Open Issue July 1998

Prophecy today

Rowan Williams

To discover what prophecy might mean today Rowan Williams, Bishop of Monmouth, seeks first some criteria in the Hebrew scriptures. But when Christians try to put these into practice, they must remember that 'the crucified prophet has to be the final test of our own attempts to live the prophetic vocation'. This article is adapted from the 1997 Las Casas lecture.

Prophecy is a slippery and difficult word which designates for many people not so much an activity as an attitude, an attitude which is very attractive, not to say, seductive at times. Attending to the origins of prophecy in the Jewish and Christian traditions we share may be a defence against some of the sentimentality that can surround the word.

Word of the Lord
The prophet responds to and articulates the word of the Lord. Canonical prophecy in Hebrew scripture begins with the affirmation that the word of the Lord came to someone. A prophet, in other words, is hearing and transmitting something which is alien, something which is other. The prophet sees or hears something that others don't. And that is not simply a matter of the prophet receiving supernatural communications by some occult means. More importantly, it signifies the way in which the prophet sees events or experiences as meaning more than themselves, as meaning God (Amos 7:1-3, 7-8).

The prophet responds to that great Shakespearean question, 'What seest thou else?' The prophet is encountering an active God, and, I think this must be said, an alien God. The prophet speaks in the name of a strange God to people who have become used to God, familiar with God. Most distinctively and most frequently, in much of the classical prophetic literature the God who is perceived or heard is the God who says No to the self-description of the community from which the prophet comes.


My second suggestion about the beginnings of prophecy is that the prophet witnesses, above all, to the bonds that are being broken in society around. To speak prophetically in ancient Israel depended on two kinds of recognition - that the God of Israel was bound to the people of Israel and that the people of Israel were bound to each other because of their bond with God (see Isa 49:14-15).

God is bonded to the people and God for the prophets in a very significant sense, limits the divine freedom by that absolute commitment to the people who have been called by God. 'How can I give you up?' says the God of Hosea (Hos 11:8). But the bondedness of the people to one another arising out of that is no less important. We might turn for example to Amos, (Ch. 2, 5 and 6), great denunciations of the shame of Israel.


The liberation proclaimed by Isaiah in the context of ancient Israel is, of course, an act of setting people free for covenanted and just relations, just as the original act of setting free the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt equipped them for life in the community of covenant of mutual commitment

Jeremiah chapter 34 makes the connection in a very strong and memorable way:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord after Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to proclaim an act of freedom for the slaves. All who had Hebrew slaves, male or female, were to set them free. They were not to keep their fellow Judeans in servitude All the officers and people having made this covenant to set free their slaves, male or female, and not to keep them in servitude any longer fulfilled its terms and let them go. Afterwards however they changed their minds. Then this word came from the Lord to Jeremiah. These are the words of the Lord, the God of Israel. I made a Covenant with your forefathers on the day that I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. These were its terms. Within seven years each of you shall set free any Hebrew who has sold himself to you as a slave (Jer. 34:8ff.)

In all the prophetic literature, an element of dramatic tension appears between the idea of a covenant that cannot be broken and a covenant that as a matter of fact is broken. Prophets are not theologians or theoreticians because they are rhetoricians rather than either. They can, without embarrassment, use both those models with equal effect. On the one side, the covenant cannot be broken: God cannot suddenly break free from the people of Israel and wash his hands of them, on those hands the people are engraved. On the other side the people of Israel, constantly breaching their covenant to God and one another, are in free fall from the justice and proper security that comes from obedience to God.


Prophetic language in Hebrew scripture is regularly and repeatedly a language of loud lament. Many modern scholars and interpreters of the prophetic tradition have insisted on the primary place of pathos, the sense of important suffering, that belongs in the prophetic consciousness. Abraham Herschel, writing from a Jewish perspective, made great play of the pathos of the prophetic imagination as reflecting something of the vulnerability of Israel's God. More recently Walter Brueggemann in a remarkable book, The Prophetic Imagination, has put the same theme at the centre of his analysis noting that the prophetic voice is and must be a voice of indignant grieving in a society that has become anaesthetised to grief and pain. We can sum this up by saying that the prophet's task in Israel is to deny the denials that are current, the denials involved in refusing to face inequity, the denials that refuse a public voice to criticism, to grief, to the sense of tragedy.

