I was wrong to be rude to Rowan Williams; but I wasn’t critical enough of his anti-coalition attack

Dr Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, talks to Margaret Thatcher in 1983 (PA photo)

In my last post, I attempted to confront Rowan Williams’s now notorious article attacking the government. Not because I have any particular brief for either of the parties that make up the coalition, but because Rowan Williams’s case rested on a patent falsehood: that the government’s policies in three specific areas, education, benefits policy and health, had no mandate since nobody had voted for them. Since I had a clear memory that the three areas of policy – which, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, had not been openly declared, or particularly, in the case of education and benefits policy, debated during the election campaign – had in fact been declared and in the case of education and benefits policy widely discussed, I wrote an article to prove that this was the case. It seemed to me that this should be done, whether one supported the coalition’s policies or not, in the name of common justice, since Rowan Williams, by virtue of his position, would be listened to as a spokesman for other Christians.

My article, however, misfired, for two reasons, which I now acknowledge; and I claim the blogger’s privilege (rarely accorded to print journalists) of having another go. First, I wrote in anger: always a mistake, since it all too often (and did in my case last Friday) leads to discourtesy. Just one sentence, but it deflected attention from my argument. Second, however, I didn’t make the most important point of all. Both these defects were spotted by one of those who commented on my article:

The article was fine up until: “Frankly, I don’t give a fig about anything Rowan Williams says, as such; for a most amazing quantity of utter drivel issues forth from the midst of that ghastly beard of his.”

Resorting to personal attacks just debases the argument. [Quite right; mea culpa. I shouldn’t have done it.]

What I found most lamentable about Rowan Williams’s editorial was that there was no mention of Christ, salvation, redemption etc. It was devoid of any content that pertained to evangelisation. Shouldn’t that be his primary task rather than getting into the minutiae of government policy?”

One can, of course, speak as a Christian about social and political matters without going into evangelistic mode. Another correspondent commented that “[The archbishop] is carrying out the work of evangelisation by seeking to have a society which better expresses the values of the Kingdom of God, values such as justice/righteousness, peace, the promotion of justice/righteousness, and so forth. All of this has roots in the Old Testament – the preaching of Jesus is full of OT ideas.”

All arguable enough; but my first correspondent quoted above put his finger on something, all the same: Rowan Williams’s article was based on entirely secular principles and assumptions. It could have been written by any Leftward-leaning political journalist. Even when he talks in passing about his religious beliefs, he doesn’t actually link them with his argument, but flourishes them as an ultimate but distant source of some modern secular ideas. Having sneered at David Cameron’s ideas about a “Big Society” (which he calls a “painfully stale” slogan) and cast doubt on his sincerity, he talks of a “theological strand … to be retrieved that is not about ‘the poor’ as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates – like the flow of blood – is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility. Perhaps surprisingly, this is what is at the heart of St Paul’s ideas about community at its fullest; community, in his terms, as God wants to see it.” All this is actually, incidentally, entirely consistent with how Cameron has expounded his “Big Society” in terms of specific political objectives:

The Big Society is about a huge culture change, where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities. It’s about people setting up great new schools. Businesses helping people getting trained for work. Charities working to rehabilitate offenders.

It’s about liberation – the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.

What should we as Catholics want? The Catholic social tradition is against “unchecked competition”, as Leo XIII calls unrestrained capitalism. And it’s also against unrestrained state power and bureaucracy. These things, today, are what we all believe or claim to believe: political thinking has moved on (though maybe not far enough) towards these ideals since Rerum Novarum was written over a century ago. We can see traces of the influence of such thinking on all modern political parties. Have a look at it here (try paragraphs three to five if you’re short of time).

The problem with Rowan Williams’s article is this. There really is such a thing as a Catholic Social Tradition, entirely independent in its sources of secular political philosophies. But the Anglican Social Tradition, as it has been expounded in modern times (have a look at that famous document from the Runcie era, Faith in the City) is simply a version of current secular Left-wing thinking, with a bit of religious language stirred in to taste. “The question at issue,” says the document, “… is whether the acknowledged Christian duty to ‘remember the poor’ should be confined to personal charity, service and evangelism directed towards individuals, or whether it can legitimately take the form of social and political action aimed at altering the circumstances which appear to cause poverty and distress.” But it is made clear, probably because the document was written under the influence of Bishop David Sheppard, a well-known supporter of the Labour Party – at the time still very Left-wing – and a member of the commission that produced it) that “social and political action” should be socialist-inclined in character. And that’s what we see (though more circumspectly implied) in Dr Williams’s article, too.

That’s what I should have said. I’m sorry I didn’t. And I’m sorry about Dr Williams’s beard: it was ill-mannered to hold it against him.