Feeding the minds of serious Christians

16 November 2012

The lectures that form Dr Williams's book are brilliant and subtle, declares David Martin



"Too decent to be ruthless": the Archbishop of Canterbury during his lecture to Theos in Westminster Central Hall in October. His book, based on lectures, is reviewed here

"Too decent to be ruthless": the Archbishop of Canterbury during his lecture to Theos in Westminster Central Hall in October. His book, based on lec...

Faith in the Public Square
Rowan Williams
Bloomsbury £20
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THE task of an Archbishop of Canterbury is often described as impossible, but so is that of an American president. The Archbishop is not "the most powerful man in the Church" any more than the American president is "the most powerful man in the world", be-cause both have rival responsibilities to multiple constituencies at home and abroad. So-called "leaders" can do much harm, but have limited opportunity for good; and perhaps handling the ship in rough seas is their highest achievement.

Rowan Williams has tried to do just that, and whenever he has given high priority to unimpaired communion between contending people and constituencies, he has paid the price in other principles that he espoused when he was not at Canterbury. To pursue unimpaired communion within the Anglican Church, and repaired communion with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, exacts huge "opportunity costs", and you easily disappoint your friends without satisfying your opponents.

In these brilliant and subtle lectures given over the past decade, Williams does not discuss the opportunity costs of his own options, or even the options open in general to so-called leaders. He reflects on the world out there, not the world he encounters as an ecclesiastical politician. So do Vincent Nichols and Jonathan Sachs, except that Nichols is not routinely taunted, as Williams has been, by the distance between what he delivers as doctrine and the practical and fractious Protestantism of his flock; and Sachs is only occasionally embarrassed by his own internal politics.

Yet ecclesiastical politics embodies all the difficulties of politics in general, such as the need to temper honesty and charitable speech and action with ruthless cunning and dissimulation. I suspect Williams is just too decent to be ruthless other than intermittently and reluctantly, under huge pressure; yet this is a central problem for a Christian political theology. It is inherent in the conflict between justice and peace, as well as in the conflict between equality and liberty which he discusses glancingly in his appreciative critique of Isaiah Berlin. Just how does one find the optimal and honourable compromise, given what can realistically be achieved? Williams's essays offer an acute analysis of limit, but significantly not of the limits that he himself encountered.


That is because you cannot confess the reasons behind your actions without breaking the first rule of effective politicking for good causes: politic silence. Or maybe Williams is, by moral temperament, a meditative monk incarcerated in a position of apparent but illusory power. His thinking is consistently quiet, conversational, and attentive towards others and alternatives. Moral freewheelers who do not suffer the constraints of status and responsibility without power may sneer from the grandstands, but they have only to ask themselves why Aung San Suu Kyi, no longer incarcerated and therefore free to speak, is now a responsible member of the political class and therefore unable to "speak out" or "give a lead" over the issue of the "persecuted" Burmese minority of the Muslim Rohingyas.

No wonder the Archbishop feels "rebellious," faced by the demand to give a lead. In practice, he plays the part of a titular head with a talismanic role in public and religious rites, whose responsibilities include politic mediation between varied constituencies locally and globally, listening to the perplexed as well as occasionally guiding them, and reflecting on the contribution of Christian traditions to important contemporary issues.

In reflective mood, Williams goes back ad fontes, partly by careful and morally imaginative reflection on scripture, and partly by calling on what he characteristically calls "theological resources" from every time, circumstance, and place, including an astonishing range of contemporary analysis. He deals with the questions that lie behind vexed issues such as euthanasia, or the part played by trust in the operation of the economy, or how we relate to our natural environment, especially in a consumer society dedicated to unlimited growth.

He asks where our ultimate and proximate social loyalties properly lie; and probes the relation of abstract human rights to what we owe to persons by virtue of their being human and "in the image of God".

He also deals critically with local political issues in Britain, such as what the idea of the Big Society might amount to in practice, or what issues lie behind anxieties expressed by political leaders about a "Balkanisation" of society, as this goes on under cover of a multicultural agenda. The considered weight of his conclusions is "conservative" with a small "c", as radical views often are. I don't merely mean that he engages in constant dialogue with a continuing tradition. Nor is it simply that he rejects any assumption that the liberal West today has arrived at such a peak of wisdom that the rest of history is just a cleaning-up operation. I mean that he believes that certain principles hold over time and cultural space.


Here are scatter-shot examples. He is against instrumentalism, reductionism, and functionalism. Reducing man and nature to the functional and profitable easily amounts to blasphemy against the sacred character of the human and the created order.

He seeks to show how Christianity demystifies the social sacred as it did in the Early Church; and how one might identify genuine blasphemy against what is intrinsically valuable from simply ways of speaking and acting that offend religious amour-propre.

He affirms the embodied and the incarnate rather than the abstract, and criticises the "imaginative bereavement" that lurks behind the easy deliverances of a supposedly neutral enlightened rationality. Contexts and situations matter, and yet relativism is self-defeating. The dangers of individualism need canvassing as much as the dangers of totalitarianism.

He is suspicious of the realised eschatology and the myths we live by, and the subtle enchantments lying behind seemingly secular political programmes; and of invocations of spirituality at the expense of religion which drive a wedge between public and institutional modalities and personal integrity.

These are large principles beyond immediate problems. Maybe Williams's most significant contribution lies in feeding the minds of fresh generations of serious and intelligent Christians with what he here calls "worked examples" of a political theology. Perhaps that end would be fostered by fewer glancing arguments. For example, he mentions only in passing the way in which the partisans of the Enlightenment use past victimhood to promote present power. That principle has the widest possible implications for all of us.

Williams directs our attention to two poles of his worked examples. On the more strictly political side, he discusses the difference between a "procedural" secularism that attacks Establishment understood as unfairness, and a dangerous "programmatic" secularism that defines alternative loyalties and values to those promoted by a monopolistic state as inherently subordinate and private. He proposes a Christian pluralism derived from the idea of the two cities, and based on the notion of the state as a regulating and mediating "community of communities".

On the more strictly religious side, he explores religious narratives, and lives like that of Etty Hillesum who knew what it was to stand fast and to kneel, based "on the presence of the fundamental giving on which the world rests".

The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.


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