When the Archbishop of Canterbury talks religion, it usually goes unnoticed by the British press. When he wades in on politics, the press starts to listen. When he appears to criticise a government, he has their full attention.
Writing a guest editorial in the New Statesman on Thursday morning, Rowan Williams, the most senior cleric in the Church of England, said he wanted to spark a “livelier debate about where we are going.” He certainly succeeded.
What He Said
Referring to the government’s budget cuts, he said the following:
“With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted. At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context.”
And on welfare reform he lamented “a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.”
The collective response of the left-leaning press was something along the lines of: “Our thoughts exactly! Thank you ever so much for standing up and saying so!”
Those more inclined to the right met his intervention with: “Excuse me, Mr Archbishop, but an unelected head of the Church has no right to interfere with the policies of elected parliamentarians. Now be a good lad and go back to the Bible.”
The Case Against The Archbishop
Leading the criticism against Williams was the bastion of the right-wing press, the “Daily Mail”:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2001848/Archbishop-Canterbury-Rowan-Williams-Coalition-attack-Vincent-Nichols-backlash.html , with the headline “Britain’s Bishops at war: Head of Catholics leads furious backlash after Archbishop of Canterbury’s attack on Coalition.”
Reading the article and expecting fireworks, it was somewhat disappointing to find nothing resembling a ‘furious backlash’ from the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. There is something resembling an endorsement of the ruling Conservatives’ ideas but nothing close to a ‘backlash’, not even a mild one. At least not from the Catholic Archbishop.
There were mentions of Margaret Thatcher (something of a formality for the Daily Mail) and a few words from senior government ministers who disagree with Williams’ view, but the only ‘fury’ came from the newspaper’s Stephen Glover, who accused the Anglican Archbishop of being a “profoundly divisive leftie” who “should not enter the hurly-burly of political journalism.”
The Daily Telegraph provided a watered-down version of the Mail. Its view was that it was “unwise of Dr. Williams to challenge the democratic legitimacy of the government” and a “shame” that he chose to play politics rather than “leave behind the dead-end paternalism of the post-war years.”
The Daily Express (imagine the Mail on a sugar rush) called Williams’ opposition to welfare reform “outrageous” and says the return of the language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor is “long overdue.” It even goes so far as to opine that he “deserves to lose his job.”
“So partial have his repeated interventions into politics become that they carry the implication that Christianity is inextricably entwined with the creed of socialism.”
This argument, that the Church is wrong to be overtly left-wing, is taken up too in the pipe-smoking, slipper-wearing Economist. “Priests in pulpits have a right to preach,” it argues, “but should probably avoid being identified exclusively with a single political party.” The article’s author has dug up, or Googled, Labour Party literature that with its reference to policies “for which people did not vote”, sounds awkwardly similar to Williams’ words on the government’s reforms.
In Defence Of Rowan Williams
When it comes to opponents of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, the Archbishop is clearly preaching to the converted.
Just to the left of the Economist (in jazzier slippers) the Financial Times puts itself in the Archbishop’s corner, saying he has “every right” to air his views on politics, adding that “as a member of the House of Lords, the Archbishop is directly responsible for scrutinising government policy.” It admits Williams’ argument is flawed, as no government can be expected to carry out to the letter its pre-election manifesto once in power. But the aim, to spark debate, the FT believes is worthy.
Left Foot Forward, a blog clearly unashamed of its political alignment, states that “history is littered with examples of how those of faith have proved invaluable to social and political changes and developments,” citing the example of William Wilberforce and his push to end slavery.
Another website to cheer the Archbishop’s return to controversy is politics.co.uk, which if it weren’t for politics might even enjoy a drink or two with the Express. It lauds the “genius” of Williams’ attack, claiming that the fact that no Briton voted for the government’s policies is irrefutable.
“Plainly, multiple parties are entitled to form a coalition government where they have a majority of seats in the Commons. But what follows from that decision, specifically in dominant policy areas, has a bearing on the democratic legitimacy of the government,” its argument goes.
And The Guardian, outwardly shy but inwardly convinced of its rectitude, asks and answers thus: “Should the church get stuck into the mucky world of politics? How ridiculous – of course it should.”
The Church and the ‘liberal left’ do not always see eye to eye but it is not just the Archbishop’s criticism of the Tory-led coalition that strikes a chord with The Guardian and co.; it is also his implicit criticism of the Labour opposition they would love to hail.
“We are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently,” said Williams in his editorial. At last, something everyone can agree on.
Preaching on politics - Britain's raging debate on Church and State