The reluctant archbishop

The retiring leader of the Anglican communion leaves an ambiguous legacy.

So last autumn's rumours were mainly true. Rowan Williams is to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year, though not it seems to take up a full-time academic job as a professor of theology. Rather, he will occupy a comfortable sinecure as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge; a post that brings little in the way of responsibility but does afford some lovely views over the river Cam. At sixty-two, he will still be younger than many of his predecessors were when they were appointed, to say nothing of Pope Benedict XVI -- shortly to celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday and old enough to be, in some bizarre parallel universe, Dr Williams' father.

Attention will no doubt soon turn to the matter of the succession. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, is the clear favourite, which probably means that he will not get the job. There are signs of an advanced "stop Sentamu" campaign already. It's difficult to say more at this point, not least because of the opaque system of appointment by the Crown Nominations Committee, which I have criticised before. I think it's safe to say, though, that it won't be Giles Fraser.

During his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has pulled off the rare feat of being controversial without being particularly outspoken. His most memorable interventions -- such as his notorious 2008 speech which appeared to suggest that the recognition of Sharia law in Britain was both inevitable and right -- have been couched in abstruse and often equivocal language. He has perfected the art of sitting on barbed-wire fences, seeming almost to find the resulting discomfort a source of intellectual and moral inspiration.

At best, Williams' contributions to the national debate have been insightful and even pointed. I would single out, for example, an article he wrote for the Times at the height of the Parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, warning of the dangers that "systematic humiliation of politicians" posed for the health of democracy and pointing out that regulation was no substitute for integrity.

But a man whose theology has always been characterised by nuance and ambiguity, who tends to see eleven sides to every question, has never looked comfortable in a public arena that prioritises confrontation. And it's notable that he has tended to be more forthright, even impassioned, in his political pronouncements (see for example the leading article he wrote as guest editor of the New Statesman last year) than when talking about purely religious matters. Perhaps he just feels more ambiguity in his own area of professional expertise, where he has thought longer and more deeply.

He leaves a Church of England, and an Anglican Communion, at least as riven on questions of sexuality and gender as when he was appointed a decade ago. This isn't his fault, although critics complain that he has tended to put unity above principle and failed to give strong leadership. The position taken by most Anglican churches in Africa, which see homosexuality as inherently sinful (at best) is in the end irreconcilable with the liberal views which predominate in North America and increasingly (though far from uniformly) in the Church of England itself. The latest scheme for papering over the cracks -- the so-called Anglican Covenant, on which Williams has staked much of his personal authority -- is in deep trouble; seventeen C of E dioceses have already rejected it.

By announcing his resignation now, rather than (as had been expected) after this summer's Jubilee celebrations, Williams will at least avoid being seen to have quit in response to a humiliating failure. But he may well still be in post when the General Synod gives its final approval for the consecration of women as bishops. This would be a proud legacy to take his leave on. Yet the instinctively Anglo-Catholic Williams will also be acutely conscious of the implications of the move for the Church of England (facing yet more splits and Romeward defections) and for wider efforts towards Christian unity. The question is another of the many circles that his immensely subtle theological mind has never quite managed to square.

He will, though, be relieved to escape the constant criticism and scrutiny to which he has been subjected in the past decade. There's nothing unusual in an Archbishop of Canterbury attracting dismissive press coverage, of course. Indeed it's a great British tradition. Both of his immediate predecessors, in their different ways, were at times figures of ridicule. And it might be said that Lord Carey's subsequent career as a moral and ecclesiastical pundit in the News of the World and more recently the Daily Mail has proved no more helpful to Dr Williams than was Lady Thatcher to John Major. I'd be very surprised if his successor, whoever he is, faced similar discomforting interventions from the Master of Magdalene.

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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia