It was a youthful passion for the great literature of Russia – for writers like Dostoevsky – that first introduced Rowan Williams to the thought of that great nation and led him eventually to research for his doctorate and an abiding interest in Eastern interpretations of Christianity. Now he has written a volume on the Orthodox tradition and on September 13 he gave a talk on his new book to the Friends of the Anglican Centre.


Publication of Looking East in Winter – Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition was the starting point for the talk by the former Archbishop of Canterbury. It is a volume that is both an introduction to a world that many Christians in the West know little of, and a book written in an ecumenical spirit, suggesting that those of us who experience muddle and spiritual crises today can learn from the intense spirituality of the East. As Lord Williams suggests in his volume, while we feel a chill on our backs in the cold of winter in the west, we can turn to the east and feel the warmth of a rising sun.


Lord Williams’ volume introduces the thought of the East, from the desert contemplatives of the fourth century to philosophers, novelists and activists of the modern age, but his talk for the Anglican Centre was somewhat more personal, tracing his own growing interest in Orthodoxy and what he learnt from it. He described the richness of its worship while acknowledging it can be mysterious to those unfamiliar with it, but that was its attraction. “Byzantine liturgy takes no prisoners”, he said, “it is putting you in another place – that of heaven and you ask for an explanation at your peril”.


He finds a similar attractiveness in icon painting, once considered stiff, formal and abstract by Western observers. But, he said, one needed to understand what the icon painters were offering: the figures in icons are pointing to the world beyond us.


Lord Williams’ talk was also a whistlestop tour of great Orthodox thinkers and teachers, including those of the Russian diaspora who fled the Soviet takeover. There were also converts to Orthodoxy, including Olivier Clement, a socialist atheist who later discovered Orthodoxy and Maria Skobtsova, first an atheist who embraced Bolshevism, but also later discovered Orthodoxy. After a life of political activism in Russia and two failed marriages, she moved to Paris and became immersed in her faith. Her bishop encouraged her to become a nun but she asked that, unlike Orthodox religious, she would not be a contemplative but be active in the world. Eventually she opened a convent where she worked with refugees and the needy as well as encouraged theological discourse. During the Second World War she worked with the French Resistance and helped Jews escape capture by the Nazis, only to be arrested herself. She died in Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1944 and was canonized by the Eastern Orthodox Church in 2004. For Skobtsova, Lord Williams explained, Christianity has solidarity at its heart – indeed the “foundational significance” of solidarity – in other words a deep love and compassion for one’s neighbour – is “a theological and moral lodestar”.


Looking East in Winter – Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition is published by BloomsburyContinuum, £20.00

We shall soon be publishing the seminar online here in the coming days.