Three cheers for the Archbishop of Canterbury
We all have our limits, and evidently the Archbishop of Canterbury has reached his. Invited to guest-edit this week’s New Statesman, he must have meditated prayerfully and mused long and hard about how he might profess a commitment to left-wing values without being overtly partisan. After all, St Paul’s exhortation was for believers to become all things to all people, and Dr Williams wouldn’t want to blow the chance of ever being asked to guest-edit The Spectator at some point in the future. So, subtlety was the order of the day: wise as serpents and harmless as doves, and all that.
Alas, no. Today, Lambeth Palace will have battened down the hatches. The Archbishop dared to write an article entitled: ‘The Government needs to know how afraid people are.’ For doing so, he will be loved and loathed in equal measure: he will be lauded by lefties and fiercely rebuked by the right; the media will be a melange of virtue, vilification and vitriol as Dr Williams is misrepresented by opportunistic journalists and spun by scurvy politicians for their own ends. He said his purpose was to stimulate ‘a livelier debate’.
Well, he’ll certainly get that.
For reasons best known to him, instead of walking the traditional via media, Dr Williams decided to launch a broadside against the Government, essentially describing the coalition as ‘frightening’. He singled out the health, welfare and education reforms which he says constitute ‘radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted’.
As far as His Grace recalls, there was no option to vote ‘Coalition’ on the 2010 general election ballot paper, so, of course, no-one voted for it. But it is crass to assert that the agreed manifesto consists of policies ‘for which no-one voted’. This coalition represents a greater proportion of the electorate and is implementing a broader range of cross-party policies than New Labour ever did: the coalition mandate is broad.
But the Archbishop refers to a democratic deficit which has led to ‘anxiety and anger’ and ‘bafflement and indignation’ due to the ‘remarkable speed’ with which policies are being introduced, and the lack of ‘proper public argument’. On Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, he complains of a ‘quiet resurgence of the seductive language of "deserving" and "undeserving" poor"’ and criticises ‘the steady pressure’ to increase ‘punitive responses to alleged abuses of the system’.
Well, David Cameron learned from Tony Blair that you can waste years faffing around achieving precisely nothing whilst appearing to be very busy indeed.
As it is written, if a man will not work, he shall not eat. Ergo, if a man will not work, he ‘deserves’ to be poor. The alleviation of poverty was foundational to Jesus’ ministry: indeed, he preached more about money than he did about eternal salvation. When examining what he said about the poor, consideration has to be given to context and audience, and the nuances of Greek vocabulary also need examining.
What does Luke mean by ‘the poor’ (6:20)? The peasants who possessed little material wealth were not called ‘poor’ (‘ptochos’) if they possessed what was sufficient (ie subsistence) - they were termed ‘penes’. Jesus was (and is) concerned with the literal, physical needs of men (ie not just the spiritual [cf Acts 10:38]). When Luke was addressing the ‘poor’, he meant those who had no money - the oppressed, miserable, dependent, humiliated - and this is translated by ‘ptochos’, indicating ‘poverty-stricken…to cower down or hide oneself for fear’ - the need to beg. The ‘penes’ has to work, but the ‘ptochos’ has to beg. Those addressed by Jesus are the destitute beggars, not ‘penes’ or the general peasant audience of few possessions.
The Archbishop is also of the view that the Prime Minister’s flagship policy, the ‘Big Society’, is nothing but a ‘painfully stale’ slogan which is perceived to be an ‘opportunistic’ cover for spending cuts and is viewed with ‘widespread suspicion’. He accepts that it is not a ‘cynical walking-away from the problem’. But he warns there is confusion about how voluntary organisations will pick up the responsibilities shed by government, particularly those related to tackling child poverty, illiteracy, and increasing access to the best schools.
Yet only a few months ago, Dr Williams was delighted with the ‘Big Society’. He distinctly praised its conceptual foundations, in particular the far-reaching possibilities of the development of local co-operation and 'mutualism' throughout the entire spectrum of political action. And the Synod firmly embraced the policy when they debated it last year. It is difficult to fathom what has shifted so seismically in just three months (certainly no clarification of what is meant by ‘Big Society’).
But it is curious that Dr Williams never used the adjective ‘frightening’ of New Labour. For the Blairite agenda was far more ‘radical’ than those of the coalition, and the present education reforms have cross-party consensus: indeed, they are the brainchild of Lord Adonis and Tony Blair, who both laud the Gove plan to decentralise and devolve. And it is also strange that Dr Williams says that it is not credible for ministers to blame the last Labour government for Britain's problems, when he uttered not a word as Blair and Brown spent 13 years blaming Margaret Thatcher for the wrong type of snow. And yet Dr Williams himself refers to the weakening of community and mutualism as a result of ‘several decades of cultural fragmentation’. Perhaps he refers solely to the effects of Thatcherism.
There is not much at all in this New Statesman article with His Grace can agree. So why three cheers?
Because the Archbishop is simply doing his job: he is braving not just Conservative and LibDem politicians, but the National Secularists and the British Humanists and all who believe that religion should be eradicated from the public sphere. Perhaps buoyed by the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, or spurred on by some of his own bishops, there is no doubt at all that the Established Church has a duty to intervene when it perceives the need. After all, politicians have the constitutional right to interfere in the workings of the Church, and the very presence of the lords spiritual in Parliament presupposes a degree of reciprocity.