Jeremiah is obviously the most dramatic and most consistent example of this denial of denials: and it is a denial whose cost lie bears very directly in his own person. The first twenty-odd chapters of Jeremiah come back again and again to his own grief, not simply a lament for the people, but a lament for his own painful involvement in the denial of denials. The same pathos is there in Ezekiel 14 where we see the prophet's calling spelled out as the task of reacquainting people with pain and death, in the face of all that denies their reality.


Prophecy is an activity of risk. The purpose of the prophet is absorbed in the word of the Lord. The prophet, if we are to trust Jeremiah and indeed Ezekiel, doesn't simply say, 'This is the word of the Lord', and, having completed the Lord's oracle, return to ordinary life. The prophet carries the word: Jeremiah speaks of it as a fire burning within him (Jer 20:9). The person of the prophet becomes a sign, a sign of judgement, a site for the pain that is being denied all around, a place where that pain gathers to a head. But also and crucially, the prophet becomes a sign and a site of hope, or at least of the assurance of God's commitment and fidelity. Jeremiah's anguish and protest is spelled out in his oracles as a way of saying that the denied pain which the prophet carries is in turn carried, and somehow made sense of, by the faithfulness of God.

Today's struggle

How can these four possible pointers for understanding prophecy in its original meaning be applied to the task of Christians struggling today with a vocation which is prophetic as it is also royal and priestly? The first point about the alienness of the word of the Lord, the willingness to be redescribed by God, sets out the most fundamental condition for what might today count as 'prophetic' life or utterance. The prophet is someone whose witness grows out of spiritual freedom, rooted in the disciplines of hearing and seeing.

There is an asceticism about the prophetic task. Living prophetically takes it for granted that at some level you have learned discrimination. That is to say, that you have learnt not to believe everything you are told, not to love everything you see but to look and listen with a wholeness of imagination, a wholeness of the heart, so that you may find or see yourself 'redescribed by God'. If Newman is right in suggesting that doing theology is itself a prophetic task (which may be rather worrying news for those of us who try to be theologians), then being a theologian involves the prophetic requirement of allowing yourself to be redescribed by what you think you are talking about - letting it 'talk' about you before you start talking about it.

I think it was St Thomas who associated the prophetic with the 'imaginative' and although he probably didn't quite mean what we might mean by that it's a good slogan to think about. Prophecy is about a converted imagination. But 'converted imagination' doesn't just happen, it needs all the asceticism of seeing and hearing, a maturing of Christian taste and discrimination. Which of course doesn't mean that prophecy depends on Christians knowing the difference between bad hymns and good hymns or liking plainsong more than choruses or anything like that. It means that Christians are to be educated to expect an alien voice that will challenge what they are saying about themselves.

Who is forgotten?

The characteristic theme of prophecy today, as of prophecy in the times of the Hebrew scriptures, must be covenant, the bondedness of human beings to one another through their bondedness to a faithful God. The Christian prophet makes the difficult, potentially unfashionable claim that for human beings really to understand how and why they are bonded to one another they must understand the God who is bonded to human beings. Whether it is welcome or not, 'whether they hear or refuse to hear' (in the words of Ezekiel), prophets propose that we can only understand how human beings can be committed to one another in community if they understand the commitment of God to that community.

A similar question was crystallised very powerfully in the work of Michel de Certeau the great French Jesuit anthropologist, who said that the fundamental formula of Christianity was 'not without'. At every point the Christian asks what or who is being left out. So there is in prophecy a necessary restlessness, a constant asking, 'Who's being forgotten here?'

A prophet is meant to be a nuisance asking such questions precisely when we think we have so ordered our church, community, society or relationships as not to exclude. The prophet asserts that the basic form of the law governing society which God seeks to bring into being is mutual commitment, arising from the recognition of God's commitment to each and to all. Look once again at Jeremiah 34 on the liberation of the slaves.

