The Knave meets Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams former Archbishop of Canterbury

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at ease in The Master’s Lodge, Magdalene College, Cambridge. © Samuel Mather Photography

I’m waiting in a room lined from picture rail to skirting board with frames of diverse kinds – watercolours, dried butterflies, family pictures, a signed photo of Wills and Kate; on the bookshelves Shakespeare’s complete works, twice (one looks like a well-thumbed Victorian edition), novels by Dostoevsky (in Russian? I should have looked more closely…), a whole shelf of R. S. Thomas collections (a kindred spirit, I imagine); and, sticking out like a sore thumb, a Best of the Kinks CD. I imagine him relaxing to it on a Sunny Afternoon – A Well Respected Man such as he may only get the chance to relax Now And Then.

I can hear the clerical peck of the former Archbishop’s fingers at a keyboard next door. I’ve arrived early, keen to max out my time with ‘Rowan’ – for this is how he was introduced to me, by his friendly PA, Jo, who had kindly walked me over to ‘The Master’s Lodge’ of Magdalene College sensing, I suspect, The Knave’s nerves.

I’m suddenly conscious of how sticky I am – my nervous anticipation having manifested itself in rather conspicuous sweat patches beneath my arms – my face feels like it must be shining. The former head of the Anglican Communion is next door, a holy man, a sage who speaks or reads 11 different languages and performed the marriage of our future King. And here am I, a heathen, a Knave, hoping to engage him. What am I going to do?

I wipe at my forehead with my shirtsleeve and sweep back my floppy hair. Try to be cool.

Here he is… We shake hands again, his grip satisfyingly firm.

He apologises, as if late, despite having arrived right on time at 10am.

“You’re lucky I didn’t get Tired of Waiting for You”, I don’t respond.

He sits down, in his two-seater by the window, crosses one leg over the other, places his hands on his lap and looks towards me politely…

My cue to begin is a gentle gesture from his eyebrows – the resultant movement of air creates a soft breeze that caresses and cools my brow – a novel form of air conditioning.

I take a breath and begin: “I have this wacky project. It’s called The Cathedral Knave.”

“Mmm-hmm”, Rowan rumbles. His voice is so evocative; both bassy and barely audible, it sounds as if it must be potent at source – but, like an explosion in a quarry that carries to a distant walker over several miles, it is muffled by distance – it reaches me as an almost whisper. I tune in my ears and hope that the audio recorder is near enough.

“I love cathedrals”, I continue, “and have set myself the challenge of visiting and writing about all 44 of the Anglican examples in the Church of England. I find they have a lot to say to me.”

“…but what about you?” I ask: “As someone who has spent a lot of time in and with cathedrals, what does the word ‘cathedral’ evoke for you?”

“You’re recording are you?” he asks considerately. I nod, and he begins.

I guess the first thing that comes to mind with the word ‘cathedral’ is scale.

“I mean, most people think “it’s a big church” – not every big church is a cathedral, not every cathedral is a big church, but that is what people think of.

“I think they also tend to think of it as, um, how shall I put it, a public space – it’s something that serves community, so the cathedral of such-and-such-a-city, such-and-such-a-town, is there not just for a segment of the city, it’s part of the whole civic identity.”

I suggest that the cathedrals of Lincoln and Durham, to name but two, are synonymous with their cities, and dominate them entirely.

Lincoln Cathedral from the south © Samuel Mather Photography

Lincoln Cathedral from the south © Samuel Mather Photography

“But even somewhere like Manchester where you don’t have a great, dominating building, I think there’s still a feeling in civic society that that’s the place you go to for civic events.”

Could this be a playful hint that he has cast an eye over my Manchester post?

I tell him how impressed I was by the mission up there; how welcome they made me feel and how I now felt a little guilty about my piece on The Cathedral Beneath the Bridge – it had not struck me to consider a cathedral’s missionary position until after my visit to the Southbank church.

“Yes, I think there’s more to be said about Southwark…”, comes the response, with more than a hint of knavishness.

Did he read the Southwark piece, too? I hope he got past the pissoir…

But one thing Southwark certainly is not is architecturally impressive. “What is your favourite style of church architecture? Is it the gothic of Canterbury?” I ask.

“I’m very divided. I mean, Canterbury is such a special space and it’s not only a big space, it’s lots of little spaces, too.”

Then, fondly: “I love the crypt at Canterbury.”

The Crypt at Canterbury Cathedral, details

Details: the Crypt at Canterbury Cathedral © Samuel Mather Photography

“Which is Anglo-Saxon”, I say with thoroughly misplaced confidence.

Nooooo”, says Rowan, betraying a modicum of embarrassment at my egregious historical infelicity.

“It’s Norman, but it’s on the site of the Anglo-Saxon cathedral.” Ah, bless him – he’s trying to spare my blushes. (FYI, Dear Reader, the first church at Canterbury was founded by St Augustine in 597.) He resumes, “but Durham – almost entirely Norman save for exploding into Gothic fantasy at the East end – is for me a very special place because of that Romanesque magnificence.”

So, there you have it, Rowan Williams loves Norman. [Regular readers of my blog will understand this joke. New readers should see my first pieces on Ely and Norwich…]

He continues:

“The style I find most difficult is Classical; 17th century. I don’t warm to St Paul’s or St Peter’s in Rome.”

I suggest that they are over-performative, Al Pacinos of churches.

Warning! This video clip contains bountiful bad language.

“Certainly St Peter’s is”, he replies. “St Peter’s grabs you by the lapel and shouts in your face.”

“But is that not simply down to the Catholic predilection for iconography and in-your-faceness?” asks the Knave.

