Dr Rowan Williams says that ‘aggressive secularism’ has nothing to do with persecution; Lord Carey and Bishop Nazir-Ali disagree. Who’s right?

Lord Williams of Oystermouth, former Archbishop of Canterbury (Photo: PA)

Well, we had been warned (not that many of us were exactly quaking in our boots): Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, as he prepares to step down from his position as head of the Anglican communion to become Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, has now attacked not only the government (which, as far as I am concerned, he can do to his heart’s content if it makes him feel better) but also (implicitly) his admirable predecessor, Dr George Carey, for saying “it is now Christians who are persecuted”, that they are often “driven underground” and that “there appears to be a clear animus [within the legal system] to the Christian faith and to Judaeo-Christian values. Clearly the courts of the United Kingdom require guidance.”

Dr Williams’s attack on Lord Carey is from the point of view of the Christian cause a more serious matter. But before saying anything about it, I cannot forbear from all comment on his foray into political ethics. He begins with the usual necessary reservations about the authority of theologians to pronounce on matters involving technical political judgments: then he immediately makes a fool of himself by uttering precisely such a pronouncement under the guise of an ethical “awkward question”. “No theologian has an automatic skill in economics,” he says (tick here); “but there is,” he continues, “an ethical perspective here, plainly rooted in theology, that obliges us to question the nostrums of recent decades, and above all persistently to ask the awkward question of what we want growth for, what model of well-being we actually assume in our economics.”

Well, I will tell him what we want growth for: we want growth, archbishop, to pay off our debts and, more urgently and I would have thought with the most ethically imperative urgency, so that new jobs may emerge in our economy, and the millions now enduring the soul-destroying misery of unemployment may be enabled to emerge from their present state of impotent futility: a “model of well-being” they long to attain one day and which they cannot attain without growth in the economy. Dr Williams has often been accused of Left-wing political leanings; but this is surely to credit his political views with a rationality and a coherence they do not have; on this showing, they are indistinguishable in their ignorance and unreality (as well as in their content) from those of the green party.

But let that pass; it hardly matters. What does matter is that Dr Williams is now using his still considerable position in public life to undermine the brave struggle of his predecessor, Lord Carey, who has protested against the growth of secularist attacks on the freedom of Christians to practise their religion, and has most notably led the fight for the “Strasbourg four”, whose case (which I wrote about last week) came up before the ECJ on Tuesday.

“We have been hearing quite a lot about the dangers of ‘aggressive secularism’,” says Dr Williams, “and the strident anti-Christian rhetoric of some well-known intellectuals is still a prominent feature of our society,” Dr Williams writes. “But … our problem is not simply loud voices attacking faith (and certainly not ‘persecution’ as some of the more highly-coloured apologetic claims). Argument is essential to a functioning democratic state, and religion should be involved in this, not constantly demanding the right not to be offended.”

But of course we must have argument. That’s just not what we’re talking about, for heavens’ sake. It’s not a matter of not being offended, Dr Williams: haven’t you noticed? Christians are losing their jobs for standing by their principles. He really does seem to be remarkably insensitive about other people’s unemployment (perhaps it’s because he has never been unemployed himself, having mostly gone straight from one cushy number to another, now culminating in a very comfortable berth in Cambridge).

Dr Williams was probably thinking as much, in his attack on those within his Church who oppose aggressive secularism and make supposedly “highly coloured” accusations of persecution, about the former bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, as about Dr Carey. In May, Bishop Nazir-Ali said that the exclusion of Christians from their places of work for wearing a cross amounted to the “beginning of persecution”.

In a new book he now questions the whole intellectual basis of Dr Williams’s approach. Dr Williams argues that secularism comes in two different forms and that a secular state as such does not necessarily pose a problem for Christians (correct in itself). What he describes as “programmatic” secularism is, he says “problematic”. This excludes religious practice and symbols from public life in order to emphasise the “unclouded” loyalty of individuals to the state. There is, however, no difficulty for Christians with what he calls “procedural” secularism, according to which which the state allows people publicly to practise their faith but does not give preferential treatment to any single religious group (how, I wonder, does the establishment of the Church of England fit into this distinction?). Dr Williams insists that “the Church” can continue to exist in a secular society as long as it is allowed to speak up for its values.

Bishop Nazir-Ali says that Dr Williams’s distinction is “not really stable”, and that that any form of secularism represents an assault on Christian values.

His new book comes out on September 13, and it is entitled Triple Jeopardy for the West: Aggressive Secularism, Radical Islamism and Multiculturalism. It should be noted that when he makes “highly coloured” accusations of the beginnings of persecution here, he is doing so from the perspective of a Christian who knows from personal experience what real persecution is and has experienced its onset in a previously tolerant state. He became the first Anglican Bishop of Raiwind in West Punjab (1984–86), at the time of the Islamisation of Pakistan unleashed by General Zia ul-Haq. When his life was in imminent danger in 1986, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie arranged for his refuge and employment in England (and good for him).

So when he observes what he calls the beginnings of real persecution here, and when he perceives “secularist agendas which marginalise all faith but seem especially hostile to Christianity”, he is talking about a phenomenon of which he has personal experience. This is something he really knows about.

When Dr Williams talks about secularism as being simply to do with free speech, and when he ignores those who have lost their jobs through aggressive secularism and says that it is simply a matter of the “argument [which] is essential to a functioning democratic state”, and goes on to say that “religion should be involved in this, not constantly demanding the right not to be offended” as though anybody cared about that, he too is speaking from his own extensive experience of life, life at least of a certain well-defined sort – an experience of involved discussions at high tables and in senior common rooms, in the world to which he now, with some relief I am sure, returns.

But he has never been in danger; nor, like the Strasbourg four (who are the tip of a very large iceberg) has he ever been sacked for remaining true to his faith. Goodbye, Dr Williams; I hope you will be happy in Cambridge — I am sure you will do well there. But as the supposed leader of English Christianity, I have to say that we would have been better off with Dr Nazir-Ali.