have ‘rediscovered the fact that we are not enemies, we are not strangers, that we are brothers and sisters in the one Lord Jesus Christ.’ I believe this has been a great accomplishment for all the churches.”
Now, here is Archbishop Williams’ answer:
I think there were 2 moments in my teenage years when I felt I met the living God. Not just words or rituals, but the living God.
The first … was the first time I attended a Russian Orthodox service. An elderly priest came to my town in South Wales in Swansea to celebrate a Russian Orthodox liturgy – the mass. And the curate in my parish said to me, “You might be interested in this. Come with me.” And I went, and when I came away I felt I had seen glory and praise for the first time. I felt I had seen and heard people who were behaving as if God were real. And that it’s the only way, I know it’s not the only way, but I came away with the sense of absolute objectivity and majesty and beauty of God which I have never forgotten. If people worshipped like this, I felt God must be a great deal more real even I have learned him so far. I have a long journey to make into that reality. And that is why ever since then I have often asked when people want to discuss mission, I’ve often asked “Does our worship look as if we took God seriously?” because that’s what makes a difference to me. This had to be serious, this had to be real.
And the second experience was not unlikely in a way. It was 3 years later when I was 17, and I used to go sometimes at that period to a Baptist church in Swansea as well as to my own Anglican church. I went on Saturday evenings for the services which they held there which were very direct and challenging mission services, and that is where I learnt most of my choruses and my Moody and Sankey’s hymns. And that is where I learnt how to sing Blessed Assurance with love and delight, and heard very blunt evangelistic preaching. I also went because some very nice girls from the Grammar school went there on Saturday evenings too, but there we are, God works through all sorts of motivations. And one of those young ladies said in her own chapel they were going to have a visit from somebody I might want to listen to, and his name was Richard Wurmbrandt, a name which some of you would know, I think, a Lutheran pastor who has suffered appallingly for his faith in Romania in the 50s and the 60s. He’s been many, many years in prison and tortured. He wrote a book which some of you would know called Tortured for Christ, and also an extraordinary little volume of meditations and sermons in solitary confinement. If you’ve never read that book, read it. So I went to hear Richard Wurmbrandt and it was the first time I had met a Christian martyr, a confessor of the faith. He spoke about what he’d endured in prison and he spoke about God and about Jesus Christ. And once again I came away thinking I’ve seen the reality, the words about something true, but now I’ve seen the truth. Again, it was as if I was seeing a life that so obviously took God and Jesus Christ so seriously. And I came away thinking I cannot deny the reality and my own life looks very hollow by comparison. And just on that first occasion when I went to the Russian service, I found myself that evening kneeling at prayer in tears and feeling that I’ve been taken somewhere new. I had to change, I had to grow, I had to repent. I had to let that reality become more real for me.
Those were 2 moments in a long journey of faith, beginning at my mother’s knees.