The sad moral decline of Rowan Williams

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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.

13 thoughts on “The sad moral decline of Rowan Williams

  1. What would Christian politicians do without Wilberforce? The Archbishop did a similar job in a recent article where the logic went: Wilberforce abolished slavery, Wilberforce was a Christian therefore we need more Christianity in politics.

  2. Terrific post James. I’m afraid you’ve just shot right to the top of my Blog reads. Whenever I hear any Christian talk about slavery and abolition, my immediate thought is, “what took you so long?” 1900 years after Jesus brought his message of love and peace and goodwill to all men, and we were still shackling blacks. Of course the simple reason for this is that a close study of scripture (which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend) reveals a very dubious take on slavery. I think St Paul instructs us to not treat our slaves so badly that we would knock out their eyes and their teeth. How humane. The Christians who opposed abolition (and there were many) were arguably on much firmer theological ground.

    And you do well to highlight the ghastly duplicity of religion. The public discourse of religion is all about poverty and, more recently, the environment. But behind closed doors it’s gay Bishops, women Priests, and then some more gay Bishops. How dare they talk about morality as if they had it in their back pocket. As for Bishops in the Lords, well we’ve had the vote. Anything less than a fully and speedy implementation would be a disgrace.

    This all reminds me of a recent exchange between David Dimbleby and George Carey on BBC Question Time. The audience question was: “Has the House of Lords done the country a favour by voting against the government’s plan for so-called super-casinos?”

    Carey: Yes, I think we did do everyone a favour in that vote last night. Interestingly, there were three Bishops present and the vote swung by three I understand . . .

    [much merriment]

    Dimbleby: How did you vote?

    Carey: I wasn’t there David.

    Dimbleby: Why weren’t you there?

    Carey: Well I was watching an amazing film, Amazing Grace, about Wilberforce . . .

    Dimbleby: So you went to the movies rather than vote on this key issue?

    Carey: . . . I went to the movies but, just to continue David, the point about the House of Lords is that the House of Lords doesn’t want to be in collision with the senior house which is the House of Commons. But I think the House of Lords can provide a wonderful balance as a chamber that revises and criticises and stands back and can, in an objective way, do its work . . .

    So there you have it. The peers of the realm, and especially the Bishops, perform an absolutely essential function in our hallowed and ancient houses of parliament.

    Except when they’re at the flicks.

  3. Bravo, James, for a wonderful analysis! I just do not understand how such an anachranism as unelected religious leaders can possibly be argued for in a democratic House of Lords – it is surely beyond belief!!!

  4. Lord Carey doesn’t sit as a Bishop any more, he sits as a Cross Bench Peer. If you’re going to criticise the Bishops, at least do so from a position of factual correctness.

    The Bishops show up a lot more frequently than many of Tony’s working peers.

  5. Carey is in the House of Lords because he is a former Archbishop of Canterbury. So yes, you are correct that he is technically a crossbencher, but he would never have got appointed were it not for his involvement in the CofE.

    You are also unlikely to hear me defending crossbenchers anytime soon. At last count, they had a median attendance of 6% of all votes and a mean attendance of 10%. Hardly an institution worth defending.

    As for your point about Labour working peers, we can of course test your hypothesis out by visiting Public Whip. The attendance list by itself isn’t particularly illuminating, but fortunately I have the data in a convenient spreadsheet. The median attendance of a Labour peer is 59.05%. The median attendance of a Bishop is 1.7%. Only 7 Labour peers have lower attendance rates than the average Bishop (these figures are accurate up to mid-March and are unlikely to have significantly changed since).

    So yes, indeed. Let’s criticise the Bishops from a position of factual correctness.

  6. Apologies – the group I had in mind were the so-called “people’s peers,” many of whom actually sit on the cross benches despite close links with Tony – such as Lord Browne, and Lord Stevenson, who actually chaired the whole sorry exercise – both of whom score a big fat zero in your spreadsheet.

  7. I think your analysis re: Sentamu -v- Williams is interesting, but way off target. This isn;t Blair v. Brown, there is no deal and Sentamu has been very clear in radio interviews saying he’s not interested in the job, pointing out that he is older than Williams and thinks they work well as a team.

