Dr Rowan Williams – New Perspectives on Faith and Development – UPDATE

New Perspectives on Faith and Development: Closing keynote address

In the final seminar of this series on faith and development our speaker asks:

Have we ignored the teachings of faith groups in our treatment of the natural environment? Do faith traditions have a relevant voice on climate change and environmental degradation? Can they provide us with the energy and focus to overcome inaction? Do they add anything new to this debate?

Keynote Speaker: Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

Chair: Rabbi David Rosen

* * *

Here is a summary of Rowan Williams’s presentation, as it appeared in The Guardian:

Rowan Williams has called for a broadening of the development agenda, so that secular agencies working in developing countries might become more fluent in the language of faith. Conversely, he stressed, faith-based communities must be more open to the imperatives of the “development establishment.” Learning from each other would not only be good for development. It might make possible the “distribution of dignity”, alongside the establishment of rights, he said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has a remarkable ability to highlight key issues of our day, issues that many then recognise, even though they don’t share his faith commitment. He has done so again with his analysis of the work of development. It came at the culmination of a series of RSA-sponsored lectures entitled New Perspectives on Faith and Development. (He also achieved what must be a rare eclecticism for public talks, commending to his audience both a papal encyclical by Benedict XVI and a volume written by George Monbiot.)

Williams’s analysis is premised on the observation that there has been, and remains, a longstanding unease between the development establishment and faith communities. The development establishment is often wary of the way faith communities operate, believing they undermine the universal ethic that inspires development. So, the fear is that faith communities may prefer to care for their own, not for all. Or they may hinder the spread of human rights, particularly to women. Or they may use development as a cover for proselytising.

Conversely, religious communities are often suspicious of the secular agenda of development agencies, feeling they ride roughshod over deeply held convictions and patterns of life, and impose an essentially foreign view of the good life, imported from the materialistic culture of the rich west.

Williams is clearly on the side of faith in this debate. But he is not seeking to score points. Rather, he points to what might be gained should both sides transcend their prejudices. That would be nothing less than a renewed vision for development.

Part of that is purely practical. With better co-operation, more would be achieved. Local communities that were “agents for their own change” would contribute greater energy to the task, and arguably be more effective. That said, Williams warned against governments that sought to capitalise on faith communities simply as a way of saving money. For far more substantial returns might be possible too.

This is nothing less than a new vision for development. Williams argues that whilst the language of human rights has achieved much – and could even be said to be religious in origin – it has become highly legalistic in tone, and so is often presented as nothing more than a series of entitlements. The problem with the language of entitlements is that it has a thin conception of the human good and, in the context of development, is blind to the particularities of local settings. Hence, the sense that a foreign and materialistic way of life is being imported.

A second element in this new vision, and more challenging still, would be a shift the balance of power in development relationships. I was reminded of a moment in Brideshead Revisited when Cordelia, the younger daughter of the Marchmain family, comments that “you send five bob to some nuns in Africa and they christen a baby and name her after you. I’ve got six black Cordelias already. Isn’t it lovely?”

The problem is obvious. Developing countries are conceived of as poor recipients, with developed countries as generous donors. But a fuller vision, for which Williams draws on Christian theology, is one in which giving to the poor is not only about alleviating the suffering of others, but is about receiving a gift in return – the gift found in discovering the humanity of the other. In a striking phrase, Williams called this the “proper distribution of dignity.” Borrowing the title of a short story by Flannery O’Connor, he noted that “The life you save may be your own.”

He is attacking the imbalances of power inherent in relationships of patronage, and whilst he is quite clear that such imbalances are not easy to address, they start to shift when development is not the sole focus of such relationships. Hence, some faith schools in the UK have links with schools in the developing world, enabling students to gain a glimpse of each other’s lives in the round. Alternatively, Williams pointed to the Mothers’ Union, which contrary to its “knitting and jam” image, is a huge enabler of rich, global exchanges.

What this can be said to add up to is a redressing of notions of the good life. Do we have a view of what it is to be human that reaches beyond material welfare to include moral wellbeing, even a sense of relationship with the transcendent? Given the current economic crisis and fears about the environmental, now seems an ideal time to address this bigger question. It might be one of the most profound challenges of our day.


Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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