Rowan Williams, like so many other public figures over the past couple of months, sought to co-opt William Wilberforce in a speech yesterday. In an act of stupendous logical contortion, he uses Wilberforce, an elected politician (albeit in an era of rotten boroughs) as a tool for his argument against reforming the House of Lords:
“It is important in our current debates about the Upper House of Parliament we take seriously the role of such a House in offering channels of independent moral comment”
I wouldn’t dream of claiming that Wilberforce was a secularist, but it has to be pointed out that it wasn’t the Bishops in the Lords that lead the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. And they aren’t providing moral leadership in the House of Lords today – indeed, they barely deign to show up at all. There may well be a decline of moral leadership in modern politics today, but that is helped, not hindered, by a church which desperately clings to unelected and unaccountable power and evangelises about the desirability for us to adopt an Anglican version of the caliphate. In Iran, the state (similarly lead by old men with improbable beards) religion offers bucketloads of moral guidance. Williams has yet to offer a clear reason why we should want to adopt this as our model for governance.
In truth however, I pity Rowan Williams. He seems a shadow of his former self. He has tried to mediate in the civil war going on inside the Anglican church and in striving to retain unity has ended up siding with the swivel-eyed loons who want to plunge it into medievalism.
Three years ago, I blogged about his favourable review of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The possibility of him writing something so conciliatory now is inconceivable. The reason for this appears to be, in part, that he is constantly looking over his shoulder at John Sentamu. More media-savvy, instinctively populist and less burdened with the constraints of nuance (as well as uncannily resembling Graham Norton), Sentamu has managed to turn his role as Archbishop of York into something that looks rather a lot like Prince of Wales. He’s been running a campaign for the top job almost since he got promoted, and Williams must surely be all too aware of this. Capitalising on Williams’ fear about a schism, Sentamu has been frogmarching him onto his own, somewhat demented and very dangerous territory.
The political truism “Only Nixon could go to China” sadly also works in reverse. A liberal, Williams has presided over a period of sustained de-secularism for the Church of England. We were better off with Carey at the helm. While homophobic and morally conservative, Carey was constrained by the more liberal elements in the Church to not step out of line.
If the Church of England wants to pursue a strategy of moralistic activism, it is crucial that it does so separate from the state. It can’t have it both ways. The fact that it seeks to have it so suggests an insecurity.
Equally, if it does seek to pontificate about morality, it needs to look inward. Morality, for the Church, is increasingly being define in narrow evangelical and Catholic terms: fundamentally, it’s about sex first, everything else second. Incite protests about gay rights, and make the occasional squeak about poverty to keep the lefties happy.
I find it deeply ironic that the Government is introducing something which it calls Islamic Finance at the same time that Christians are calling for more adherence to the Bible. Islamic Finance would be better termed Semitic Finance. It’s based on the Bible’s explicit ban on usury. I happen to think the Bible has a good point on this one. Yet have you heard a single Church leader point this out? In the run up to Easter, how many times did you hear a leader of the Church of England – one of the largest corporations in the UK – recount the story about Jesus throwing the money lenders out of the temple?
When did you last hear a Christian go on about Jubilee? 2000 I suspect. Yet Jubilee is supposed to happen every 7 years, not every 2,000. And it is supposed to apply to everyone, not just distant, convenient Africans. Next time you hear politicians from the Church of England pontificate about their importance as moral agents in society, ask them why they interpret this to mean getting into a lather about homosexuality, but not economic policy.