    Granted Sentamu is a smarter media operator than Williams, but if Sentamu plays to his strengths it doesn;t mean he wants Willaims’ job.

    When Williams plays to his strengths – and I think he had some interesting things to say in his speech about a moral vision for government meaning more than management – then he outclasses Sentamu. Fact is intellectual rigous is not as sexy as media. Perhaps by keepting these two in their current oprder the Church is making a statement that they have a different value system which sees academic brilliance as more improtant than madie ability.

    As for Bishops and appearances in the Lords, I think you also have to factor in that these guys (and they are annoyingly STILL all guys) also run dioceses. That is the equivalent of being the cheif exec of an SME, very often where your head office is more than a couple of hundred miles away from London.

    Willaims calls for more religious representatiopn in the Lords. I’m all for that and given our statute (more than echoes of ten commandments) and case law(donoghue-v-stevenson anyone?) owes so much to our Christian heritage I think it would be foolish to simply say we are no longer a Christian nation ofr that our culture (outside metorpolitan elitism) isn’t fashioned by those values.


  8. Jake – I’ll take your word for it regarding Sentamu’s ambitions.

    In terms of Bishops having dioceses to worry about, that’s fine. They should be allowed to concentrate on their jobs. It would be doing them all a favour by kicking them out of the Lords.

    I’m also all for more religious representation in the Lords, if – and it is a big if – they get elected. Somehow though, I suspect that Williams doesn’t want to be troubled with such distractions.

    As for the ‘we’re a Christian country with a Christian legal system’ argument. That is true. It is also true that our legal system can source its roots to Judaism, so maybe we should call ourselves a Jewish country (not to mention the Babylonians and others)? It also has its roots in Ancient Greece and Rome, so maybe we should call ourselves a polytheistic country? Or acknowledge our Viking roots by calling ourselves a Norse nation (certain members of the BNP would love that)?

    I’m happy to acknowledge the positive influence Christianity has had on our constitution and legal system (up to a point anyway), but that doesn’t make me a Christian by default and it doesn’t make my country Christian either. If Christianity has failed in its stated role in inspiring the vast majority of the British public, which it demonstrably has, it is simply ridiculous to subsequently claim that we have to pay it reverence regardless.

  9. Britain not a Christian country? 2001 Census says otherwise:-

    “There are 37.3 million people in England and Wales who state their religion as Christian. The percentage of Christians is similar between the two countries but the proportion of people who follow other religions is 6.0 per cent in England compared with 1.5 per cent in Wales.

    In England, 3.1 per cent of the population state their religion as Muslim (0.7 per cent in Wales), making this the most common religion after Christianity.

    For other religions, 1.1 per cent in England and 0.2 per cent in Wales are Hindu, 0.7 per cent in England and 0.1 per cent in Wales are Sikh, 0.5 per cent in England and 0.1 per cent in Wales are Jewish and 0.3 per cent in England and 0.2 per cent in Wales are Buddhist.

    In England and Wales 7.7 million people state they have no religion (14.6 per cent in England and 18.5 per cent in Wales). ”

  10. Sheila – you keep lobbing statistics about as if you’re dealing with an amateur.

    At best, the census indicates that we are a mostly Christian country – an important distinction – and only a minority of them are actually practicisng Christians.

    The Tearfund – not exactly an anti religious organisation – reported earlier this month that just 1 in 10 attend church regularly.

    It is frankly ridiculous to attempt to co-opt the vast majority who may tick a box on a census return claiming to be Christian yet who have no interest in actively practicing the religion. If you can’t persuade them to set foot in a church, how dare you claim the Church should ‘represent’ them in the legislature?

    You also miss off from your list the 390,000 people who identified as Jedi on that census, more than the number who identified as Sikh or Jewish. If you think the census gives the Christian church special rights in the running of the state, it follows that you have to give Jedi proportionately the same.

  11. It’s not my list, it’s the National Statitics list – the quote marks give it away. You’d need to ask them why they missed out the Jedi.

    I’m all in favour of proportional praying, the Scots led the way when they arranged this for Holyrood and also made sure that atheists/non-religious got time in the schedule.

  12. The Office of National Statistics DO list the Jedi – they have a whole page dedicated to it. You left them off.

    You can’t go around selectively picking and choosing statistics and then blaming everyone else for their biases.

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