Between church and state

As Rowan Williams prepares to step down after nearly ten years as Archbishop of Canterbury, a former aide ponders the challenges confronting his successor.

Rowan Williams in 2010.
Rowan Williams in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Politicians are accustomed to the media distorting whatever they have to say for dramatic effect – every discussion is a row, every initiative a push for power. So it is with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anglican apparatchiks have been busy playing down the suggestion that their Church is planning to appoint a “global president” to relieve the next archbishop of some of the workload. The line is that Dr Rowan Williams, in a valedictory interview in the Daily Telegraph, merely said that the job was too big for one person. The Telegraph thought otherwise.

But the story stirred some emotions, not least relief that Tony Blair had converted to Roman Catholicism and so would not be available for the job. And it drew attention to just how political is the role of archbishop of Canterbury. Not only is Williams presented as a more virulent opposition to the present government than the Labour Party, but what he has to say is presented in the media about as sympathetically as Boris Johnson’s denials that he wants to be prime minister.

Lambeth Palace is treated as another chamber of parliament on the south bank of the Thames. It follows that the next archbishop, due to be announced shortly, walks into a highly political job. But should it be so? Should the archbishop want it to be so?

In Faith in the Public Square, his last book as archbishop, Williams calls the Church a “political seminar . . . God transforms society and not just human individuals”. This theme characterised his decade in office. Last year, while I was working for him, I heard him say in one of the speeches included in the book that “it’s not a matter of the Church binding its vision to the agenda of this or that party, not a matter of the Church creating a political party to embody its vision and its priorities. Much more, it’s a matter of the Christian gospel motivating a grass-roots politics and activism of generosity and mutuality.”

We start, therefore, with a paradox – the Church of England is deeply rooted in British political life, yet it transcends party politics. Williams has managed this difficult relationship with the nation’s politics remarkably well. With carefully chosen interventions, the outrage of politicians and in some quarters of the media may be seen to have demonstrated that he has got this aspect of his job bang on.

When he suggested in 2008 that our legislature might recognise aspects of sharia in our civil law, some of the more excitable newspaper commentators ranted about tongues being cut out and adulterers being stoned to death. It was left to the Conservative MP Peter Bottomley calmly to point out on BBC radio that, among a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim in the UK, only one person is prevented from marrying according to the rites of his or her own culture – and that this is inequitable.

Since then, Williams may have been more measured in his contributions but he’s hardly been less of a political animal. He has spoken out frequently against welfare cuts, successfully fronted the campaign to prevent the government selling off our national forestry to its mates as tax dodges, quietly held David Cameron’s feet to the fire over his “big society” rhetoric, criticised our policies on Europe and, of course, caused a minor storm in Westminster with a leader comment on the quality of our political life when he guest-edited the New Statesman in June last year.

It’s a tough act to follow. Whoever succeeds him in the early days of 2013 will need to maintain the momentum that Williams has established, without being taken hostage by any parliamentary faction. It’s a prospect complicated by the politically atypical nature of the Christian world-view. If one is to generalise, Christian politics are often economically progressive and socially conservative. As Andy Flannagan, director of the Christian Socialist Movement, puts it: “The reality is that the group of passionate believers working with Citizens UK on a living wage campaign are also campaigning for a financial transaction tax, while also running a drug rehab centre and also campaigning for the definition of marriage to remain the same. Where do you fit those folks into your broadsheet?”

I very much doubt that the next archbishop of Canterbury knows that he is archbishop yet. More to the point, I rather doubt that the sometimes leaky Crown Nominations Commission, which is meant to come up with a name for the Prime Minister to carry to the Queen, knows either, though I hear that the odd bishop’s summer holidays have been interrupted by these grandest of headhunters.

All we do know is that, to maintain the political momentum, it will need to be someone of personality and guts. In Cameron’s summer reveries, he must have wished to be presented with a candidate who has neither. Or one who has plenty of both but would happily wave the Prime Minister’s pet proposals for gay marriage through General Synod. Yet there are precious few of those and it might be a tad overambitious to suggest that Dr Jeffrey John, the openly gay Dean of St Albans, was denied the bishoprics of Reading and Southwark under the current incumbent of the See of Canterbury in order to be fast-tracked to become his successor.

