Addressing an audience of around 120, Dr Williams, now Master of Magdalene College in Cambridge, spoke about the lives of three rather remarkable 20th century women.
They are to my mind among the very greatest Christian witnesses of the last 100 years,said Dr Williams.
None of them were conventional saintly figures, all caused controversy and a degree of scandal in their day and all of them came to embrace the fullness of faith as adults.
There is an extraordinary convergence in the vision of these three women, their writings and the heart of their witness in the 20th century city. They all ran their hands down the grain of reality and found it ran in the same way, said Dr Williams.
They shared the experience of a century which witnessed an immense upheaval, suffering, violence and injustice on an exceptional scale. Each of them was directly involved in the consequences of it and each lived out their vocation in an urban environment.
Maria Skobtsova, grew up as a radical and communist in Russia. She became politically active, was twice divorced and had to leave Russia in poverty. She ended up in Paris and, after the death of her youngest child at the age of five, turned towards faith and met the needs of the homeless and refugees. She became a nun and continued her work, using her home as a refuge for refugees first from Russia and then Jews from Nazi Germany.
When the Nazis arrived in Paris she smuggled many Jews out. She was arrested and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp when she was executed.
Dorothy Day, from New York, was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in the USA. She was active as a communist, a single mother and led a colourful life.
She has a radical passion for the poor which consumed her and which made no sense at all unless there was a radical passion in the universe for the good of the human race,said Dr Williams.
She organised small communities across the USA for vagrants, the homeless and the destitute, with no preconditions. She genuinely believed that if there was a need at the door, the door had to be opened.
She did this for decades and it cost her and her family dearly
French woman, Madeleine Delbrel, was a lively and unconventional young woman and a Communist. She was from a well-to-do and anti-religious background. When she discovered that there was something missing from her life she turned to a life of radical Christian discipleship at Ivry near Paris.
It was essentially prayer that converted Madeleine and she trained as a social worker and spent most of her adult life as a director of social services. She set up a small informal community of single women who practiced hospitality.
These three women are remarkable examples of lives of forbidding intensity and self-sacrifice which make me feel extremely half-hearted,said Dr Williams.
They organised their Christian discipleship around a couple of very simple principles. The person who is before you with empty or open hands is God – understand that and all sorts of sometimes uncomfortable things follow.
Also, part of what is in front of you holding out hands is yourself a needy, confused and quite often chaotic self. Be patient with that self as well, as that is God too, said Dr Williams.
These three woman don’t give us a theory of how to be holy in the modern city or modern world. They give us three stories of holiness, which is always the best way to approach holiness narratives not theories.
The Newman Lecture series coincides with the recent release by Pope Francis of an apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate a call to holiness in today’s world.
The final lecture is from Sr Ann Swailes of Cambridge University on April 30 at 6.30pm, in the Julian Study Centre at the UEA and is free to attend.
For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Pictured above is Dr Rowan Williams (centre), with Bishop Alan Hopes (left) and Deacon Andrew Eburne.