Who will rid us of this turbulent priest?

Dr Rowan Williams given freedom of the city

Well that appears to be the view among the media literati today. The Archbishop of Canterbury has edited the latest edition of the New Statesman magazine and verily verily there has been a media storm.

“Troublesome priest” seems to be the headline for the Telegraph, “turbulent priest” for the blog of the Spectator, the Daily Mail calls it a “holy row”, the Independent has the headline “Archbishop: no-one voted for the coalition reforms”.

The byline for the New Statesman under the heading

“Archbishop of Canterbury: “no one voted” for the coalition’s policies”

is

Rowan Williams launches an outspoken attack on the government in a leader for the New Statesman.

So what is this outspoken attack that the Archbishop supposed to have made?

Well the New Statesman says:

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has launched a remarkable attack on the coalition government, warning that it is committing the country to “radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.” In a leading article in tomorrow’s New Statesman, which he has guest-edited, Williams writes that the “anxiety and anger” felt by voters is a result of the coalition’s failure to expose its policies to “proper public argument”.

They go on further to say

In reference to Michael Gove’s education reforms, the Archbishop writes: “[T]he comprehensive reworking of the Education Act 1944 that is now going forward might well be regarded as a proper matter for open probing in the context of election debates.” Gove’s free school reforms were pushed through Parliament last summer with a haste usually reserved for emergency anti-terrorism laws.

and also

The Archbishop also questions David Cameron’s “big society” agenda, a phrase which he describes as “painfully stale”. He writes that the policy is viewed with “widespread suspicion” as an “opportunistic” cover for spending cuts, adding that is not credible for ministers to blame the last Labour government for Britain’s problems.

So is this an all out attack on the government?

Well if you listen to some of the politicians you might think so:

“I think the people are with us on this and the archbishop, sadly and unusually for him, has ill-judged his attack. I would just guess that most people would be slightly baffled by the archbishop’s comments.” Conservative MP Gary Streeter

or even more off the leash:

“For him, as an unelected member of the upper house and as an appointed and unelected primate, to criticise the coalition government as undemocratic and not elected to carry through its programme is unacceptable. Dr Williams clearly does not understand the democratic process. If he did, he would appreciate that elected members of the House of Commons are not mandated.” Conservative MP Roger Gale

Thankfully, some of the more grown-up politicians accept the right of the Archbishop of Canterbury to voice his opinions. As I have argued before Archbishops and Bishops have a right and a duty to speak out and you cannot keep religion and politics in sealed compartments – unlike how many commentators try to argue. It is, of course, mainly the press who try and keep politics and faith as totally separate.

So, is this what he is doing, a frontal assault of the government?

Well I certainly don’t think so if you actually bother to read the article. The Church mouse blogspot has done a fisk of the reaction against what he actually said and points out many of the woeful misreadings of the press.

But read the article and you get a different feel. For example his supposed attack on the Big Society. What he actually says is:

The political debate in the UK at the moment feels pretty stuck. An idea whose roots are firmly in a particular strand of associational socialism has been adopted enthusiastically by the Conservatives. The widespread suspicion that this has been done for opportunistic or money-saving reasons allows many to dismiss what there is of a programme for “big society” initiatives; even the term has fast become painfully stale. But we are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently and what a left-inspired version of localism might look like.

He asks of both sides what it can actually mean in reality and to move beyond set positions asking politicians to articulate something more than slogans.

Or take education. It is the New Statesman who makes the comment that

Gove’s free school reforms were pushed through Parliament last summer with a haste usually reserved for emergency anti-terrorism laws.

It certainly wasn’t ++Rowan. What he actually says is:

Incidentally, this casts some light on the bafflement and indignation that the present government is facing over its proposals for reform in health and education. With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted. At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context. Not many people want government by plebiscite, certainly. But, for example, the comprehensive reworking of the Education Act 1944 that is now going forward might well be regarded as a proper matter for open probing in the context of election debates. The anxiety and anger have to do with the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument.

His argument here is that there is a huge amount of anger in the teaching and medical professions about reforms. He is not saying that they shouldn’t happen. He is saying that how you have a debate about such large changes should be open for debate. I think that this is fair to ask for.

Overall the Archbishop is questioning both left and right about how we form generous communities and build up society that isn’t fractured. He does not criticise a single government policy. Rather he asks questions about fear and anxiety and about how they should be addressed. So he says:

Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around such questions at present. It isn’t enough to respond with what sounds like a mixture of, “This is the last government’s legacy,” and, “We’d like to do more, but just wait until the economy recovers a bit.” To acknowledge the reality of fear is not necessarily to collude with it. But not to recognise how pervasive it is risks making it worse. Equally, the task of opposition is not to collude in it, either, but to define some achievable alternatives. And, for that to happen, we need sharp-edged statements of where the disagreements lie.

We get the core of his ideas on his interest in community.

But there is another theological strand to be retrieved that is not about “the poor” as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates – like the flow of blood – is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility. Perhaps surprisingly, this is what is at the heart of St Paul’s ideas about community at its fullest; community, in his terms, as God wants to see it.

Here his vision of building real deep community is spot on. Its certainly what we are trying to achieve at Springfield and especially as we work with those on the Roundshaw estate. Not coming to treat people as “objects of kindness” as he points out but rather to partner with people to builld real deep community.

His article is well worth a read. I suspect the whole edition is. As guest editor he appears to have invited some interesting people to write article.

On the other hand, listen to most of the media and just get outraged or applaud for something he hasn’t actually said!

One person who has read and understood it is Andrew Brown of the Guardian who has written a good piece on it, worth a read. Indeed another good one by Jonathan Wynne-Jones of the Telegraph. Interesting that the religious affairs types actually bothering to read the article.

Rid us of this turbulent priest – we need more of him.

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5 Comments on “Who will rid us of this turbulent priest?”

  1. George
    June 9, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

    Great blog entry, Will. Agree with every word. And we are so blessed to have Rowan as Archbishop – a courage to speak out, driven by an overwhelming compassion for the well-being of communities and individuals. And no doubt he expected to receive the howls of disapproval which are now pouring down on him. An inspiration. Strikes me that Christ would have done the same. George

    • Will Cookson
      June 9, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

      Thanks, George.
      An interesting comment by the religious affairs editor of the telegraph where he said
      “While I don’t agree with everything the Archbishop said, I think it was a wise, well-timed intervention that puts the Church on the front foot. As the most senior cleric in the country, he is using his position to show that the Church cares about the issues and fears affecting the people in its parishes.”

      I think that he was right.

  2. David
    June 9, 2011 at 8:37 pm #

    I think the response from the politicians speaks volumes about themselves, their insecurity and their ego. What would their reaction have been if the article was one of obvious praise or support? I bet he would have been welcomed and not told “MYOB”

    • Will Cookson
      June 10, 2011 at 5:06 pm #

      David, I think the response overall have been absolutely fascinating. It feels like one of those moments when suddenly everyone is taking note! The ridiculous thing is that it was a very measured article!!

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  1. Rowan Williams speaks out…… | Will Cookson's Blog - June 15, 2011

    [...] accused of being too academic to be understood. That seems to be reducing in the past week. His editorship of the New Statesman brought a huge amount of comment. But in his comments yesterday he stated that Christians in Iraq [...]

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