“It’s a technique in the period: 16th, 17th century Catholicism has something to say and it wants to say it loud and clear. It wants to say, “we’re not going away. Eat ya heart out Reformers, we’re still here and this time it’s personal.”

You know, it’s very forceful and that means at St Peter’s, the message about the Papacy is delivered fortissimo – huge statues, great texts everywhere – I think it’s that insistence that I find difficult about St Peter’s. I don’t find it an inviting building.”

We’re really getting into this now, I think to myself. The former Archbishop is personifying architectural styles!

Do you have a favourite cathedral? Are you able to say, categorically, this place is more special than any other?

“I’d have to say Canterbury is really special, because, you know, living with it and in it for 10 years, it was to me inexhaustible, a wonderful, wonderful place.”

With Rowan contemplating Canterbury, I sense that now might be the moment to ask whether the creative force and will to endure that our greatest cathedrals embody is just as inspiring as the liturgical ceremonies they host.

Norwich Cathedral

The presbytery and choir at Norwich Cathedral through a Knaveseye © Samuel Mather Photography

“It’s an interesting point, but I think it illustrates the way in which a cathedral moves in and out of different phases. If there were not a regular round of prayer and liturgy they would probably feel a bit different, as if they were just big museums.”

Enthusiastically, he mentions Hagia Sophia, “one of the most transcendent buildings in the world, but – hmmm – what do you do with it now? It’s not used either as a church or a mosque. It’s a tourist attraction; a big empty space.”

So Hagia Sophia is evidently a space you appreciate. What is the building that you have been most profoundly affected by? 

“That’s such a difficult question to answer. There are churches I greatly love…

He continues:

“St Endellion is one of my favourite in the whole country. There’s something about the sparkle of the granite there, and the light, the sea light, in Cornwall.”

St Endellion Church

St Endellion Church, interior. © ReedDesign (

‘The sea light’ – what a simple, poetic phrase; evocative, too, for Rowan seems transported, momentarily, back to the days when as a student he first saw the church and was overwhelmed. He pauses, to enjoy the recollection; my mind drifts to the nave at Ely; we are both lost in a reverie for a moment.

“Yes, and Hagia Sophia and the way that it somehow just manages to create that huge, throbbing space. How does one describe the harmony of the building? It affects you almost physically, I think, when you see the proportions are absolutely dead right.”

Hagia Sophia interior

Hagia Sofia, interior © Bernardo Ricci Armani (on

Speaking of harmony, what is the ideal form for a modern cathedral? Are the grand old ones still practical spaces, with their naves, their screens, their choirs and presbyteries? I mention the two strikingly different forms of the Liverpool cathedrals.

He pauses for thought, “that’s an extremely hard question to answer.”

“Sorry!” say I.

“No, it’s a good one!

Another pause, then, with a rather impish grin:

Hmm, to be honest, I don’t think either of the Liverpool cathedrals has got it right. For me, the ideal cathedral is one where you can move from one area to another; discover new perspectives; new vistas; little corners where you can just tuck away.

“The Anglican cathedral is the last great dying roar of the gothic revival and I think it’s a very hard space to use properly.

The circularity of Christ the King? It’s a wonderful external design but internally it says it all straight away – “here you are, you’re in church, here’s the altar, get used to it!”

Yep, you just heard Rowan Williams impersonate a cathedral. The same humble clergyman who, in a television documentary in December 2012, spoke of the “spiritual and physical impossibility” of occupying the cathedra (bishop’s throne) at Canterbury has now become a very cathedral! In such a guise, where will he find a corner large enough to sit in?

“But for worship, I think the way that most Anglican cathedrals in this country have tackled it, bringing the liturgical theatre forward, in front of the screen or under a crossing, does work pretty well in most circumstances – you’ve got visibility, you’ve got a sense of involvement. At Canterbury, fortunately, you had the great backdrop of the pulpitum, so you could have a logical place for worship in front of that.”

“And there’s a real flow to Canterbury isn’t there?” I say, “down the nave and up the steps to the pulpitum, then the Bell Harry Tower?”

Canterbury Cathedral flow

The nave and the Bell Harry tower at Canterbury Cathedral taken from in the top of the steps in front of the pulpitum © Samuel Mather Photography

With a sense of nostalgic enthusiasm, he responds, “there really is – it’s extraordinary”, then whispers, emphatically, almost inaudibly: “Extraordinary.”


All good things…

My allotted 30 minutes have now run their course but my new friend still allows me to take some photos. I feel uncomfortable as I un-bag my bulky Nikon D700, the protuberant optic attached to it looking more like an assault weapon than a portrait lens. Rowan can barely mask his surprise.

“Don’t be scared”, I try and joke. He responds by biting the knuckles of his right hand in mock anxiety… When I ask if I can get that shot he smiles brightly and laughs – another controlled explosion from deep down in that bass-chamber of a chest.

Poised now to shoot Rowan, he has even moved out of the direct sunlight, drawing the curtains slightly, too. What a man.

Ah, yes, and game to the last, he also posed for a selfie! Here’s my first attempt…



“Sorry, I’m wasting your time”, say I.

“No, no, it’s important you get it right”, says he.

Our second attempt came out better…

Selfie with Rowan

Best cathedral buddies.

I think Rowan looks pretty chipper here, don’t you? The Knave and The Clergyman happily united in cathedral fandom! As Monday mornings in May go, this one was pretty extraordinary.


Email from Rowan

Rowan’s response to the draft I sent him… If you would also like to contact The Cathedral Knave you can do so by emailing or by leaving a comment, below.

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