Quiet voice of modernity’s enemyTheo Hobson
- 16 February 2008
With an Anglo-Catholic antipathy to secular liberalism dating back to Newman, Rowan Williams is seen by many as more of a thinker than a leader, something he too was conscious of when he was enthroned as the Anglicans' leader five years ago this month
When Dr Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, there was delight that the Church of England had found a leader with a brilliant, critical mind, someone who was principled and reformist. This was a spiritual leader who could also be liberal; someone who had a track record in supporting gay rights and women's ordination. But had he got the political nous to be Archbishop of Canterbury?
The problem with this question is that it pretends to know what the job essentially is. It presupposes that he ought to be a politician in fancy dress; that his job is to say the sort of things that make the majority feel comfy, safe, flattered. Maybe instead his role is to raise the most awkward questions. But surely, some will reply, his core role is to defend Britain's Christian tradition, to be a figurehead for it. But he's not the Queen, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
His job, as he understands it, is also to interpret the tradition that he represents, and to sharpen its capacity for truthfulness. In this view, the religious leader has more in common with the court jester than the king. His role is not to project an image of strength that will unite the faithful, and please the nation at large, but to challenge all tendencies to ideological surety, in both Church and nation.
It is remarkable that someone with such an idea of leadership has attained the highest position in the national Church. Williams was always a favourite to take over from the evangelical George Carey; he combined a track record in academia with pastoral experience in the disestablished Church in Wales. Although he was the first since the Reformation to be appointed to Canterbury from outside the Church of England, he belongs to a surprisingly well-established tradition: that of William Temple in the Forties, Michael Ramsey in the Sixties and Robert Runcie in the Eighties. All were capable of being self-critical almost to the point of self-parody. Just before his enthronement Ramsey said: "It may be the will of God that our Church should have its heart broken."
Williams has echoed this kenotic approach; he has said that Anglican tradition must sometimes be "broken on the rock of Christ". This tradition of leadership is keen to unsettle conservative notions of Christian Britain, of the Church's duty to serve "the national interest" - which means that it is often vilified. For example, when Robert Runcie ruled out any triumphalism from the service commemorating the Falklands War, and insisted that Argentine victims should be remembered too, he suffered the sort of press gang-whipping that Williams woke up to last Friday.
But Williams has entered even riskier territory. Instead of soothing our national identity crisis, he seems to want to intensify it. Is this provocative approach intentional, or head-in-the-clouds clumsy?
It looks like a bit of both. Many of those who know him see him as more of a thinker than a leader. Soon after his enthronement, five years ago this month, I talked to a friend of his who was surprised that he had accepted the job. He could hardly have refused, I replied. "No one has to be archbishop of Canterbury," he said. "There isn't a law saying you have to take the job if it's offered to you." He worried that his friend lacked the political instincts to cope at Canterbury. And Williams admitted, on his appointment, that the prospect of suddenly becoming public property filled him with apprehension. He also expressed deep unease about the weight of expectation - various groups within the Church saw him as their champion, and he knew that he would let most of them down. He was right there. The Jeffrey John affair, when he accepted the proposal that the gay cleric be Bishop of Reading and then, after evangelical protests, turned him down, changed Williams' image for ever. Rather than be a liberal reformer, he was most concerned about unity.
His advocacy of the rights of gay Christians during the 1990s was misleading: it made him seem the liberal he never really was. He was always an Anglo-Catholic above all. He sought to develop and update the open, liberal side of this tradition, but not in a way that might jeopardise its integrity.
Above all, he refused to combine Anglo-Catholicism with a general liberal agenda. Indeed he revived the Anglo-Catholic suspicion of secular liberalism that dates back to Newman. The liberal state, in this view, offers itself as an alternative community of salvation; it tempts us into supposing that we can dispense with the Church, or at least water it down, and develop a more progressive form of Christianity. This leads to weak forms of Christianity that are unable to resist dangerous ideologies: most obviously, the liberal Protestants of Germany embraced Nazism. It is Williams' anti-liberal ecclesiology that is the root cause of the present controversy. In a sense it's not really about sharia law, or Islam: it's about the relationship between a Catholic conception of the Church and liberalism.
For Williams, authentic Christianity occurs within a clearly defined social body, an "ethical community" as he has sometimes put it. Without this, Christian culture will be dispersed by the cold winds of secularism. There is a need for strong resistance to the various negative spirits of the age: consumerism, celebrity, hedonism and so on, and this resistance can only occur within an alternative social world, walled off from mainstream culture.
Only from within a religious subculture can secular modernity be seen for what it is: dehumanising. He has referred to secularism's "unspoken violence", and to modernity as "an atmosphere in which people become increasingly formless, cut off from what could give their lives ... some kind of lasting intelligibility". He sees secular liberalism as a quietly nihilistic force that robs human life of full significance, as a demonically subtle tyranny that looks and feels like freedom.
This theme was prominent in the Dimbleby Lecture that he gave almost exactly five years ago: it is perhaps the key to understanding his agenda last week. He argued that secular culture always serves material agendas (someone's desire to sell you something, someone's desire for your vote); it shuns comprehensive visions of human good. Religion addresses the whole human being, it puts all short-term concerns into perspective. A religious tradition "makes possible a real questioning of the immediate agenda of society, the choices that are defined and managed for you by the market".
He sees his role, then, as defender of the various subcultural spaces that resist the logic of secularism, the enclaves within our culture where fully human meaning is made. And of course these are not only Christian. In a curious way his vision echoes Prince Charles' declaration that he would like to be the defender of faith rather than the faith. He wants to be the defender of the endangered cultural space that insists on the priority of God. If the Muslim form of such space is tied up with sharia law, we must try to accommodate this.
The problem with this idea of his role is that he heads an institution with a logic that is at variance with it. The Church of England cannot really be described as a subcultural space in which secular liberalism is resisted. Because it is the established Church of a society that is liberal, and largely secular, it is strange for its leader to speak of secular liberalism as the enemy. Whether he likes it or not, Williams does not just represent the card-carrying members of faith communities: he also represents the huge amount of Britons who are semi-Christian or post-Christian; people who see Christianity and liberalism as complementary.
Such people (most of the nation) are sympathetic to Christianity but sceptical of religious institutions. They want a liberal form of Christianity to lurk in the background of national identity - in order to bless liberalism rather than contest it. It is rash to dismiss this desire as muddled or hypocritical, for it is rooted in British history: our liberalism and our version of Protestantism developed side by side. Liberal Protestantism is basic to our national identity, although people don't tend to think of it as "liberal Protestantism" but as "our Christian heritage" and "our liberal tradition".
This is what Williams seems not to grasp, or chooses not to. It sets him apart from the figures I likened him to earlier, Temple, Ramsey and Runcie. For these Anglo-Catholics had an instinctive understanding that the British people will only tolerate an established Church that is sympathetic to liberalism; they saw the necessity of working with this national religious instinct, rather than seeking to antagonise and deconstruct it.
The anger that Williams has unleashed is not just down to Islamophobia. It is also a lament for the liberal Anglican culture that has been slowly collapsing for a decade or two, and has all but been lost. Such is my regard for Williams' intellect that I suspect that he knew that he was drawing attention to this, initiating a new debate about whether a liberal established Church is still meaningful. He is saying, in his deep, gentle voice: "Perhaps it's time to consider whether the old religious set-up is still what most of us really want."
If you would like to read Dr Rowan Williams' lecture, Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective, please click here.