It’s a shame the Chief Rabbi can’t be the next Archbishop of Canterbury

Benedict Brogan’s interview with Rowan Williams, outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, in the Telegraph last Saturday threw up some interesting observations. Brogan writes, “His time has been marked by an often vitriolic debate about the march of militant secularism. He laughs at the recollection of his exchanges with the atheist academic Richard Dawkins, whom he describes as the “latest pub bore” in the tradition of “great public atheists.”

The outgoing Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, whose latest book, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, I have already referred to in a recent blog, is rather less dismissive of Dawkins in his book. Indeed, I don’t remember reading about Williams’ public exchanges on atheism during his time in office: his Socialist-inclined political views – yes; his ideas about Sharia law – yes; controversy over same-sex oriented clergy – yes; his rather muted attitude about defending marriage (unlike his predecessor, Lord Carey) – yes; and lots of general remarks when it was quite hard to know what he was talking about (well, he is an intellectual).

It seems that Williams, seizing the opportunity now that freedom beckons, has published a collection of past lectures, entitled Faith in the Public Square. According to a report in CFNews, he is critical of Lord Carey and of the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, for stating that Christians in Britain are facing persecution. Williams’ view is that “Argument is essential to a functioning democratic state, and religion should be involved in this, not constantly demanding the right not to be offended”.

Surely this is unfair to his colleagues in the Anglican hierarchy? Carey and Nazir-Ali have never indicated they are hostile to argument – when it means a fair and open debate; what they and others have been pointing out for some time (though Williams seems to have missed it) is that in a number of cases that have been well-publicised, Christians’ beliefs have been marginalised and dismissed by a highly secularist interpretation of the law. Given the life-threatening persecution of Christians in some Muslim countries, “persecution” in this context is perhaps too strong a word; but words like “harassment”, “denigration” and “heavy-handed” do come to mind. What Christians want in this country is the right to practise their faith and to follow their conscience; it has nothing to do with a so-called “right not to be offended.”

In his new book, Rowan Williams apparently distinguishes between “programmatic” secularism which becomes problematic when it excludes religious practise and symbols from public life in order to emphasise loyalty to the state; and “procedural” secularism under which the state allows people to publicly practise their faith but does not give preferential treatment to any single religious group. Michael Nazir-Ali rejects this distinction, stating that any form of secularism represents an assault on the Church and on Christian values.

I agree with him. Williams’ is a typically intellectual approach, examining the question in an abstract way without reference to how people actually live their lives. If people were happy to live and let live in the tolerant way he would like, the history of the world would be different. But certain laws enacted by our secularist government directly impinge on people’s Christian beliefs – for instance, laws on adoption and the (anticipated) change to the definition of marriage itself. Furthermore, Williams is (still) the Christian primate of the Established Christian Church in this country; the Queen is still “Defender of the Faith”. What does not giving “preferential treatment to any single religious group” mean in this context?

Brogan comments, “Where others would want to hear clarion clarity about a crisis [on marriage] that goes to the very heart of the Church, [Williams] shies away and hedges. To his critics, this is the reason why the Church appears weak, because he does not communicate certainty…”

To return to Lord Sacks: his book, according to Andrew Marr – not an oracle, admittedly, but still a good barometer of liberal taste – is “the most persuasive argument for religious belief I have ever read.” Sacks argues, not that Dawkins is the “latest pub bore” but that questions of religion and science concern different hemispheres of the brain: science (the left hemisphere) “takes things apart to see how they work”; religion (the right hemisphere) “puts things together to see what they mean”; both activities are vital.

Come to think of it, it is a great pity that the Chief Rabbi can’t, for obvious reasons, apply for the job of being the next Archbishop of Canterbury: he is an intellectual – but with a gift for clear exposition; he believes in God, marriage, the family; he is conciliatory rather than divisive; and from his own religious and historical perspective he sees the marginalisation of faith for what it is.