Identify Yourself

by Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams is archbishop of Canterbury. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered in 2006 at the assembly of the World Council of Churches in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, (March 21, 2006, pp. 29-33.) Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation: used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


We identify ourselves not by winning arguments in some religious marketplace but by living faithfully where God in Jesus has brought us to be.

How do we as Christians identify, ourselves? We carry the name of Christ. We are the people who are known for their loyalty to the historical person who was given the title of "anointed monarch" by his followers -- Jesus, the Jew of Nazareth. Every time we say "Christian," we take for granted a story and a place in history, the story and place of those people with whom God made an alliance in the distant past, the people whom he called so that in their life together he might show his glory.

"Identify yourself" says the world to the Christian; and the Christian says (as the martyrs of the first centuries said), "We are the servants of a monarch, the monarch of a nation set free by God’s special action to show his love and strength in their life together, a monarch whose authority belongs to the present and the future as much as the past. We are witnesses to the consistency of a God who cannot be turned aside from his purpose by any created power, or by any failure or betrayal on our part. We are more than servants or witnesses, because we are enabled to speak as if we are, like our king, free to be intimate with God; God has stepped across the distance between ourselves and heaven, and has brought us close to him. When we speak directly to God, we speak in a voice God himself has given us to use."

It can be put most forcefully, even shockingly, if we say that Christians identify themselves not only as servants of the anointed king but as Christ. Their place in the world is his place. By allowing themselves to be caught up into his witness and doing what his authority makes possible for them, in work and worship, they stand where he stands.

Christian identity is to belong in a place that Jesus defines for us, By living in that place, we come in some degree to share his identity, to bear his name and to be in the same relationships he has with God and with the world. Forget "Christianity" for a moment -- Christianity as a system of ideas competing with others in the market; concentrate on the place in the world that is the place of Jesus the anointed, and what it is that becomes possible in that place.

The claim of Christian belief is not first and foremost that it offers the only accurate system of thought, as against all other competitors; it is that, by standing in the place of Christ, it is possible to live in such intimacy with God that no fear or failure can ever break God’s commitment to us, and to live in such a degree of mutual gift and understanding that no human conflict or division need bring us to uncontrollable violence and mutual damage. From here, you can see what you need to see to be at peace with God and with God’s creation; and also what you need to be at peace with yourself, acknowledging your need of mercy and re-creation.

In what sense is this an exclusive claim? In one way, it can be nothing except exclusive. There is no Christian identity that does not begin from this place. Try to reconstruct the "identity" from principles, ideals or whatever, and you end up with something that is very different from the scriptural account of being "in Christ." And because being in Christ is bound up with one and only one particular history -- that of Jewish faith and of the man from Nazareth -- it is simply not clear what it would mean to say that this perspective could in principle be gained by a7ny person anywhere with any sort of commitments.

Yet in another sense exclusivism is impossible certainly the exclusivism of a system of ideas and conclusions that someone claims to be final and absolute. The place of Jesus is open to all who want to see what Christians see and to become what Christians are becoming. And no Christian believer has in his or her possession some kind of map of where exactly the boundaries of that place are to be fixed, or a key to lock others out or in.

In the nature of the case, the Christian does not see what can be seen from other perspectives. He or she would be foolish to say that nothing can be seen or that every other perspective distorts everything so badly that no real truth can come from it. If I say that only in this place are hurts fully healed, sins forgiven, adoption into God’s intimate presence promised, that assumes that adoption and forgiveness are to be desired above all other things. Not every perspective has that at the center.

What I want to say about those other views is not that they are in error but that they leave out what matters most in human struggle; yet I know that this will never be obvious to those others, and we can only come together, we can only introduce others into our perspective, in the light of the kind of shared labor and shared hope that brings into central focus what I believe to be most significant for humanity. And meanwhile that sharing will also tell me that there may be things -- perhaps of less ultimate importance, yet enormously significant -- that my perspective has not taught me to see or to value.

What does this mean for the actual, on-the-ground experience of living alongside the plurality of religious communities -- and nonreligious ones too -- that we cannot escape or ignore in our world? I believe that our emphasis should not be on possessing a system in which all questions are answered, but precisely on witness to the place and the identity that we have been invited to live in. We are to show what we see, to reproduce the life of God as it has been delivered to us by the anointed.

When Christians pray the eucharistic prayer, they take the place of Jesus, both as he prays to the Father and as he offers welcome to the world at his table. The Eucharist is the celebration of the God who keeps promises and whose hospitality is always to be trusted.

But this already tells us that we have to be committed to those around us, whatever their perspective. Their need, their hope, their search for healing at the depth of their humanity is something with which we must, as we say in English, "keep faith." That is to say, we must be there to accompany this searching, asking critical questions with those of other faiths, sometimes asking critical questions of them also. As we seek transformation together, it may be by God’s gift that others will find their way to see what we see and to know what is possible for us.

