February 11, 2008

Returning to Canterbury

Matt Sinclair takes a view in his latest post on the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Archbishop should resign because he has affronted Matt's and my views on what sensible politics consists of. Matt is wrong in his response to my post and I want to open up some of the areas that we disagree upon. Firstly it is worth me stating I think here that when I said the Archbishop opened up interesting issues, I was not specifically talking about this. The Archbishop has a long record of making interesting speeches and statements- I don't need to defend him on this- but I have listened for instance to him lecture about the state of neo-scholastic art theory in the 1920s in France in a fascinating and illuminating lecture. It might seem a little odd but I still remember that lecture as one of the most exciting and inspiring I have ever been to. The Archbishop does talk about issues in ways which are generally more subtle and interesting than any of his critics seem ready to engage with: one of the things I lament frequently is the cheapening of our political discourse- something that say the populists in all the newspapers, on all the television shows etc are attempting to perpetuate. I like the fact that there is in the UK a figure in public life who is an intellectual and I find that comforting- I do think from comments on this blog and at other places that Williams is despised for being too clever by half and I'm afraid I want him to stay for that precise reason. I'm sick of politicians like David Cameron and Tony Blair whose cultural hinterland is a squalid swamp.

Ok rant over. My second and less personal reason for wanting Williams to stay in office is that I don't agree with Matt that he had an obligation to keep silent about this kind of issue. Matt assesses, as most of the blogosphere and media seem to do, whether someone should be sacked by the furore created. I'm actually quite sure that if anyone said this and it was picked up by the media then there would be a furore- especially in the way that the media quite frankly missreported the Archbishop's statements. Essentially the Archbishop was arguing for a private religious law for religious communities- he was arguing that the law of God should be recognised in the civil courts where all parties agreed it should be recognised. That seems to me a fairly uncontroversial idea to the religious. There is a set of people who are really upset with the Archbishop not so much for talking about inserting religious law into the law of England as inserting Sharia- that's essentially the Bishop of Rotchester's position and that's the position that I think the Archbishop's address really did undermine very well.

I disagree with that position- I don't think that religion should have anything to do with the law, for all sorts of reasons that I don't want to get into right now, right here. I think its a bad political argument- and would lead to various kinds of unhappiness within the realm. Now that may be true- but what is bad politics may well be good theology and ultimately the Archbishop of Canterbury's concern is not with good politics but with good theology. In that sense both in his defence of Islam and the possiblity of 'liberal' Islam and in his argument for theocracy (I use the word provocatively) he was doing what he should be doing: presenting a good understanding theology to the world in front of him. (Chris Dillow advances good liberal reasons for thinking that this defence of theocracy ought to have nothing to do with politics here- but taking for granted the intersection of law and commandment, we can see the Archbishop's argument has more validity). Any good Archbishop from that perspective ought to be causing furore, causing it by advocating theological arguments where they contradict political arguments. Many of his critics don't understand the theology of the issue- which is why they fail to understand what the Archbishop's role is. The contempt for instance for the Archbishop's penitent tone on the Spectator Coffee House reflects the fact that Matthew D'Ancona doesn't understand that the Archbishop isn't a politician, he is a theologian, his job is to get close to and understand the mind of God not that of man. Many of the criticisms made by D'Ancona and others relate to the legislative form that this policy might take- again that is an argument about the politics not about the theological argument about the source for law which is what the Archbishop was involved in.

The real argument which I think does endanger the Archbishop is the argument that the Political Umpire made here- the Umpire pointed out that the Archbishop's role is political as well as theological. But I think here too there are subtle distinctions to be made: the Archbishop is not a minister for religion, rather he is the appointed head from religion to the wider community. Consequently his role is theologico political, not politico theological. In that sense the priority that he has is to represent those who take their religion seriously- not those that don't. Again here I think the fact that his argument was firstly theological makes sense- and the fact that his critics miss this means that they miss in reality what his job is. There might be problems with having someone with that kind of job- but if someone is to have that job, then the Archbishop is doing the right thing. He is making a theological argument about the nature of civil authority and how it relates to issues of conscience- rather than a political argument which prioritises peace and stability over eschatology. The Archbishop is making the case for the religious to be able to live according to conscience and thus save themselves from hellfire- in comparison with that no war or civil strife is important- his argument is wrong but its wrong for political reasons- many of which have to do with the toxic way that theology interacts with politics.

