Rowan Williams is no Thomas à Becket. He’s not French for starters, and he hasn’t got a background marked out by extravagance in clothes and aristocratic riches. His dispute with the state is not rooted in the excommunication of fellow bishops for supporting the “wrong” king. And despite the distemper I’m sure his New Statesman editorial is causing behind Number 10’s shiny black door, I’d be surprised if he is in any great danger of being martyred. So the details of any parallel with the 12th century are, well, rather weak. But there is one sense in which this is a repeat; it is indeed another clash between the temporal and spiritual realms. Or is it?
I’m in general a supporter of the Archbishop, both in the sense that I share his faith, and that I admire his intellectual and moral authority. Not that I’m sycophantic, and I have criticisms too – most notably about his equivocation on the issues of gay rights, both in society and in the Church. I understand the pressures and the ecclesiastical politics that make it extremely hard for him to be as forthright on these matters as I believe he personally would like to be, particularly in standing up clearly against those African bishops who seem content with their countries’ barbarous legal attempts to legitimise the murder of gay people. In that respect I wish the parallel with St Thomas were closer: some episcopal excommunications might well be in order today. But the general point remains. I’m a friend of the Archbishop.
So you might be surprised to learn that I’m actually quite uneasy about his intervention in the New Statesman. My unease is rooted in my sense that Dr Williams has been too political, and not sufficiently “spiritual”, in his critique. Reading his article, it seems more like a temporal critique of the temporal sphere than a spiritual critique of it. Hence my uncertainty that this really is another dispute between the lords temporal and the lords spiritual in the tradition of that exemplified by St Thomas.
I believe passionately that it is entirely legitimate for an Archbishop of Canterbury to speak “truth to power” as the phrase has it, but what kind of truth? When an unelected lord spiritual frames his critique in terms of democratic deficiency he surely opens himself immediately to the dismissive criticism that he’s simply a hypocrite. When he criticises the education reforms because they undermine the 1944 education act, surely that is the wrong yardstick? When he lambastes the Coalition for constantly blaming the previous Labour administration, surely he begins to sound more partisan than principled?
It’s not that I personally disagree with virtually any of the political points Dr Williams makes. But those are points that Mr Miliband should be making – and more’s the pity that the Labour leader seems to be making a much less good fist of it than the Archbishop. What provides the Archbishop with legitimacy is not indulging in political opposition, but challenging the government and people alike to confront the moral consequences of policy. Dr Williams comes closest to this when he takes issue with the “quiet resurgence of the seductive language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor”. The proper critique of Michael Gove is not to worry about the 1944 education act – a temporal matter if ever there was one – but to point to the exacerbation of inequality of opportunity that the policy engenders. It’s not really the concern of the Archbishop whether or not the public feels “bafflement and indignation”, but rather to assert whether such bafflement is justified morally. The public frequently exhibits “bafflement and indignation” over the abolition of the death penalty, but that’s no reason whatever to re-open the matter.
So, oddly perhaps, my criticism of this intervention is not that it is ferocious, nor that it lacks legitimacy per se, nor that it’s incorrect in many of its targets, but that it’s not sufficiently based in morality. I’m not really interested in the lord spiritual’s feelings about democratic deficits, but about moral ones. Especially as Lambeth Palace is surely a glass house when it comes to democratic legitimacy, and the sounds of that glass splintering under the onslaught of the stones of the political class are already deafening.