But what of their own beliefs, their own "places"? Sometimes when we look at our neighbors of other traditions, it can be as if we see in their eyes a reflection of what we see; they do not have the words we have, but something is deeply recognizable. The language of "anonymous Christianity" is now not much in fashion -- and it had all kinds of problems. Yet who that has been involved in dialogue with other faiths has not had the sense of an echo, a reflection, of the kind of life Christians seek to live?

St. Paul says that God did not leave himself without witnesses in the ages before the Messiah; in those places where that name is not named, God may yet give himself to be seen. Because we do not live there, we cannot easily analyze let alone control how this may be. And to acknowledge this is not at all to say that what happens in the history of Israel and Jesus is relative, one way among others. This, we say, is the path to forgiveness and adoption. But when others appear to have arrived at a place where forgiveness and adoption are sensed and valued, even when these things are not directly spoken of in the language of another faith’s mainstream reflection, are we to say that God has not found a path for himself?

And when we face radically different notions, strange and complex accounts of a perspective not our own, our questions must be not "How do we convict them of error? How do we win the competition of ideas?" but, "What do they actually see? And can what they see be a part of the world that I see?" These are questions that can be answered only by faithfulness -- that is, by staying with the other. Our calling to faithfulness, remember, is an aspect of our own identity and integrity.

To work patiently alongside people of other faiths is not an option invented by modern liberals who seek to relativize the radical singleness of Jesus Christ and what was made possible through him. It is a necessary part of being where he is; it is a dimension of "liturgy," staying before the presence of God and the presence of God’s creation (human and nonhuman) in prayer and love. If we are truly learning how to be in that relation with God and the world in which Jesus of Nazareth stood, we shall not turn away from those who see from another place. And any claim or belief that we see more or more deeply is always rightly going to be tested in those encounters where we find ourselves working for a vision of human flourishing and justice in the company of those who do not start where we have started.

But the call to faithfulness has some more precise implications as well. In a situation where Christians are historically a majority, faithfulness to the other means solidarity with them, the imperative of defending them and standing with them in times of harassment or violence. In a majority Christian culture, the Christian may find himself or herself assisting the non-Christian community or communities to find a public voice.

However, the question also arises of what faithfulness means in a majority non-Christian culture; and this is less straightforward. For a variety of reasons, some based on fact and some on fantasy, many non-Christian majorities regard Christian presence as a threat, or at least as the sign of a particular geopolitical agenda (linked with the U.S. or the West in general) -- despite the long history of Christian minorities in many such contexts. One of the most problematic effects of recent international developments has been precisely to associate Christians in the Middle East or Pakistan, for example, with an alien and aggressive policy in the eyes of an easily manipulated majority. The suffering of Christian minorities as a result of this is something which all churches need constantly to keep in focus.

Yet what is remarkable is tile courage with which Christians continue -- in Egypt, in Pakistan, in the Balkans, even in Iraq -- to seek ways of continuing to work alongside non-Christian neighbors. This is not the climate of "dialogue" as it happens in the West or in the comfortable setting of international conferences; it is the painful making and remaking of trust in a deeply unsafe and complex environment. Only relatively rarely in such settings have Christians responded with counter-aggression or by absolute withdrawal. They continue to ask how they and those of other commitments can be citizens together.

It is in this sort of context that we most clearly see what it means to carry the cost of faithfulness, to occupy the place of Jesus and so to bear the stresses and sometimes the horrors of rejection and still to speak of sharing and hospitality. Here we see what it is to model a new humanity; and there is enough to suggest that such modeling can be contagious, can open up new possibilities for a whole culture.

And this is not simply a question of patience in suffering. It also lays on Christians the task of speaking to those aspects of a non-Christian culture which are deeply problematic -- where the environment is one in which human dignity, the status of women, the rule of law and similar priorities are not honored as they should be. To witness in these things may lay Christians open to further attack or marginalization, yet it remains part of that identity which we all seek to hold with integrity. Once again, where this happens, all of us need to find ways of’ making our solidarity real with believers in minority situations.

The question of Christian identity in a world of plural perspectives and convictions cannot be answered in clichés about the tolerant coexistence of different opinions. It is rather that the nature of our conviction as Christians puts us irrevocably in a certain place that is both promising and deeply risky -- the place where we are called to show utter commitment to the God who is revealed in Jesus and to all those to whom his invitation is addressed.

Our very identity obliges us to active faithfulness of this double kind. We are not called to win competitions or arguments in favor of our "product" in some religious marketplace. If we are, in the words of Olivier Clement, to take our dialogue beyond the encounter of ideologies, we have to be ready to witness, in life and word, to what is made possible by being in the place of Jesus the anointed – "our reasons for living, for loving less badly and dying less badly." "Identify yourself" And we do so by giving prayerful thanks for our place and by living Faithfully where God in Jesus has brought us to be, so that the world may see what is the depth and cost of God’s own fidelity to the world he has made.