Rowan Williams: Thinking Naively, Rigidly And Uncreatively About Europe

Rowan Williams - Archbishop of Canterbury - EU Referendum - European Union - Brexit

Et tu, Archiepiscopus?

Another day brings more disingenuous, pseudo-Christian piffle over at Reimagining Europe, this time from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams (and his ghost/speechwriter Philip Waters).

Waters/Williams write, in a transcribed lecture humorously entitled “Thinking Creatively About Europe”:

Europe also has its Muslim and Jewish legacies. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are a family quarrel rather than a clash of civilisations. We need to remember that Medieval Catholic theology was crucially informed by influx from the Muslim and Jewish peripheries.

The mix of legacies means that Europe has had a history of at best conversation and at worst confrontation about authority: who should we listen to, who should we obey? In debate over the rights of state and church the insight persists that there are two schemes of reference, the political and the spiritual: they overlap but they are not the same. It is not necessary to go into detail about the differences between Eastern and Western Europe, or between Catholic and Protestant: the  above generalisations hold equally for all of them. To take one example, John Calvin’s ideas on the  relationship between realms of power are more like those of Thomas Aquinas than they are like those of Martin Luther.

One of the problems we face today is the idea of the clash of civilisations, and the suggestion that one of those civilisations is Western democracy. This idea forgets the ineractions throughout history which have created that very Western democracy. Without an understanding of history, the idea of the superiority of Western democracy seems to be self-evident.

‘Over There’ dwell peoples who do not know the self-evident benefits of democracy; and the reason usually given is that they are religious. One of the effects of modernity is strangely enough to drive people to radicalism. ISIS is an example of how the introduction of Western values in the form of confrontation leads to simplification of a heritage, in this case Islamic. There is no place for approaching any modern problems from a standpoint of triumphalism. What we can say is that a series of providential insights have been given within Europe which are to be shared with other parts of the world.

Wait for it…

All this is relevant for a consideration of Britain and Europe. There is no way we can talk about British values which are opposed to European or indeed wider values. My fear is that if Britain steps back from Europe it will be stepping back from its own heritage. In Britain we have not done too badly in sharing with and learning from others. In talking in isolationist terms we run the risk of nailing our colours to a myth.

In other words: religion, religion, religion, religion…political union!, with absolutely no attempt to draw any link of necessity between the two.

Whoever said anything about “step[ping] back from Europe”, as Williams disingenuously attempts to characterise the anti-EU stance? On the contrary, Brexit is an opportunity for Britain to re-engage with a world which has moved on since the post-war days of giant regional blocs facing off against one another, as any thinking Brexiteer will tell you. And yet the former Archbishop of Canterbury seems intent on defeating a straw man argument, that of the stereotypical isolationist little Englander who wants to pull up the drawbridge, cease all cooperation with our neighbours and turn the clock back to 1955.

This says a lot about Rowan Williams, but nothing good. It shows that on this most existential of questions he is fundamentally intellectually uncurious. Rather than seeking to understand why so many of his countrymen want to leave a dysfunctional and failing political union, he retreats into the comfort zone occupied by so many of his brethren in the centre-left, middle class clerisy, in which pro-EU types are enlightened and progressive while eurosceptics are somehow backward and reactionary.

We see it again when Williams claims that “we have not done too badly in sharing with and learning from others”. Well, who in blazes ever suggested otherwise? Our quarrel with the European Union is not that it encourages sharing and learning. Our quarrel is that the EU is a One Size Doesn’t Fit All embryonic supra-national government of Europe, unreplicated in any other corner of the globe, which seeks to gradually usurp the traditional powers and competencies of its member states in order to form an ever-closer union whose ultimate destination can only be a United States of Europe.

I don’t like to speak of a former Archbishop of Canterbury in uncharitable terms, but at this point it is genuinely difficult to tell whether he is being ignorant or deliberately deceptive – whether he genuinely doesn’t understand that the EU is not just about friendship and biscuits and apple pie, or whether he knows full well but is pretending that the EU is just “sharing and learning” in order to hoodwink others.

It is particularly concerning that Rowan Williams – an accomplished man with a fine mind – succumbs to the same woolly misconception as many of his peers. The misconception is not only that the explicitly political, integrationist construct known as the EU is a humble and unambitious organisation set up merely to foster “sharing and learning”, but that sharing, learning and close neighbourly cooperation are somehow impossible outside the auspices of an ever-tightening political union. Never mind that countries outside of Europe cooperate closely on all manner of issues every single day without feeling the need to dissolve themselves into a single political entity – Rowan Williams, like so many of his peers, is absolutely determined to project his false, naive vision of the humble old EU onto an organisation with altogether more far-reaching ambitions.

Yet when it comes to the history and future trajectory of the EU, there is no excuse for ignorance, especially not from one as well-connected to the establishment as a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Assuming he is operating through ignorance rather than malevolence, Rowan Williams has still had every opportunity to learn and comprehend the history of the movement for political union in Europe which has led to the contemporary EU. Magdalene College Oxford, where Williams now serves as Master, probably has quite a decent library. He might consider checking out a few books on the subject if the facts still elude him.

