Giles Fraser: A perfect harmony may jar

11 November 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury is scheduled to give the annual Isaiah Berlin lecture at West Hampstead Synagogue later this month. I cannot help wondering how he will ap­proach this. Where Berlin talks of freedom, Dr Williams speaks mostly of the restraint and restriction that comes as a part of relationship.

Berlin famously described it thus: “The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from im­prisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is an extension of this sense, or else metaphor.”

In contrast, what Dr Williams generally distrusts in the idea of freedom is that it has become all about individual self-determination. This is Kant’s view of freedom. And in the culture of late capitalism, where individual choice has become the ultimate value, this sense of free­dom now means little more than free­dom to shop — “Because you’re worth it.”

Dr Williams is, of course, right to question the wizened value system that has individual self-assertion through shopping as its basic premise. Yet this is also a type of so- called “positive freedom” that is rejected by Berlin.

Having relationships is all about ceding a part of one’s freedom to others. I get married, and thus trade my bachelor freedom for a more restricted set of possibilities. Yet this opens the door to another very different set of possibilities, a new experience of freedom.

Freedom is not about having no restrictions — that is something empty and weightless — freedom is about having some sort of say in the restrictions that apply to you, and a recognition that a genuinely free society is one where conflict is inevitable because there will never be agreement over core values.

The totalitarianism that leads to chains begins with the assumption that there is only one way of understanding the common good. Fascism is about wanting to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. It is a consequence of this assump­tion that if I think differently from you, then it must be because of error or wickedness. On the other hand, a pluralism that recognises many different ways — creative dishar­mony — is the best guarantor of healthy freedom. This is Berlin’s great insight.

What I dislike about the Anglican Covenant is not just that it is institutionalised homophobia, but that it is animated by a dangerous dream of perfect togetherness. The Covenant is an attack on traditional Anglican pluralism. Its architects think it is pluralism that has got us into the mess we are in. If only we all thought roughly the same, they muse. What they do not see is that the cure is so much worse than the presenting problem.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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