Those who refer to the fact that Dr Williams is himself unelected are spectacularly ignorant of our institutions of government. What he is doing is evident to all who have ears; to all who understand history, the religio-political function and purpose of the Monarchy, the development of our system of government and the checks and balances which have evolved over the centuries to limit the exercise of absolute and arbitrary power.
The Church of England was once referred to as being ‘crucified between two thieves’. While this reference was to the respective fanaticism and superstition of ‘the Puritans and the Papists’, there is a modern parallel with a church now suspended between the decline in institutional religion and the burgeoning of generalised ‘spirituality’; between the secularisation of society and the plurality of faith communities. The contemporary context is marked by diversity, fragmentation and all that is transitory; beliefs and practices are culturally relative, and Anglicanism has ceased to be supra-cultural or catholic.
Historically, some archbishops have viewed culture as antagonistic to the gospel, and adopted a confrontational approach. Others have seen culture as being essentially ‘on our side’, adopting the anthropological model of contextualisation, looking for ways in which God has revealed himself in culture and building on those.
Those who adopt the ‘Christ above culture’ model have a synthetic approach and adopt a mediating third way, keeping culture and faith in creative tension. And those who see Christ as the transformer of culture adopt a critical contextualisation which by no means rejects culture, but is prepared to be critical both of the context and of the way we ourselves perceive the gospel and its meaning. Thus culture itself needs to be addressed by the gospel, not simply the individuals within it, and truth is mediated through cultural spectacles, including those performed at great state events by the Church of England, which are inimitable.
This latter model mitigates cultural arrogance or easy identification of the gospel with English culture. It also permits one to see how mission relates to every aspect of a culture in its political, economic and social dimensions, which is what has brought the Archbishop of Canterbury into conflict with Iain Duncan Smith.
The task of the Church (and so the Archbishop of Canterbury) is to challenge the reigning plausibility structure by examining it in light of the revealed purposes of God contained in the biblical narrative. Archbishop Rowan essentially advocates a scepticism which enables one to take part in the political life of society without being deluded by its own beliefs about itself: Establishment commits the Church to full involvement in civil society and to making a contribution to the public discussion of issues that have moral or spiritual implications.
No-one can easily deny that the ministry of Iain Duncan Smith is not contiguous with the ministry of the Church of England: Jesus cared for the poor; IDS is driven with Christian missionary zeal to minister to the most vulnerable of society.
By talking of the states of ‘fear’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘bafflement’ in which people find themselves, Dr Williams concerns himself with the pastoral dimensions of wholeness and healing. He is persuaded that the mission of the Church accords with people’s quest for meaning and an assurance of identity which cannot be found without community, without fellowship. It is this which the Archbishop was addressing: he was not directly attacking the Prime Minister or advocating unlimited benefits for the indolent and workshy.
Notwithstanding some of the excellent work going on in some of the most impoverished parishes in the country, the public perception of the Church of England remains one of middle-class privilege and an élitism which has little relevance to a modern, pluralist, multi-ethnic society. While this is an undoubted misconception, it is exacerbated by the nature of establishment and the fusion of the Church with an increasingly secular government.
And yet it is within this relationship that there remains one of the Church’s primary functions in holding government and political parties to account. The document ‘Moral but no Compass’, although unofficial, illustrates the powerful role the Church of England may still exercise in highlighting the inadequacies - spiritual and political - of the governmental system, in order that people’s welfare may be improved. Whatever the outcome of the Archbishop’s words, the intervention suggests that the public realm remains an arena in which the Church’s moral and ethical mission continues to be exercised. Perhaps it is only the Establishment Church that, in contemporary society, possesses the status to permit it to fight for representation of a slighted electorate in the face of an increasingly abstract political élite.
While the Archbishop’s observations may or may not be valid or politically astute, they add to the perception that the Church of England seeks to exclude or is out of sympathy with some distinct groups of people, in this case the Government or fans of IDS.
Hence the vitriol from the right-wing media and Conservative-supporting blogs.
But it must be remembered that the Church’s Supreme Governor is also the Head of State, and by virtue of being so she is obliged to exercise her public ‘outward government’ in a manner which accords with the private welfare of her subjects – of whatever social status, creed, ethnicity, sexuality or political philosophy. The Royal Supremacy in regard to the Church is in its essence the right of supervision over the administration of the Church, vested in the Crown as the champion of the Church, in order that the religious welfare of its subjects may be provided for.
While theologians and politicians may argue over the manner of this ‘religious welfare’, especially, it seems, in the provision of benefits, the Archbishop speaks because the Head of State cares and cannot speak. He warns publicly because she may only do so privately. He does not always speak as she would wish to, but by speaking at all he reminds us that there is something which transcends the politicians, who, as Shakespeare observed, have an annoying habit of seeming to see the things they do not.
We are no longer in an age, if ever we were, where the Archbishop of Canterbury can impose a morality or a doctrine of God, and Archbishop Rowan sees his primary function as being the acutely political one of calling the state to account by obstinately asking the state about its accountability and the justification of its priorities.
He may occasionally be a thorn in the side of government.
But it is better to have a benign and occasionally misguided Anglican one than a monolithic, absolute and malignant one.