Critics of the Archbishop of Canterbury who try to dismiss him as a "bearded lefty" have been confounded by his very public disagreement with the prime minister, Gordon Brown, over how to respond to the fast-deepening recession. In comments yesterday on the flagship BBC news program ’Today’, Rowan Williams was less than keen on the Government’s policy of reflating the economy through further borrowing and spending.
He was calling for repentance on the part of the kings of the money markets. A lot of people were waiting to hear sorry, he said. It was "suicidally silly" for him to wade in on economics, he acknowledged, "but I want to ask where these moral questions are". Repentance means getting a new perspective, he said. And there hadn’t yet been enough of that. So returning to a pattern of spending and borrowing, rather than sustainable wealth, seemed to him "a little like the addict returning to the drug".
Because the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, opposes prime minister Gordon Brown’s attempt to stimulate the economy by cutting sales tax, and would reduce public spending now in order to offset some of the spiralling public debt levels, this made Dr Williams sound more Conservative than Labor.
The PM was stung into responding -- and to trying to make out that he and Dr Williams were on the same side. As the son of a church minister he always listened to senior church figures, he said. “But I think the Archbishop would also agree with me that every time someone becomes unemployed or loses their home or a small business fails it is our duty to act and we should not walk by on the other side when people are facing problems. That’s the reason why our fiscal policy is designed to give real help to families and businesses and to give them that help now.”
Meanwhile, Dr Williams gives a rare and thorough interview to James Macintyre of the New Statesman magazine, in which he finds merit in disestablishment, explains why religious leaders should be careful not to condemn -- and admits to becoming "a serious addict of The West Wing a couple of years ago".
"I think, like lots of viewers of The West Wing, I thought: ’Oh, if only, if only it could be like this.’ And I guess that [Barack] Obama is currently suffering from a kind of West Wing syndrome. The Bartlett icon, you know."
Dr Williams is often criticised for failing to take the moral high ground. Here he explains his discomfort with "saying things that really don’t change anything, that don’t move things on," and not for the first time reveals the influence on him of Rene Girard. "So much of the language that we use about scapegoats .... doesn’t change anything. It makes people feel safer, but it doesn’t make the vulnerable feel any safer ... I am very worried about the morality of simply sounding off."
On disestablishment - the idea that the Church of England should sever its links with the British state -- Dr Williams is suprisingly positive. His own Anglican upbringing was in the Church of Wales, disestablished since the 1920s, and he served as priest and bishop in that Church before being named to Canterbury.
"Because I grew up in a disestablished Church; I spent ten years working in a disestablished Church; and I can see that it’s by no means the end of the world if the Establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh Synod, it didn’t have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that."
But he is wary of the motives of those who would pursue it. "I think the motives that would now drive disestablishment from the state side would be mostly to do with . . . trying to push religion into the private sphere, and that’s the point where I think I’d be bloody-minded and say, ’Well, not on that basis.’"
The interview repays a full reading. It includes this verdict from a "friend" about Dr Williams, with which it is hard to disagree.
"It is not just that he is the most prodigiously intellectually gifted person almost any of us will have ever met, or will ever meet, and one of the most self-disciplined (in a monastic sense) of people in respect of the daily practice of the virtues and time spent [every day without exception] in prayer - all of which is remarkable enough - it’s that he applies all the extravagant gifts he’s been given in love and service. He’s on the job [of being a disciple] all day every day where most of us flit in and out. This is a man who really has glimpsed what it means to live sacrificially, non-judgementally, honestly, generously, truthfully, in touch in a deep way with the wisdom of God. Rowan is uncommon."