So, it will come down to the usual, orthodox suspects. The price on the former bookies’ favourite John Sentamu of York has lengthened as it’s dawned on observers that his principal qualifications for the job are being evangelical and black. The short-odds favourite spot has been filled by Christopher Cocksworth of Coventry, who is young enough to be favourite next time, too. Richard Chartres of  London, unkindly called “the Prince of Wales in drag” because of his closeness to the heir to the throne since they were undergraduates together at Cambridge, could still be the leader who ushers in women bishops while keeping traditionalists (like himself) on board. Graham James of Norwich showed well in the hard going of a report on homosexuality. Then there are dark horses such as John Inge of Worcester and Nick Baines of Bradford.

To be honest, they all seem wearied by the whole Canterbury candidacy gig and only one of them – best left nameless –would still kick fingers away to get the job, such are the obvious political pressures of the role. By contrast, the mood in the Church’s superstructure remains rather buoyant. Far from sharing the illiterate media view that Williams is a weirdy-beardy, the Church of England’s civil servants have been close enough to his political and social contributions during the past decade to want the next archbishop to keep up the parliamentary pace.

“The office can’t help but be thought of as political,” a very senior Church official told me recently. “Nor can its incumbent operate in a space hermetically sealed from the world of regular politics – precisely because the heart of the archbishop’s calling is to articulate the teachings of the gospel about how we as individuals form societies that work together for the common good. Salvation doesn’t come in isolation.

“It’s the worst kind of secularising instinct that presumes that a religious leader with a prominent position in public life can be a true advocate for and exemplar of the Christian message by confining himself to being part superadministrator of the Church’s business and part constitutional ornament, wheeled out on grand state occasions.”

That echoes Turbulent Priests?, a pamphlet written by Daniel Gover and published last year by the think tank Theos. It assessed the political contributions of the three archbishops of Canterbury since 1980: “[Archbishops’] participation in political debate helps lift that debate, however briefly, above the short-term and partisan, and (changing metaphors) ground it in more substantial (and often more accessible) ethical considerations.”

But the voice of Mandy Rice-Davies echoes down the decades: they would say that, wouldn’t they? And what of those who aren’t in the Christian tent? An irony is that the Church of England, established in law, is our state church, with the monarch both its supreme governor and head of state, but that our national religion is at its best when it’s a thorn in the side of that state. It follows that an archbishop of Canterbury would more usually be a friend of Her Majesty’s Opposition than of her government. So, at present, there is a knuckle-dragging faction on the Tory back benches which would happily see the Archbishop butt out of what it considers its sovereign territory. “The Church should get back to its prime business of praising the Almighty, saving souls and considering its own diminishing position in this society,” Brian Binley, the MP for Northampton South, has said.

We might surmise that the last bit of that statement is somewhat bold, coming at a time when the diminution of his own party’s position in society is accelerating so quickly. But it is also very odd – first, because Tories such as Binley are among the first, along with the rightwing press, to demand the voice of the bishops when issues such as marriage, abortion and euthanasia are on the agenda. These, I presume, they consider matters of personal morality, as if morality were absent from other areas such as taxation, unemployment, immigration and asylum, the running of the economy, or, for that matter, European policy. Perhaps Binley believes they are amoral issues, but I rather doubt he’d say that publicly.

The Archbishop occupies a seat in the upper chamber of the legislature, and as long as he does so, he has a duty, not a choice, to participate. The other side of this is that his is arguably the most powerful unaccountable political job in the realm. Even the monarch gets to sit in the House of Lords only once a year – and then she can’t vote. The Archbishop is there all year round, voting away on behalf of a mixture of his own conscience and that of his congregants. And third and most importantly, he honours the gospel imperative to serve the poor – not just the economically poor, but anyone who is vulnerable, marginalised or weak.

Is Christianity essentially socialist? The new archbishop will be enthroned in Augustine’s seat in a failing economy with a hardline, Conservative-led government (and, after this month’s reshuffle, who doubts that that is what we have?). As a Church, we are drawn inexorably towards the question of where today our faith is rooted, economically and politically. In short, the new archbishop will be examined to establish whether he is Labour or Conservative.

Williams’s successor will, inevitably, avoid the question, taking refuge in that line about transcending party politics. But frankly it is hard to construct a case for the interests of the poor being best served by concurrently cutting welfare payments and the top rate of income tax, by making those who are already suffering most pay the price of the economic collapse while protecting the financial elite who precipitated it, and by continuing to pretend that wealth creation is of itself serving the common good by virtue of mystical trickle-down benefits, when events since 2008 demonstrate that trickle-down hasn’t worked. The rich have run off with the money.

