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Politics and the pulpit

Who cares what an archbishop thinks, anyway?

If inviting the Archbishop of Canterbury to guest-edit the New Statesman was some kind of attention-grasping strategy then it succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations. The ensuing row centred mostly on a single sentence from Rowan Williams's offering - "With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted." Given this week's backtracking on health reforms - which today earned the government a rebuke from the right by former Labour minister Alan Milburn - it might be doubted whether the coalition's reforms are either speedy or radical. But the wider question was whether he should have said anything at all.

Whatever Williams actually said, or meant, critics were quick to accuse him of "meddling in politics", specifically party politics. What they meant was that he was meddling in the economic and social side politics. Nadine Dorries, for example, complained that he was ignoring "areas of policy where politics and the church overlap", by which she meant her personal hobby-horses of abortion, the "sexualisation of children" and euthanasia. On such moral questions he was "deafening in his silence as he hides away with his fingers in his ears".

But on what basis is it assumed that an archbishop should be outspoken on some political issues and silent on others? Abortion and sex education are no less "political" - and no more "moral" - questions than those of health, education or social welfare. Indeed, to the chagrin of its critics the Big Society agenda depends upon the involvement of churches and other "faith-based" groups, as Williams himself acknowledged. As for health and education, the Church of England has extensive interests in both, through its large (and controversially growing) provision of schools, through its network of hospital chaplains and through church involvement in, say, the hospice movement.

Historically, the churches were the largest and often only providers of social care. Schools, hospitals and poor relief were the business of ecclesiastics long before they became the responsibility of the state. Concern for the poor and needy, often in conjunction with a negative attitude towards money and money-making, has been a feature of Christianity since the beginning. Some strands within Christianity stress it more heavily than others, however - and as usual the Bible offers contradictory advice.

The reputation of Jesus is of a penniless wandering holy man, not merely uninterested in material wealth but ideologically opposed to it: famously, he told one would-be disciple that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. But he seems to have had at least some wealthy friends and supporters. One woman - traditionally identified with Mary Magdalene - apparently thought nothing of using an entire bottle of very expensive ointment to dress his hair. As Margaret Thatcher famously reminded the Church of Scotland, the Good Samaritan offered money as well as sympathy to the wounded traveller. And one has to wonder who actually paid for all those loaves and fishes.

Christians down the centuries have interpreted the Gospel's social implications in strikingly different ways, ranging from total renunciation - mendicant friars or hermits who went to live in desert caves - to rampant and unapologetic money-making. Some Christians deem it heretical, but churches teaching some form of "prosperity gospel" - the belief that God will bless his worshippers with material wealth - are the fastest-growing and most dynamic in the world. The United States might be the traditional home of Christian capitalism, but it is these days just as appealing in Asia and Africa. It was recently revealed that one Nigerian pastor, who heads a church known colloquially as the Winners' Chapel, is worth at least $150 million dollars - which puts Rowan Williams' own salary of around £70,000 somewhat in perspective.

Part of the secularisation process in the West involved the taking over of social provision by the state. It is this, combined with the increasing privatisation of morality, that has deepened the sense of a church/state split, with the church being involved more in questions of personal conduct than of social organisation. But it's notable that when church leaders discourse publicly upon questions of sex and medical ethics (abortion, euthanasia, embryology research, etc) they can be sure of being denounced by secularists. Whereas if they choose, like Rowan Williams last week, to discuss poverty or the state of the public services, criticism comes from Christians of a different political viewpoint. Neither the National Secular Society nor the British Humanist Association chose to comment publicly on the Archbishop's foray into political journalism. Instead it was left to the likes of Nadine Dorries to be outraged.

There's an obvious, and often remarked-upon, left/right split in when it comes to episcopal interventions in politics. Critics on the left tend to get upset when bishops talk about sex (because the positions they take tend to be conservative), those on the right when they talk about money (where their views, in Britain at least, tend to the soft-left). It's tempting to leave it there, with the thought that what really annoys people is to hear church leaders disagreeing with their own point of view. But why should that annoy people? Why should anyone care what an archbishop happens to think about the economy?

I think it comes down to a lingering belief that church leaders are experts in morality - and that therefore whatever they say they speak from some elevated perspective. Or at least that they presume to; or that they should. The word "pontificating" springs to mind. Strictly speaking, perhaps, WIlliams wasn't pontificating - that's the Pope's prerogative. He was archiespiscopating - which, by long Anglican tradition, is an altogether more ambivalent and equivocal activity. Still, give a man a pulpit and you kind of expect him to use it. Archbishops are as strongly criticised when they don't speak out as when they do.

Nelson Jones runs the Heresy Corner blog. He was shortlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging.