Theo Hobson on the Archbishop of Canterbury

Theo Hobson offers a provocative assessment of Rowan Williams in respose to the sharia controversy in the Tablet, a British Catholic weekly. First, be observes that the Archbishop has chosen a very different style of leadership than is often expected for those in his position:

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.

Second, Hobson observes that many have been misled by the Archbishop’s theological writings to expect a liberal–when, in fact, the Archbishop is an Anglo-Catholic with strong suspicion of liberal secularism:

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.

. . .

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.

Finally, Hobson argues that the furor over the Archbishop’s sharia comments are largely linked to the fact that the Archbishop’s concept of the church is at variance with a liberal, secular Great Britain:

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.”

Read it all here.

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