Rowan Williams’ recent editorial in the New Statesman – which set the right seething and the left celebrating (neither, it seems, having read the article’s judicious criticism very carefully) – is just the latest in a line of high profile archiepiscopal political interventions.
Dan Gover’s recent Theos report, Turbulent Priests?, charts in meticulous detail the political activity of the Archbishop of Canterbury since 1980. Since that time, incumbents have made statements on everything, from asylum and inner city deprivation, to abortion and euthanasia.
Many of these interventions were widely noticed, and cheered or jeered according to political taste. When he rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in over issues of inequality or climate change the left applauded and the right grumbled. When he spoke out about human sexuality or family breakdown the right praised and the left complained.
Generally speaking, this should be quite encouraging, if not necessarily soothing, for Christians. The variety and volume of such reactions does seem to suggest that the gospel, for which the Archbishop is such a prominent ambassador, rudely cuts across our narrow political categories, edging us out of our political comfort zone.
But it is also a little paradoxical. One of the criticisms levelled at Christianity in theUK, by some Christians as well as atheists and secularists, is that we have an established church. This, they claim, is unfair. It is unrepresentative. It makes the church self-serving, and it weakens its prophetic role, drawing its political teeth.
This is a serious charge sheet. The self-serving accusation is the easiest to deal with. Turbulent Priests? sifts through a mountain of evidence to show that, with a few minor exceptions, the idea that archiepiscopal politics is self-serving is without basis. As far as we can tell, episcopal politics merits the same verdict.
The question of being unrepresentative is also a something of a red herring. The Church of England may not be as central to national life as it was fifty years ago, but it is still the body to which most people claim some form of affiliation, no matter how loose or informal. The very fact that bishops are so rooted in their locality, acting as focal points in a network that stretches everywhere inEnglandand connects with millions, serves to re-enforce this fact.
The issue of unfairness is more complex, and demands a careful consideration of what would constitute a fair political settlement. Some, such as Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at OxfordUniversity, have argued that the current form of establishment is about as fair as we could hope for from any political settlement. Others contend that many of the trappings of establishment, not least the automatic right of 26 Anglican bishops to assume seats in the Lords, cannot, by definition, be fair. There is clearly a debate to be had here although what is certainly not fair is to claim, as some secularists do, that fairness demands that religion must be kept wholly private.
The paradox comes in the last criticism, the idea that establishment draws the church’s political teeth. Gover’s report repeatedly shows that not only has establishment failed to blunt the church’s political critique, but it has actually given it a platform and a prominence that it would otherwise have lacked.
Most people know about the ‘famous’ examples of such political controversies: Runcie’s speech in the Falklandsthanksgiving service, the notorious Faith in the City report, the Archbishops’ warnings in the run up to and after the Second Iraq War, ‘shariagate’. Gover fills in the gaps between these spats, showing how, over the last thirty years, the Archbishop repeatedly spoke up against government thinking and often in the teeth of public opinion on a number of issues, such as urban poverty, asylum, and criminal justice. The fact that he was noticed had as much to do with who he was as what he said.
None of this is to claim that the only valuable archiepiscopal political intervention is one that condemns the powers that be. In an age of overwhelming political cynicism, speaking up for politics, politicians and the political process may be just as prophetic an act.
Rather, it is simply to say that the idea that establishment blunts the Church’s political critique is clearly wrong. Any priests can get turbulent but not every instance of turbulence makes a difference.
A contribution form Theos Think Tank