Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rowan Williams in the New Statesman

One of the curious things about being a specialised kind of blogger is that occasionally you get a perfect storm in your feed reader, caused by the kind of event which is irresistibly fascinating to your fellow bloggers.  "Archbishop gets political" seems to be about as good as it gets for Church of England bloggers.  When I read the Telegraph headline this morning, my first, ignoble, thought was "oo, must dash off a blog post and grab some attention", a strategy that has been effective in the past, even if the quality of the writing was unlikely to stand detailed scrutiny.  Then I realised that something like thirty other people had had the same thought, except slightly before me.  So this post comes to you with the benefit of several hours sober reflection, and after reading everybody else's posts first. 

Let's start with some of the best reactions on the blogs today:
The Church Mouse does his usual "calm down, everybody" to great effect.  The Telegraph is the target of the Mouse's schoolmasterly ticking off. Apparently they distorted the Archbishop's statement to get a headline, those naughty journos.

Cranmer has a very interesting take on this.  Despite being politically opposed to most of what Rowan has to say, he nevertheless wants to applaud the ABC for doing what he ought to be doing, that is, offering a Christian-informed critique of Government policy.

 Andrew Brown, always worth reading, offers a mainstream and informed view from a left-ish perspective.

Nancy at Seeker has one of the most thoughtful of blog reactions today. 

And the piece most worth reading is the article itself, a guest editorial in The Spectator.  For a serving Archbishop of Canterbury to write such a piece is very unusual, and was always certain to attract comment.  But for Rowan, who has on occasion been criticised for his passivity and gaucheness on the public scene, while other religious leaders seem to make more of the running, this was a huge opportunity to re-assert his credibility and to speak incisively on current affairs.  As for his choice of topic, it really had to be politics and the big society.  A fresh expressions-themed issue wasn't going to cut the mustard. 

So how does it shape up as a piece of political comment?  It certainly isn't the left-wing rant that some commentators are suggesting.  He even has a little dig at that side of the debate, slyly wondering "what the left's big idea currently is."  His comments are critical of the Coalition, but as Andrew Brown notes, in no way party political.  Neither, on the other hand, does it really merit comparison with Faith in the City.  This is not a trumpet blast calling the church to fight the Government, nor does it have the weight of empirical research behind it that FITC did.  Rather, it is a piece of sharp reflection on where we stand politically at this moment in time, a series of questions which government ministers and MPs ought to reflect on.

There may be elements of naiveté still. The comment about "policies for which no-one voted" sounds a little hackneyed already, and does the ABC really believe that any Government feels obliged to stick to those policies which were spelled out in its manifesto? To bracket the name of Iain Duncan Smith along with the criticism of the rhetoric of the "deserving poor" seems unfair.  But these misses are outweighed by the hits.  Anyone involved in education will echo the sentiment of fear about the consequences of Gove's hasty slash-and-burn of schools legislation.  The point about the emptiness of the term "big society" is obvious but well-made.  And the plea for clarity of strategic objectives is just good old-fashioned common sense.  In a time of increasingly ideological politics, Rowan's desire for some pragmatic analysis of where we are going is something that all our leaders should think more about.  And his final two questions are top-notch:
 

A democracy that would measure up to this sort of ideal - religious in its roots but not exclusive or confessional - would be one in which the central question about any policy would be: how far does it equip a person or group to engage generously and for the long term in building the resourcefulness and well-being of any other person or group, with the state seen as a "community of communities", to use a phrase popular among syndicalists of an earlier generation?

A democracy going beyond populism or majoritarianism but also beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries; a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?

Yes, me!  It may be that the Archbishop has finally found a voice that we can listen to and understand. More of this please, Rowan, and people will start to take notice. 

UPDATE, 10th June. A couple more good links:
Of course, I could be wrong, for the picture.

Nick Baine's blog, high quality stuff.

2 comments:

Saintly Ramblings said...

I just wish he's use the language of the person in the street and not the academic high-brow ....
"syndicalists", "majoritarianism", and "Balkanised" just for starters.

Sorry to say it, but this sort of writing will be far above the heads of many, including the rural residents of this part of Suffolk. and consequently the only access they will be able to understand will be the media reports, which, as you rightly say, will be skewed.

Charlie said...

Well, I'm sure you have a point. RW can be very dense in his language. On the other hand, it is the Spectator, so the readers ought to be able to cope with a few long words. On the whole I thought it was a very clear piece on this occasion.