Release from slavery is promised to the Judean slaves in that passage but this is not honoured by those who made the promise. The not-honouring of the promise is directly linked to the not-honouring of God. This has relevance to all those current situations where there are still slaves, where some people have no recognised power as agents who can make agreements, who have no freedom to enter into covenant because their reality is determined by others. It has rightly been said in this connection, of course, that the present state of international debt is our contemporary form of slavery precisely because it leaves whole communities with no means of entering intelligently and intelligibly into covenant, into mutuality. This is an area where agents are unilaterally defined by some other agent, and any such situation offends against the principle of covenant and commitment as fundamental. These are the situations the prophet must challenge.

And these are situations which may not always be the fashionable causes of the day. Racism and international debt - we understand a bit about these and they are probably areas where all liberal, well-meaning Christians can find common ground. But the ethics of abortion, the ethics of sexism are two areas where people do not habitually get together, yet both raise precisely the question of whose voice is being occluded and who is being unilaterally defined by someone else. The defence of the unborn is so often seen as a right-wing concern and the defence of women's liberties as a left-wing one to the extent that commitment to one generally seems to rule out commitment to the other. A properly prophetic voice would challenge such a schism of concern in the strongest terms.

You may ask whether it is fair to take the practice of ancient Israel, the covenant society established by God's liberating act, and simply to apply it to a contemporary situation where we are not dealing with a society that is established by the liberating act of God. What I think makes it right to do this is that Israel, God's people, does not exist for itself: it exists as a manifestation of God's glory, God's justice. Israel is what happens when God comes very close to human society and when that presence and pressure is experienced not only as setting free but as binding together. Israel is there for human communities at large. Israel is created by the impression of the divine commitment and the divine liberation. And if we believe that human beings are universally created in God's image, then what is done by God in Israel, what happens to this human community to which God draws close, is relevant for the rest of us in a very clear and a very disturbing way.

Our lamentations

What about the third criterion of prophecy, the prophet's calling to lament? We are all too familiar with the problems of living in a society that is illiterate about its own griefs and losses. The death of Princess Diana illustrated not so much that we British were more emotional than we thought we were, but that we British did not normally know what to do with our emotions and were enormously relieved when we had a good excuse for expressing them publicly. That is a sign not of a healthy but of a troubled human society, one that doesn't easily cope with real pain.

Here above all a prophet is not called upon to be consistent, to articulate a theory but to articulate the reality of tragedy. To articulate tragedy is to refuse to look for solutions without cost . Here we enter into very deep waters indeed. We should all like very much, in every moral debate we can think of, to come to a conclusion that will not cost anyone anything: and this, of course, has now been enshrined as political wisdom. But think of two issues - the debate about abortion and the debate about Northern Ireland. Both are regularly, conducted in ways which slither away from the inevitable reality of cost, from the pain that is diffused over the whole situation. The prophet may very well be called upon to say something clear, but woe betide the prophet if he or she attempts to speak of the unavoidable cost for all in such a situation.

The prophet, then, challenges any cost-free rhetoric. which makes the prophet an uncomfortable partner in a culture that quite likes not having to think about the cost of things. Yet not thinking about death is a recipe for letting death invade all corners of life. We won't recognise it, so we don't see how it becomes omnipresent - whether in our feeble attempts to discuss abortion honestly or in our corporate dishonesties about the arms trade and the nuclear stockpile.

The prophetic vocation in such contexts is not to try and articulate a 'Christian position': it is to smell out death in an environment, the death people do not want to confront, the grief people do not want to confront. That is quite hard at the end of the telephone, or when you are trying to deliver a sermon or to make a statement for the media.

Undramatic risk

So to move to the last of my basic criteria: the prophetic risk remains, however, undramatic . It's very seductive to suppose that the 'prophetic' voice or the 'prophetic' calling is a way in which the rather prosaic modern Christian, especially the modern Christian with some degree of access to the public ear, may somehow take on the mantle of high drama. This is a seduction that needs a lot of vigilance to avoid. But the risk we face if we try to be prophetic in the church today is less a risk of dramatic persecution, more the risk involved in a society too lukewarm about passion and about commitments that take time - in 'staking' one's energies, one's identity on something.

