An Archbishop Spinning out of Control

‘Rowan Williams likes to see himself as the Church of England’s first celebrity archbishop — almost as famous as the Vicar of Dibley’

Manchester Square The Church of England

Three years ago, Standpoint was founded to defend and celebrate Western civilisation. In this summer double issue, some of the best writers, artists and thinkers in the English-speaking world demonstrate that our civilisation is by no means in decline. Yet its ideas and values are constantly distorted, ignored or betrayed by those whose duty is to sustain them. 

I want to examine a figure who has, by virtue of his office, his officiousness and his obfuscation, turned himself into the very model of that modern major generalist: the public intellectual. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, should not be underestimated. He is the 104th Primate of All England, and one of the most prolific. If Dr Williams is more often to be seen (and seems more at home) in the secular realm — praising Philip Pullman at a literary festival, say, or condemning the killing of bin Laden — than when speaking ex cathedra to the fractious Anglican Communion, that is not accidental: he wants to be seen playing in the intellectual premier division, not relegated to the Sunday charity match. Of course, the day job often pays dividends: public intellectuals may pontificate on royal weddings, funerals and coronations, but only Primates preside over them. 

This summer, while moonlighting as guest editor of the New Statesman, Dr Williams did what he does best: provoke a political controversy. Such rows have become a regular occurrence since his translation from Wales to Canterbury in 2003. But the usual explanation — the presumptive political ineptitude of an unworldly divine — seems to me implausible, though even the sapient Charles Moore subscribes to it: “No holy spin doctors seem to be charged with the exacting task of explaining what this brilliant but mentally bearded man actually means.” On the contrary: Dr Williams is his own spin doctor, and a very successful one too. His name is rarely absent from the news for long; his ubiquity is matched by his hyperactivity. The fact that his whiskers and his mannerisms are endlessly caricatured and mimicked is proof positive that his voice is heard in the land. “Rowan” (as he is known by admirers among clergy and laity alike) is the Church of England’s first celebrity archbishop — almost as famous as the Vicar of Dibley. Some see him as a prophetic, persecuted voice. He has got off lightly compared to some of his predecessors: Becket, Cranmer and Laud were respectively martyred, burnt and beheaded.

But what does this sibilant sibyl actually have to say? Does the Primate earn his primacy? He argues that the present Conservative-Liberal coalition lacks democratic legitimacy: “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.” It would be charitable to suppose that Dr Williams was unaware that the Coalition received 59 per cent of the votes cast at the 2010 general election, making it the only government since 1945 to achieve an absolute majority of the popular vote. But representative democracy has been familiar since 5th-century Athens. Has the Archbishop never heard the term “vox pop”, which derives from the medieval saying Vox populi, vox Dei — “the voice of people is the voice of God”?

The inability to understand, let alone to defend, democracy is only one aspect of this archiepiscopal trahison des clercs. As an Oxford don in the 1980s, Dr Williams was a Left-wing activist, campaigning against Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who was warned about this “subversive”. More recently he has cultivated a special affection for one faith in particular. Unfortunately it is not his own. He wants us to stop talking about the Good Samaritan and instead say “the Good Muslim”; to embrace “the Other” (meaning the Muslim), even if this means domesticating sharia. St Paul’s injunction to Christians to be “all things to all men” may be used to justify not merely toleration, but appeasement of the intolerant. That is the trap into which Dr Williams falls.

His is not the voice of one crying in the wilderness, but that of Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of responsibility and asking: “What is truth?” In him, the voices of the Anglican establishment and the liberal establishment have become indistinguishable. No wonder Dr Williams prefers the magazine editor’s chair to the throne of St Augustine. When he interviews the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, about the Arab Spring, they both see Israel as the main obstacle to peace. Like a previous Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who recently wrote in The Times that the “most democratic” state in the wider Middle East is now Turkey, Dr Williams ignores Israel’s achievements. That is the conventional wisdom of our day.

But it is the same story at home. When have we heard the Archbishop speak up for the victims of abortion, euthanasia or eugenics, of forced marriage or female genital mutilation, for those with no voice? When has he defended family values, which are also biblical values, against a celebrity culture that sets them at naught? 

I once heard Dr Williams set out his critique of the West before an audience at the British Academy. He denied the existence of a “dictatorship of relativism”. Afterwards, I challenged him: “Nobody is as absolutist as a relativist. And nobody is as relativist as an archbishop.” Dr Williams positively beamed: “I think we agree!” No, Archbishop, I don’t think we do.