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

Top Image: Telegraph

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A Better Way To Approach The Welfare Debate



Sometimes it takes the return of the grizzled, world-weary veteran, called out of retirement one last time, to show the flailing stars of today exactly how it should be done, and to save the day.

So it was when George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke out in a newspaper column, castigating his fellow bishops for their naive and fumbled entry into the British welfare reform debate.

The Daily Mail reports:

Last night, Lord Carey of Clifton said that it was too simplistic to blame the recent welfare cuts for the rising use of food banks and bishops are doing the Church no favours by entering the debate.

He said such opposition to reducing the welfare bill was ‘Canute-like’ and reflected an ‘overt left-right politicisation of Church versus government’.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury said Anglicans and Catholics share outrage at the rising levels of hunger among the most disadvantaged and that the welfare state has reached ‘gargantuan’ proportions.

Lord Carey continues:

‘All three political parties acknowledge the need for reductions to welfare spending, wastage and fraud in the system and have all talked about the dangers of welfare dependency and the need to get people into work.

‘They are not agreed on precisely where the axe should fall, but the Churches should beware of the dangers of blithely defending a gargantuan welfare budget that every serious politician would cut as a matter of economic common sense.’

This really hits the nail on the head. Reading or watching the initial intervention in the debate by Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols, and the follow-up letter by the Church of England bishops, one got the overwhelming sense that the key figures had not done their homework. So shallow was the level of understanding, and so absent was any sense of historical context or detailed knowledge of government policy, that the bishops may just as well have been standing at the gates of Number 10 Downing Street waving “Down With This Sort Of Thing” placards.

A strong sense that Lord Carey was embarrassed by the incompetence of his successors’ handling of what is a complex and fraught issue pervades his column.

But most heartening of all is this acknowledgement – albeit from a former rather than a current religious leader – that the problems in our society will continue for just as long as we continue to look exclusively to government to solve our problems and address human suffering rather than looking to ourselves:

Lord Carey said: ‘They are right in describing a serious problem but only partially correct in their analysis.

‘It is much too simplistic to blame these problems on cutbacks to welfare and failures in the benefits system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.

He added that the welfare system is being ‘asked to replace kinship and neighbourliness’ and is ‘never going to pass muster as the ideal vehicle to deliver aid to those in greatest need when they most need it.

This is precisely the problem. Faced with a situation where millions of people are dependent on various kinds of welfare and often kept down through a series of perverse incentives, the bishops did not stop to consider how they as leaders and their church as a community could step in and provide positive solutions. Rather, they wrung their hands and passed the ball to the government, a shameful abdication of responsibility.

It is not the Church’s job to simply take note of suffering and pass it on to the government for review – indeed, while it is clearly not in the interests of the people for whom they supposedly advocate, neither is it in their own, more narrow interests. As I wrote last year:

… perhaps it is directly because the state plays such a large part in everything that we do, from cradle to grave, that the church to which [we belong] is withering and shrinking by the year.

To a great extent, aside from the divine aspect, has the British welfare state not done away with the purpose of church, of knowing your neighbour, of being part of a community, altogether?

Telegraph columnist Cristina Odone, with whom this blog has had precious little to agree on of late, is also full of praise for Lord Carey’s mature intervention in the debate. Her distillation of Carey’s message is worth reading:

Poverty, he argues, is not caused by Coalition cuts but by multiple factors including the fragility of the family, which results in too many relying on the state. Strong kinship, a helpful community: today’s disadvantaged Briton can no longer depend on either. Stop entering the political fray, he tells his colleagues, but look beyond Left and Right to see the real tragedy of a culture that has lost its way.

Odone’s overall assessment of the debate on welfare reform, and what church leaders need to do in order to regain the right to be taken seriously on the issue, is also excellent:

Dr Carey instead is speaking sensibly and calmly from the sidelines: the analysis is more complex than you’ve allowed for, he chides his colleagues; you’re doing yourselves and our Churches a disservice by blaming the status quo on an unpopular government. Until you can offer either a true analysis of the root causes or a real alternative to the government’s proposed reform, keep schtum.

As Odone makes clear, and as this blog has previously acknowledged, the church has a potentially valuable, even critical role to play in shaping the debate. But they can only do this by temporarily stepping back from the limelight and reading up on the subject a little.

More urgent even than enrolling in Civics and Economics 101, though, our church leaders need to think about the best role of religious organisations in solving the problems of poverty, blight and human misery that they have identified. The fact that their first response was simply to flag the problem to the government and move on is deeply discouraging. Is their vision for the church really nothing more than to observe and report social phenomena to the ‘proper authorities’?

And yet there is hope. The former Archbishop of Canterbury spoke a powerful truth to today’s ecumenical leaders. They may not like being publicly admonished by their predecessor, but if they strive for wisdom they will listen and adapt.

In this important debate, which is ostensibly about welfare reform but in reality touches on everything that governs how we relate to and care for each other, George Carey – twelve years after leaving office – is offering the church a pathway away from irrelevance.

It’s time to follow the leader one last time.

How Not To Pick Your Successor

Great news for all those who tweet. The Daily Telegraph reports today that Twitter users are to be invited to help choose the next Archbishop of Canterbury:

Well, to clarify, it will not just be Twitter users. As the article states:

A spokesman for the Church of England said the invitation would be made through the church press but also through other media including the social networking site Twitter, where the CofE already posts news in nuggets of 140 characters or less. Tweeters and others will be asked to offer names and “views on the needs of the diocese of Canterbury and the wider community”.

I wonder if this is entirely wise.

Britain is known for not taking publicity stunts or requests for audience participation very seriously, as anyone from Vodafone ( to David Blaine ( can attest. In fact, such requests often degenerate into one-liner competitions, with users trying to out-humour one another in their facetious responses.

So if too much weight is assigned to the views of those who respond on Twitter, it is entirely possible that we will end up with Archbishop Billy Connolly or Pete Doherty. And maybe inadvertently canonise St. Amy Winehouse while we are at it.

On a more serious note though, I read this article and my first thought was how silly, for such a major world religion to effectively take nominations for the top job via Twitter. But then I read and recalled how the process works at the moment:

Having wrestled with the best way to choose a new leader, the Church of England has decided to use the social networking site Twitter. It will also seek the views of people of all faiths and none, from the Chief Rabbi to Professor Richard Dawkins.

For the first time in history, the long and usually private process will begin with a widespread public consultation, to be finished by the end of May.

The Crown Nominations Commission, which must present the Prime Minister with two possible successors to Dr Rowan Williams, will also ask for contributions from “senior figures in other faiths, the secular world and the life of the nation”.
[my emphasis in bold]

So yes. On reflection, compared to having the Prime Minister tossing a coin and choosing the next leader of the worldwide Anglican communion, asking for the opinions of a load of drunk Twitter users fresh back from the pub, people from rival faiths, an avowed atheist and Susan Boyle doesn’t sound like such a bad idea after all.

A democratic church, what a genuinely interesting concept. One that probably deserves a blog post all of its own.

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