Archbishop Rowan Williams has not been shy about brandishing his socialist credentials in the press on on the radio. The Church is unlikely to rediscover its purpose and mission with uncomprehending people such as the Archbishop at the helm, writes Charles Brickdale.
The Daily Telegraph recently published a revealing photograph from 1992 of the present Archbishop of Canterbury. It shows the then Bishop of Monmouth, heavily cassocked against the rain, in conversation with a fellow cleric. Both priests are taking a break from a demonstration in support of the miners’ campaign against pit closures. No doubt Bishop Rowan has spoken at the rally. Poking out of the folds of his cassock is a half-hidden placard; enough is visible for us to see that it is a Socialist Worker placard which demands that someone – I think it’s the Tories – be sacked.
None of this is very surprising, of course. Yet it is precisely our lack of surprise which ought to concern us for, I want to suggest, it shows that the Established Church is well on its way to becoming about as relevant to solving our nation’s problems as the Socialist Workers’ Party.
Does it matter? The answer is that it should, for the Church of England is, along with the best of the Roman Catholic Church, most of the principal Jewish traditions and much of the secular classical liberal tradition (what’s left of it), the bearer of ideas and traditions essential to the maintenance of our distinctive identity, liberties and laws. If it can no longer credibly play that role, either because its active membership has shrunk to near-zero or because it suffers a catastrophic loss of legitimacy, then the cause of maintaining in these islands our distinctive version of what T.S. Eliot called ‘the legacy of Greece, Rome and Israel, and the legacy of Europe throughout the last two thousand years’ will have suffered a near-fatal blow.
Why should that be? One answer is philosophical: the uber-unbelievers – the Dawkinses, Graylings and Toynbees – have no convincing account of moral reasoning to offer, certainly none that could rival the Sermon on the Mount for ambition, clarity and widespread admiration, if not obedience. Consequently, the purging of the public square of all traces of religion – something they earnestly desire – would merely leave a vacuum, which human nature abhors.
There are atheists, such as Ray Tallis, and thinkers such as Roger Scruton, a cultural not a creedal Christian, who are working on more sophisticated approaches to moral reasoning which at least begin by recognising the human need and capacity for transcendence and spirituality. Tallis is increasingly prone to using such terms and even quoting theologians. However, such developments are in their very early stages and there is little sign of widespread popular endorsement.
Moreover, the claim made by some secularists, following either some interpretations of Kant or one or other school of utilitarianism, that moral reasoning can operate entirely free of any specific tradition and thereby achieve perfect neutrality as regards competing metaphysical systems is, at the least, highly contentious. In the April 2011 edition of the journal ‘Standpoint’ Nigel Biggar builds on this point to offer a powerful justification for the continuing establishment of the Church of England.
Another point made by Biggar is that there is strong evidence that the majority of the British people – even those who self-describe as unbelievers – do not feel alienated from Christianity, let alone hostile to it, and accept its presence in our common life with, at least, equanimity. This is the second answer to the question of why the disappearance or delegitimisation of the Church would be disastrous. A majority of the British people, including many unbelievers and members of minority faiths, accept that it plays a necessary role if only because no-one else offers as compelling a vision of the good life and is in a position to make its claims clearly heard.
Intuitively, then, many British people accept the point that Nigel Biggar and others make by means of subtle philosophical argument: the role of the Church of England is to renew in each generation and maintain the broad moral and cultural parameters within which a civilised, humane liberal democracy can flourish.
Of course, loss of legitimacy in the eyes of men can be a sign that the Church is doing its job as Jesus before Pilate and, following His example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sophie Scholl and Jerzy Popiełuszko would tell us. The point is that they, and others, represented all humanity in defiance of those for whom humanity was represented only by a self-defined fragment. That is the source of the Church’s legitimacy and it is a mark of the hold of the Christian message on our nation’s imagination that, by and large, the vision of a common humanity before God still informs our thinking, however vestigially, even today.
There have been times in its history when the Church has failed to achieve the necessary and difficult balance between its universalist ethic and its obligation to be the Church in a particular place at a particular time. At times, this has happened when the Church has allowed itself to become identified with or has actively collaborated with a state, as in Nazi Germany or nationalist Ireland, which should have been opposed by all Christians or, at least, comprehensively challenged.
At other times, it has happened because the Church has persuaded itself that identification with a particular fragment of humanity and a particular analysis of society should define its obligation to be ‘prophetic’. That, I argue, is what is happening now within the leadership, and much of the clergy, of the Anglican church.
Take this example, iconic in its way, from Rowan Williams’ ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4 on 21st April 2011 – Maundy Thursday:
What about having a new law that made all cabinet members and leaders of political parties, editors of national papers and the hundred most successful financiers in the UK, spend a couple of hours every year serving dinners in a primary school on a council estate? Or cleaning bathrooms in a residential home? Walking around the streets of a busy town at night as a street pastor, ready to pick up and absorb something of the chaos and human mess you’ll find there especially among young people?
It might do two things, reminding our leaders of what the needs really are at grass roots level, so that those needs can never again be just remote statistics; and reminding the rest of us what politics and government are really for.
What patronising, insulting, thoughtless tosh! On what basis does Williams presume to know that ‘our leaders’ view the people as no more than remote statistics? Does he think this is true of Iain Duncan Smith whose moral seriousness must be obvious to even his sternest critics? Would he say this about Ramsay MacDonald who was born into utter poverty in 1866 – and out of wedlock at that – and became Prime Minister twice? Or David Davis MP, the one who ran against David Cameron for leader of the Conservative Party, brought up by a single mother on a Wandsworth council estate that was, by his own account, ‘a slum’?
