Sunday, February 10, 2008

Rowan Williams and the Mastery of Politics

The Archbishop of Canterbury is not feted for his deft political touch – nor would he want to be. He has been cursed, by fellow bloggers as well as by print journalists, with the most opprobrious epithet applicable to someone in public life: he’s ‘academic’. And academics, as we know, are out of touch and, worst of all, na├»ve. So much might be inferred from his reported reaction to the media coverage of his speech last week: he is said to be ‘shocked’ at the backlash. Frustrated, dismayed, perhaps, but surely not ‘shocked’ – that makes him sound wounded and repentant. But he’s got no reason to be queueing in line for the confessional.

Dr Williams has been caught by the unusual weather we’re having: after all, silly season is supposed to be months away from early February. If there had been other news for the journalists to waste words on, his speech would have struggled to win column-inches. As it is, the press-gang must have been straining to squeeze a sound-bite out of a text which, it is true enough, is rather wanting in a certain rhetorical elegance. But it clearly wanted to stir a wide debate – it’s just a pity it has not done so yet.

The headlines and the comment articles to date can hardly consitute an intelligent response to his lecture. But the furore itself will have its use: a speech which otherwise would be forgotten will attract more attention over a period of time and a debate may follow. It may be then that commentators come to terms with what the Archbishop was actually saying.

It seems to me that what Dr Williams was arguing was part of his wider critique of the West’s international policy following the 11th September bombings. It’s an interpretation that, in a softly-spoken matter, sets challenges for liberalism. There are, he emphasises, fundamental rights which no religious morality could trump – but, equally, we should not fool ourselves that those rights add up to a complete code of behaviour. Some rules of conduct are established for ourselves by the communities in which we participate; those rules should not be challenged by the state simply for the sake of having an all-encompassing universal law which would assume all individuals are alike. It is a plea for pluralism, and for a recognition of the limits of what western ‘liberal democracy’ can helpfully export to other cultures. It is argument for everyone being equal before the law, but not the same before it.

However brief a summary this is, it should be clear that, for liberals, what Dr Williams said is problematic – in the best possible sense. He is challenging us to think further about our liberalism in the new context we find ourselves. In suggesting the limits to liberal democracy, he is not denying it has benefits but rather asking us to define its identity more clearly than is usual.

Which all sounds grist for the scholarly seminar, rather than for the public arena. We might pause to wonder how depressing it is that the public arena is thought unsuitable for intellectual discussion. But we might also wonder why Dr Williams said what he did, when he did. It was a challenge not just to governments and to the chattering classes but also to his own church – in the run-up to the General Synod. His picture of pluralism is one in which, it could be argued, the curious position of the Church of England as the church of the state should be in doubt. Perhaps – just perhaps – if the Archbishop has happened to trigger a discussion which will eventually lead to consideration of disestablishment, that might not have been completely unintentional. Though, naturally, the artful politician would claim himself ‘shocked’ when matters turn out to take that course.