Last night someone reminded me, via a post on my Facebook wall, that I had told him years ago that one of the great things about Rowan as a teacher was that he could say more in a few words than most could say in many. I had said that the only way to take notes in his lectures was to write more than he said. That person leads the King’s Church in the town where I used to live. Hardly an episcopal fan club. But he, like many, was feeling a strange loss. Me too. It will take a long time to figure it out. But here are two thoughts. One about Rowan as priest and the other about Rowan as archbishop.
Perhaps Rowan’s most typical book is one called ‘Lost Icons’. In the introduction he says he wrote it as a priest. And he did. And it is Rowan the priest who is perhaps the most powerful personality in his complex character. And that priest is itself an icon. (Whether ordained or not is in my view at least a secondary matter here.)
Let me explain. A priest is not an image but a lens. The point is not to ‘look at’ but to ‘see through’. Priests are not meant to be celebrities. Icons are not meant to be attractive. In the book Rowan calls them (if I remember rightly, I do not have a copy to hand) ‘grotesqueries’. They do not make sense on their own. They do not even point the way. What they do is invite you to imagine a focal point beyond them. This is Rowan’s way. It is what priests are for. To remind us that what appears to be surface is by no means all there is. True icons invite us to depth and transcendence. And so do true priests.
People grumble that Rowan thought and spoke in metaphors. But it simply comes with the territory in the church. Bishops are less leaders than bridges, they are not the pillars of the church, they are the arches that join them. Now it is hardly the fault of the arch if the pillars start to move way from each other or if an earthquake forces them apart. But the bridge is still a bridge, the arch still the arch. It is pulled out of shape but it is not the role of the arch to become the pillar. Nor is there any point in complaining of an arch that it does not have its feet on the ground. In any structure which inspires the arches are lofty. It is their vocation.
What I think that this means is that the role of a bishop or archbishop in times of rapid change is inevitably going to be problematic and painful. But that’s just the reality. The meaning is far more interesting and important. And the meaning only comes clear when the archbishop or bishop is also a true priest and true icon. One through whom we see the face of Christ and, on a very good day, the glory of God.
We are losing one icon. God help us find another.