Public acts of commitment are not, on the whole, easy or fashionable, popular or indeed intelligible. It was the late Gillian Rose who spoke of 'self-staking' as the most difficult and most fundamental act that a philosopher can be called upon to make. That can be generalised, I think, to many other areas. We stake ourselves to an intelligible model of what is human. We accept the risk of trying to be, in person, signs of hope as well as judgement and, like the prophets of old, signs of pain and (perhaps even more difficult) of mockery and unfashionableness. The risk remains. It is not easy or easily understood for anyone these days to make of their life a committed time whatever exactly that may mean in various contexts. But that is the prophetic calling today as it was then.

Prophetic church

I shall move, in conclusion to suggesting what it might be to understand the church itself as prophetic. The prophetic is not the only charism in the life of the church, and those who have written about the need to recognise and reflect upon the other typical charisms - the priestly and the royal - are not mistaken. But there is something rather fundamental about the prophetic if only because it is that which most clearly and most systematically points to the reality with which I began - the reality of a God who describes us before we describe God. For the church to live out that reality is for the church to be committed to the deepening of its own corporate imagination, to look for liturgies and personal discipline that will liberate imagination. That is, in particular, the imagination that is able to see and to respond to the word of the Lord, the redescription of reality by the interruption of an alien God.

To be a prophetic church is to be a church that refuses optimism in the name of hope. Optimism is easily confused with hope. Hope is to do precisely with that sense of the God who is not here contained by and answering to our own descriptions. Hope is about the reality of a God not exhausted in our human environment. Optimism is simply a cheerful rather than a gloomy prediction, which may or may not have anything at all to do with God. It certainly does not have anything at all to do with the Christian virtue of hope. A hopeful Church is not one that is exempted from smelling out death and reacquainting people with pain.

This perhaps is one of the hardest things to speak of in our modern environment because there are ways of saying it which could be oppressive or static: saying that pain, suffering are the important things and you have to learn to live with them because nothing can change. That is why I have come to the question of pain and death after speaking of hope. We really believe that God is not exhausted by the situation we are in and that allows us to say there is a freedom to face those pains and deaths that cannot be avoided or denied. And in all of this, the church itself must exemplify what can only be called a faithful commitment to the humanity around it.

The whole of my argument depends on seeing that the commitment of God to Israel and the commitment of Israelites to one another is not and cannot be the whole story. That committed and covenanted community exists for what lies beyond it and therefore must itself exemplify a corporate commitment to the humanity in the midst of which it stands. The church must be faithful, in other words, not only to God but to God's image in his creatures.

This is a rather abstract theological way of saying that the church must take the society around it as worth arguing with. A retreat from public engagement call be interpreted in many ways. It can be a form of sheer quietism; it can be a way of saying, we have to concentrate on the formation of Christians as disciples before we can engage with anything else. And sometimes those who say that the church ought to go and reclaim the public arena are saying that the church ought to go and dominate, control and determine the public arena. I would rather stay with the model of commitment to the public arena, commitment to a good many arguments and struggles that we are very likely to lose but which reiterate the conviction that the human society in which God has placed the church is worth engaging with, and therefore worth arguing with, whether or not you 'win'.

The danger is there, all along the way, of rhetorical self- indulgence simply because the prophet is a rhetorician, a proclaimer and persuader. But that very danger, that very ambiguity about prophecy is surely central to the religion of the crucified prophet, the one who in his own person assumes the right to speak and to enact the Word of God which is the basis of his being.

The one who on his cross reacquaints us with our death and our pain, as he does with the forgotten pains and forgotten deaths of many. The one who in life and death and resurrection exemplifies what it means for Christians to speak both of commitment and of hope. The crucified prophet has to be the final test of our own attempts to live the prophetic vocation and we as Christians believe that what is said in and of prophecy in scripture is ultimately and decisively applicable to the one who continues to call us, who is the fulfilment of prophecy and who gives to us a prophetic vocation now: that is, Jesus Christ.

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