Consequently I don't see a case for the Archbishop to resign- he has fulfilled the duties of his role. There might have been cleverer ways for him to perform those duties- he might have made a more moderate form of the argument, presented it more attractively and clearly (as say Dave Cole has done here) and there is plenty that I think the Archbishop could learn from this episode. Whether its media presentation or syntactical clarity, my Lord of Canterbury has some way to go. But I do not think he has to resign for presenting a good theological argument about law to an audience of lawyers and theologians- I still think he was wrong- but I don't think he should resign.

4 comments:

edmund said...

Ironically i think the case in principle (also in practice judging by the general synod) that he should not resign actually rests on a directly contradictory point.

I may add i disagree with his comments on about every level , substance, way of expressing, implications ect ect I also think it's also absurd that supposedly the foremost clergyman in England should seek to denigrate his own denomination and church in this way.

However it strikes me as a political speech-it's all about how Islam/ faith should be treated in our society. I'm very wary of firing a leading minister for their political views by themselves-however horrendous e.g to take an extreme point the problem with the Aryan Church’s minsters as ministers se was their theology not their politics- even though the latter was awefull and abhorrent.

In his role as a prince of the church there is a point about supporting an alien system of law- but i agree with Grachhi this has been exaggerated and that's not practical nowadays.

I think there's good grounds on theological ground (arguably includ9ing some of his views on islam) that Williams should not be left in office, and very strong grounds he should never have been appointed in the first place (including him being so lacking in media savvy as gracchi so rightly pointed out in his initial post). However that's a different point.

I'd add that being a good intellectual and a good archbishop are a different thing- even were the theology faithful to his church and its confession.


I hope to critique willians political position on this blog in future but lack time now.

Political Umpire said...

No I don't buy it. The AoC is the head of the Church of England. It is a monotheistic religion which holds that 'no one comes to God except unto me'.

I happen not to believe this, and am not a member of the CofE accordingly. If I was, however, I would be apoplectic with my so-called leader. It is, I suppose, defensible from that perspective that the AoC was seeking to gain greater state recognition for religion in general (though I myself oppose it). But if I was Anglican I would be wanting him to be seeking a greater role for the CofE, not just any old religion.

He is also a terrible politician (and as a member of the Lords, being a politician is part of his role). Making a speech of waffle is asking for it - and he got it. It is perfectly possible to be an intellectual and to be able to express oneself clearly: Francis Bennion (whose prose style I have long admired: www.francisbennion.com) Lord Wilberforce, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick are just a few who spring to mind. If Williams is incapable of this, he needs to hire a few editors.

edmund said...

Political umpire I agree with virtually everything you've said save a) your apparent love of French/ post 1960's US treatment of religion

b) more relevantly Williams has dreadful views on Islam as a valid religion. However i don't think that seeing greater state recognition / freedom of a particular other religion however invalid inherely is against the belief. For example fundamentalist Baptists oppose church establishments on principle and also are clearly not religious relativists. this can be seen in the stance of the bishop of Oxford on this call to prayer thing for example. Again i disagree with him but it's not a theological position

Political Umpire said...

Hello Edmund, it's interesting you should mention post-60s US treatment of religion. The likes of Williams are anxious for state involvement in religion (or vice versa) despite its diabolical history. But by any measure, America is a more religious country than Britain. And America for decades has had a separation of church and state. Therefore, excluding religion from public life need not be a bad thing for religions at all. Shame they can't see it.

I'm not really qualified to talk about theology, but it seems to me that if you accept your way is the way, the truth and the life, you aren't being kind to the unbelievers who are going straight to hell on your account if you allow them to continue on their erroneous path. Surely the humane, Christian thing to do is to spread the word, even if to do so is politically disadvantageous (there's the answer I suppose, the political side of the A/C's job has trumped the theological side).