The smug refrain, from parliamentarians and some clerics alike, is very often a quotation from Jesus: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” This is a neat little demarcation that apparently sorts the relationship between Christianity and secular authority. It certainly conforms Brian Binley’s world-view: the big boys will manage the money, while the church makes jam for the fete. The trouble is the passage in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t say that at all.

Leo Tolstoy pointed out that Christ “not only does not encourage any obedience to power but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Caesar”. That may stand as the pithiest brief for the next archbishop of Canterbury as he faces the little Caesars across the Thames from Lambeth Palace.

The question arises of how many in Westminster can work with the new archbishop if he chooses to heed Tolstoy’s words. To do so, the common ground they must find is working for the common good. In truth, that has been an idea successfully annexed by the political left since Margaret Thatcher championed individualism over collectivism in the 1980s and consequently froze out a Church of England that had historically been characterised as “the Tory party at prayer”. (Relations between the Church and the Thatcher government weren’t helped by the publication, in 1985, of Faith in the City, a report into urban poverty and a “call for action by Church and nation”  commissioned by the then archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Stung by the Church’s insubordination under Runcie, Thatcher hand-picked his successor, George Carey, who proved to be altogether more emollient.)

Cameron at least nodded in the direction of a notion of the common good with his talk of the “big society”, even if his faith in it faded in and out with his Christian faith, a religious conviction like radio reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns, as he put it in a phrase borrowed from Boris Johnson. And it was telling that Tim Montgomerie, the Christian editor of the influential ConservativeHome website who is a proponent of Tory “modernisation” on issues of social justice, should have reacted so intemperately to Williams’s guest-editorship of the New Statesman. As he saw it, his party was being accused of what he hoped it had left behind.

As for the Labour Party, like the Church of England, it is working out its future relationship with the archbishop by examining the one that is passing. “What Rowan Williams has achieved is to continuously restate the importance of compassion in the public realm and the emphasis on the common life that we all share, one that reaches beyond the transactional elements of orthodox economics,” Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham and head of the party’s policy review, told me. “These types of intervention will be ever more important as the character of the country shifts through the process of austerity, where the poor are increasingly demonised and the weak pick up the tab for a financial crisis that is not of their making. We will need such alternative voices all the more in the future.”

Stephen Timms, the MP for East Ham, who is a former chief secretary to the Treasury (and a Christian), sets the bar even higher for the new archbishop. “It seems to me that, with Rowan as Archbishop, there has been a new intellectual self-confidence about the Church of England. In a period when the question ‘Where do our values come from?’ has been a pressing one, his has been a distinctive, compelling and authoritative voice. He has managed to be pretty fearless in speaking up for the vulnerable and marginalised, taking a lot of flak at times for doing so, without being partisan or gratuitously giving offence.”

No pressure, then. If that isn’t a big enough challenge for the new archbishop, there are two other mighty obstacles to effective political engagement. The first is those troublesome folk in the media. As the Christian Socialist Flannagan puts it: “Rowan’s voice has challenged vested interests in the financial and corporate sector who have multimillion-pound PR departments to speak for them. His successor will have the challenge of articulating the incredible breadth of what is going on in and through all the different strands of the Church in the UK, be that debt advice centres, youth work or homeless shelters. But he will be doing that into a media milieu that increasingly doesn’t want complexity in its reporting of the Church. It wants boxes. It wants the UK to be like the US. It wants liberals and conservatives, or liberals and evangelicals. It wants ‘nice Christians’and ‘nasty Christians’.”

The other political stumbling block is the Church’s own executive. When in early 2011 Williams signed a petition against the government’s proposed forestry sell-off, I was told in no uncertain terms that “the Archbishop doesn’t sign other people’s letters”. I replied that, on the contrary, he just had. This self-important panjandrum looked pained and asked me unsmilingly where I thought we’d be if we allowed the Archbishop to do what he wanted. Sir Humphrey Appleby would find today’s Church of England his natural habitat.

The Crown Nominations Commission must come up with a candidate who can cope with the politics not just of Westminster, but of his Church. What does that candidate look like? Flannagan is in no doubt: “Rowan led with the nuance necessary, rather than retreating to the safety of a tribe. I pray for another like him.”

George Pitcher was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary for public affairs from 2010-2011. “Faith in the Public Square” is published by Bloomsbury (£20).