Of course, the financiers are an easy target; a real crowd-pleaser, this one, from our oh-so-profound prelate. So easy to lump them all together as a single, monolithic lump of ignorance and malignity. No mention, one notes, of the failure of Williams’ friend, Gordon Brown, to curb their activities – indeed he actively encouraged them in order to harvest the tax revenues to fuel his reckless public spending and borrowing binge.
Of course to mention all this is to identify the nature of Williams’ ‘prophetic’ vision which is not so much Anglican or Christian but Marxist. Iain Duncan Smith is clear that there are many people – and he’s right about this as many working class Labour voters will confirm from knowledge of their neighbours if Williams ever condescends to take his beard out of the Guardian long enough to ask them – for whom worklessness is a choice. In many cases, it is a rational choice for Brown’s welfare state made it more lucrative for many to claim benefits than to work. Many simply do not want to work and go out of their way to avoid it.
As for ‘chaos and human mess’, Williams should get himself up to Brighouse to speak to the charming old man I met some months ago whose pride and joy is his beautifully-maintained little garden. It is regularly trashed and his tools are stolen by the local drug-takers and louts whose behaviour would have driven most people to madness but to which the old man responded with an equanimity I found utterly humbling. He is particularly at risk because one of the local dealers lives upstairs.
This behaviour, let us be clear, is chosen. No-one, least of all ‘the system’ which has to waste so many resources dealing with the consequences of these choices, has made them that way. Members of my family and many friends and colleagues come from families which have experienced real poverty, of the outside-toilet, smoky-slum, newspapers-stuffed-into-shoes variety, but they made choices – to train for nursing, to go to university, to seek and keep work – which enabled them to live better lives and to enable them to give their own children better lives and more opportunities than they had.
If anybody is responsible for the slowing down of social mobility and the slump in opportunities available to working class children it is Williams’ comrades on the left: the trade unions because they were allowed to stimy all attempts to modernise the economy until Margaret Thatcher came along, and the Labour Party because it shut down the grammar schools and fostered the illusion that the state was better at improving people’s lives than they were themselves.
None of this matters to Williams for whom a class-based approach to political and social questions means that all ‘the poor’ are necessarily deserving because, by definition, they are victims of a systematically unfair distribution of wealth. Naturally, this is true of the developing world too; ‘they’ are poor because we are rich. Presumably this includes, for example, the South Koreans who, in 1950, were as poor as the Ethiopians but aren’t now. Then again, one increasingly feels that moral and analytical complexity, at least in economic and social matters, is as foreign to the Archbishop, despite his reputation as an intellectual, as it is to the Trotskyite boneheads at the Socialist Worker.
Like the SWP Williams is, as he proudly announced in an ‘Observer’ interview, against ‘free market capitalism’ (one wonders what other kind there is). It seems that he has missed the most recent developments in, for example, China and the abundant evidence that the less reliant developing countries are on charity and ‘aid’ and the more integrated they are with the international free trade and finance system the better they do. Bluntly, bankers and businesspeople are better at feeding people well and for the long-term than governments and NGOs. Williams, however, along with much of the left, seems to think that equality matters more than prosperity: the poor beg to differ.
One other point should be noted about the Comrade Archbishop’s Radio 4 piece: its emphasis on coercion. His proposal, if only in the form of a ‘nice fantasy’, for the re-education of the governing classes through forced labour, is pure Maoism.
In general, he is a particularly robust left social democrat or socialist; his pronouncements on politics and social matters invariably involve maintaining or increasing the power and policy reach of the state including forcible redistribution of wealth. Those strategies which he supports which don’t, fair trade, for example, are still attempts to limit the role of free markets and free enterprise in stimulating economic development. It seems that he regards such approaches as intrinsically more moral than the alternatives. Given that human nature is finite and fallible it seems odd that Christian leaders should want to concentrate power in their hands as much as Williams does in his dirigiste dreamworld.
The classical liberal and Tory (and arguably much more Christian) ideal of individuals free under the law co-operating and competing on the basis of moral conceptions formed and sustained by family life and autonomous institutions (the Church!) is clearly foreign to him. Worse, it is sidelined within the church as the favoured ‘solutions’ of the ecclesiastical hard left are the default positions of the ‘Church Times’, most of the clergy and the leading NGOs, especially Christian Aid.
Yet experience teaches us that the poor, about whom the Archbishop professes such concern, are far more likely to cease being poor and to enjoy much greater opportunities for self-improvement in societies which promote economic freedom and a correspondingly limited role for the state.
We have, therefore, a situation in which the Church of England is clearly identified with a particular political analysis and approach. This is not a recent development: the politics of Rowan Williams have deep roots in a particular strand of socialist and pacifist Anglo-Catholicism which has had an important influence on post-1945 Britain.
Arguably, then, the Established Church long ago lost its way by abandoning the mission identified as central to its purpose by Nigel Biggar: the upkeep of the great legacy of Christian teaching and practice for the benefit of the whole nation. To be credible in this role, the Church should keep its distance from particular policies and ideologies as a matter of principle. Of course, when the ideology has a track record of failure as extensive as that of socialism, the need for distance is still greater.
The question is whether the Church of England can be reclaimed for its historic mission. If it can, then the liberal democratic case for its establishment, so skilfully argued by Nigel Biggar, has much weight. If it cannot, then that case is massively weakened: a church led by a political faction cannot point the way to the spiritual and moral renewal of the whole nation. Moreover, it will simply dwindle into irrelevance.
Better, in that case, to let it drift off to the sidelines and let the work of regaining the upper hand for ‘the legacy of Greece, Rome and Israel’ be undertaken by those who understand far better than our Marxist Archbishop what is at stake: the Roman Catholic Church and its allies in the Jewish and secular worlds.