Britain is famously suspicious of public intellectuals. They are seen as out of touch with worldly reality. Their cerebral subtlety is mistaken for weakness or indecision. They are viewed, in Jonathan Miller’s memorable phrase, as “too clever by three-quarters”.
Dr Rowan Williams was so regarded by certain sections of the secular establishment, when, early in his decade of office, he did an about-turn on the suitability of the then Canon Jeffrey John to be the Bishop of Reading. Here, they said, was a man without the courage of his own convictions.
How wrong they were. A few stubborn dimwits, to borrow a phrase of the outgoing Primate’s, persisted in this view. But most gradually began to see the enormous virtues of having a man of such integrity to speak to the nation on matters of moral significance. When he left behind his delicate chairmanship of matters Anglican, he swiftly demonstrated that there was no lack of clarity about his public and political vision.
Early on, he showed grave doubts about the rightness of the war in Iraq. But he did so by raising questions rather than screaming certainties, at a time when, whatever the political morality, young men were being sent to die on our behalf. As a society, he said, we were “lowering the threshold of war unacceptably”. Later, he was one of the few to express proper disquiet over the manner of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
First-principle analysis, he showed, was more important, not less, in times of crisis. In the wake of 9/11, he pointed out that terrorists can have serious moral goals. “There is sentimentality”, he said, “in ascribing what we don’t understand to ‘evil’; it lets us off the hook.”
He continued that approach in office. Counter-culturally, at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, he warned that the media’s “systematic humiliation of politicians” posed real risks for the health of democracy. And when he attacked the impact of the Government’s welfare, education, and health reforms on poor people — “radical policies for which no one voted” — one of his principal criticisms was the lack of “proper public argument”.
What Dr Williams demonstrated was that thoughtful nuanced analysis is vital in a political culture governed by knee-jerk responses, prejudice, and sound-bites. His critiques of the inadequacy of “the market state”, and his scrutiny of David Cameron’s Big Society idea were contributions to the national debate at a level that few secular commentators provided. “The Church of England is a place where the unspoken anxieties of society can often find a voice, for good and ill,” as he put it.
There are risks in this, as he showed when he suggested that Muslim communities might resolve local disputes by using sharia — much in the way that a golf club, professional organisation, or conciliation tribunal could, in the first instance, try to resolve disputes using the organisation’s own rules. But the Archbishop seriously underestimated the potency of the word “sharia” in popular culture, with its associations of barbarous stonings and the chopping-off of hands. Archbishops have the duty to understand and expect such responses.
Yet mistakes come only if you take risks. Courage has characterised Dr Williams’s time in office, from his bold hints that the Church of England would be better disestablished to his brave face-to-face encounter with Robert Mugabe over Zimbabwe’s record of human-rights abuses.
As in his debates with the New Atheists, Dr Williams eschewed, throughout all his public dealings, the simplistic violent language that many opponents preferred. Always he was courteous, measured, and insightful. He strove to turn debate into dialogue. The public sphere has been a better place for that.
Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.