Rowan Williams is perhaps best known as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who sat astride a fault-line in the Anglican Communion, which the Anglican Covenant failed to mend.
Yet there is another Rowan - the poet, the critic, the visionary, who sees deeper than most of us into the presence of the Gospel in the arts. We may pray that it is this, and not the politics of the Communion, which will be his lasting legacy to the Church.
On a visit to the annual Shakespeare’s Birthday celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2008, he preached (twice) and also participated in an open forum with luminaries of Shakespeariana such as Greg Doran, now Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). It was a memorable occasion. Memorable, not least, for something which he said which would shock some of his more illiberal fellow-primates: ‘You should read the Bible in the way you read Shakespeare’.
I have been pondering, ever since, on that saying. Did he really mean what he said? Surely the Bible has a quite different status from the Shakespearian canon. Huge claims are made for the Bible, some of them within the text itself (‘Thus says the Lord’). It is said to be divinely inspired (and Shakespeare, presumably, isn’t?). Christians are assumed to see the Bible as a definitive guide to truth and living. Shakespeare never claimed that for himself, and few if any have claimed it for him.
Yet Shakespeare has gained a unique cultural and humanistic authority, cutting across nations, cultures and creeds. If he does implicitly make a claim for himself, it is ‘to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature’ and to explore the fundamental dimensions of the human condition.
That is not a bad place to start in our reading of the Bible too. We may indeed find that there is more to it than that. The 19th-century philosopher Benjamin Jowett, one of the ancestors of Modern Church, said: ‘Interpret the Scripture like any other book’, however, he went on to say: ‘There are many respects in which it is unlike any other book; these will appear in the results of such interpretation’.
But let us start by reading Shakespeare and the Bible in much the same way, and we may find some enlightenment from both.
One of Shakespeare’s dicta which probably means a lot to most of our members is Polonius’ injunction to Laertes:
This above all; to thine own self be true;
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
We in Modern Church seek a faith which is ‘true to ourselves’. That is not without ambiguity. After all, Laertes was being ‘true to himself’ when he killed Hamlet and brought down the whole tragic pack of cards. Being true to ourselves does not simply mean doing our own thing regardless of others. And Shakespeare knew that. He is not an apostle of unbridled individualism. Elsewhere in the canon, notably in the Histories, we see a very different philosophy in which the community and its institutions, notably the institution of kingship, are exalted in a way some may find difficult today. Even in Hamlet itself, both philosophies are represented. The institutional and the communitarian, too, is part of Shakespeare - just as many conflicting and sometimes difficult views on every aspect of life are found within the covers of Scripture. We need to wrestle with them all.