With less than a month to go, it is truly concerning that so many prominent Christian leaders are openly agitating for a Remain vote in the EU referendum when there is yet to be produced a clear, intellectually grounded Christian case for Remain – in other words, anything based on something more than warm leftist feelings and fuzzy ecumenism.

With recent high-profile interventions on austerity and social policy, the church has a record of unapologetic political activism – rather too naive and left-wing for this blog’s taste, but generally coming from a place of good intentions. Even when it has been wrong, the church has been able to plausibly claim to have the best interests of the poor and the voiceless in mind. Not so now, not with the EU question.

By failing to take a stand against remote and unwanted supranational government, the bishops – whether they declare it openly or not – are coming down firmly on the side of Europe’s elites, and not the people. They are complicit in supporting the continued imposition, largely by stealth, of a 1950s model of unaccountable, supranational government leading inexorably to ever-closer political union – a model which has already brought untold economic suffering to southern Europe and a migration crisis across the entire continent, and which promises only further unrest as the decisions taken by unelected European leaders diverge ever more widely from the interests of ordinary people.

The pro-EU bishops are certainly entitled to their position. But it is a very strange choice, coming down so fervently against the side of democracy. And a choice which many of them may struggle to explain in the near future.


Christianity - Europe - EU - Brexit

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10 thoughts on “Rowan Williams: Thinking Naively, Rigidly And Uncreatively About Europe

  1. Billo Qasira May 29, 2016 / 12:48 PM

    When Rowan Williams insisted that Britain should allow the parallel legal system of sharia because to do so would be intolerant and lead to alienation my blood ran cold. It felt like the submission to the death of our civilisation. Ever since then he embodies to me the idea that the most benign intentions can lead to horrors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper May 30, 2016 / 1:01 AM

      I too was perplexed by Williams’ seeming enthusiasm for parallel sharia. I could never work out if it was just simple, misguided virtue signalling or if something deeper and more invidious was at play. I do think perhaps that Rowan Williams has drunk so deeply from the well of social justice (with all its fastidious obsession with oppression) that he sees this as a kind of “reparation”, or way to redress the balance for supposed wrongs in the past. I might be way off base, but it’s a theory.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.


  2. Samuel Hooper May 27, 2016 / 12:29 AM

    Many thanks to the reader who submitted this thoughtful, detailed comment via email:

    Peter Hitchens has observed that Rowan Williams has the tendency to write to conceal rather than to reveal. That’s probably all you need to know about him.

    No-one now has the excuse of ignorance about the deceit and lies with which the EEC/EU was created and the purposes for which it is being developed. Compare that with the fact that Jesus was described as having a character that was without guile.

    Ignorance about the EU? Wishful thinking? Charity may believe all things but even generosity has its limits.

    Williams’ straw man argument shows what this self-declared hairy leftie thinks of those who have genuine concerns about how Britain is governed, and by whom. He has no generosity towards them. He would sooner caricature them to win an argument.

    It may seem like a trivial example of the work of this man but it is only necessary to look at a recent book that he wrote about C S Lewis’s Narnia stories, entitled The Lion’s World. You have to read the concluding chapter to see the normally convoluted and elusive writing of Williams become intensely passionate. But passionate about what?

    Williams concludes, against all internal evidence in the books, that what Lewis is doing in these stories is showing us a God who is summoning us (that is, the children for whom these books were written) to a revolution of what we have made of ourselves. According to Williams, Lewis is showing the reader that reaction is the ultimate evil. (Of course it was – to the Jacobins).

    Williams completely ignores the fact that at the end of each story Narnia is restored to its original state, not revolutionised. But that’s the only way Williams can make his claims.

    Lewis was the least likely person to advocate revolution. His novel, That Hideous Strength, was a counterblast against a bureaucratic, supra-national body that wanted to abolish the laws of England.

    Even if Williams’ claim that European civilisation is composed of many different ‘conversations’ is correct, the EU is not founded on religion. Unless, that is, it’s the sort that worships power.


  3. Sean McCormack May 26, 2016 / 5:47 PM

    I only know (and not much really) about Protestantism in the UK. But it seems that – even amongst evangelical Christians – the Biblical Doctrine of Providence was beginning to slip below the horizon as early as about 1875…Consequently by today it has to all intents VANISHED !


  4. Sean McCormack May 26, 2016 / 6:52 AM

    “Virtuous motives, trammeled by inertia and timidity, are no match for armed and resourceful wickedness”. Winston Churchill.

    Sadly, it seems ‘inertia and timidity’ is the default position of the vast majority of Christians on our EU membership…

    Sean McCormack
    Streatham Hill
    South London

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper May 26, 2016 / 2:13 PM

      A very apt quote – thanks for sharing it. And yes, the timidity and fear of change which lies behind the pro-EU remain campaign is a mindset held by far too many of our fellow Christians.

      I’m no theologian, but the early Christians of the Gospel were often bold and fearless in their ambition and approach. To me, it seems evident that contemporary Christians should aim to emulate this example in other areas of our lives, not least in terms of the way we choose to govern ourselves in an age of democracy and universal suffrage.


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