Saturday, June 11, 2011

When Politics Replaces Religion: The Irrelevance of Rowan Williams

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams thought it would be a good idea to guest edit a left-wing magazine and take a few potshots at the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in support of his beloved Labor Party. He resorted to a lot of cliches about "fear" and called for more "discussion" before the government implements his policies; Global Anglicans have heard this sort of claptrap before. He also attacked the education policies and the spending cuts policies of the government, the former of which holds the potential of giving poor children a possible way out of poverty through a high quality education and the latter of which just might allow the country to avoid the agonies for the poor that would inevitably accompany national bankruptcy, or the threat thereof. It is simply impossible to take this man seriously as a practical political thinker.

However, my complaint is different. In my opinion, the main problem with his frequent incursions into partisan politics is that it gives the impression that the Church has nothing unique to say about the contemporary cultural and political situation, that is, nothing that the Labor Party does not say better and in more detail. This was the main point of the comparison between Williams and the man who appointed him, Tony Blair, in the Guardian this week.

The Guardian article basically said that if you want to listen to a left-wing politician, you might as well listen to a successful one. Blair won three majorities and held his party together despite everything. Williams is presiding over a disintegrating Communion and an increasingly divided and discredited Church.

But Williams never seems to have anything to say about spiritual reality, the need for conversion or the truth of the Gospel. When it comes to theological matters, say universalism or homosexuality, he is given to nuance, qualification and "on the one hand . . . but on the other" kind of statements. His religious utterances are usually couched in paradox and leave one scratching one's head wondering just exactly what he was driving at. However, when it comes to politics, he is clear as a bell. Whereas in religion he tries to be neither conservative nor liberal, in politics he leaves no doubt that you are to vote Labor and take a leftist line on just about everything.

As Stephen Glover puts it:
'Even if Dr Rowan Williams' remarks had been uncontroversial, his decision to be guest editor of the Leftist New Statesman would still be hard to understand'

Even if Dr Rowan Williams' remarks had been uncontroversial, his decision to be guest editor of the Leftist New Statesman would still be hard to understand.

I would say the same if had he been asked to edit a Right-wing magazine. The primate of the Church of England, and the leader of the 70million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion, should not enter the hurly-burly of political journalism.

In the event he has gone much further in his two-page editorial in the New Statesman.

By seemingly questioning the legitimacy of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, and by criticising its policies, he has created a storm that may harm his office and the Church of England, and will dismay many churchgoers and others.

Of course, prelates should speak up for the poor and excluded, but they run a terrible risk when they stray from general arguments about society into making party political interventions.

I doubt any archbishop in modern times has been so specific in his political point-scoring as Dr Williams.
Damian Thompson at his Daily Telegraph blog can't help contrasting Williams' ineptitude and irrelevance to the leadership exhibited by Pope Benedict XVI.

It’s one thing to dismiss the Big Society as a meaningless slogan (though I don’t think it is). It’s quite another to suggest that it’s an “opportunistic” excuse for spending cuts. Do you remember Dr Williams protesting when Gordon Brown was hosing down the public sector with money, fundamentally weakening the economy – and the weakest people in it? Me neither.

Here’s the reality. The Anglican Communion has disintegrated on Rowan Williams’s watch, partly thanks to his habit of saying one thing to fundamentalist Africans and quite another to liberal Americans. His own bench of bishops is hopelessly divided on key moral issues, and Rowan’s hand-wringing isn’t uniting them.

Out of four bishops commissioned to look after traditionalist congregations, three have left the C of E to become Catholic monsignors. Over fifty Anglican ministers are being ordained RC priests this month.

You may or may not sympathise with their decision. But one thing’s for sure. When Pope Benedict is confronted by a major crisis in his Church, he doesn’t take time off to guest edit a secular magazine in the hope of impressing his mates.

Others have speculated that Williams' retreat into leftist politics is a way of evading the difficulties of his ecclesiastical work and saying things that will garner plaudits from the chattering classes that Williams respects. I think he actually thinks that leftist slogans is all the Church has to say to the world.

And that is the tragedy of his leadership and the cause of its failure.

No comments: