The NS Profile: Rowan Williams

The last time the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, spoke to the New Statesman, it was at the end of 2008, a year that our writer, James Macintyre, described as "one of the most difficult for Anglicanism since the Reformation". The Lambeth Conference, the assembly of bishops from the worldwide Anglican Communion that meets every ten years, had begun amid what even the Archbishop acknowledged was "bitter controversy" over questions of sexuality. But by the end of the conference, the dire warnings about lasting schism over the matter were largely forgotten. Williams, Macintyre reported, had won over his critics: "Conservatives and liberals embraced and previously sceptical bishops spoke of a 'new Pentecost'."

This year, however, the Archbishop's gift for compromise and reconciliation appears to have deserted him. On 10 July, a proposal designed by Williams and Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, to permit the creation of separate dioceses for those opposed to the ordination of women priests was rejected by the Church of England's General Synod. Apocalyptic predictions of mass defections of Anglo-Catholic clergy and laity to Rome duly followed.

This latest imbroglio, preceded by the refusal of the Crown Nominations Commission to consider the candidacy of the gay cleric Dr Jeffrey John to the bishopric of Southwark, is, among other things, a reminder of the distinctive challenges involved in leading an established church. "People sometimes ask me," Williams told the New Statesman in 2008, "does being in an established church mean you have to watch what you say?" He insisted that he didn't worry about "being a nuisance" to politicians, if not to his own flock, though he conceded that his time in the Church in Wales had left him receptive to the case for disestablishment. "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."

He remained suspicious, however, of the motives of many of the partisans of disestablishment among the political class. "My unease about going for straight disestablishment is to do with the fact that it's a very shaky time for the public presence of faith in society. I think the motives that would now drive dis­establishment from the state side would be most to do with . . . trying to push religion into the private sphere, and that's the point where I'd be bloody-minded and say, 'Well, not on that basis.'"

The Archbishop's resistance to what he sees as attempts to consign religion to the margins of the public sphere is not merely "bloody-minded". On the contrary, it is grounded in deep and sustained reflection on the place of faith in modern liberal democracies. Consider the comments Williams made in February 2008 on the application of sharia law in Brit-ain. His remarks in a BBC interview, widely and mischievously reported as amounting to a straightforward call for sharia to be implemented in this country, were in fact a gloss on a dense and closely argued lecture on "Civil and Religious Law in England" delivered at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Although that lecture addressed the specific question of the relationship between sharia (and, for that matter, Orthodox Jewish practice) and the jurisdiction of British courts, it also ranged widely and probed deeply. In Williams's view, examining the legal provisions of individual religious groups (Muslim or otherwise) helps us to see something important about the limits of a certain secular conception of political identity.

Impoverished citizenship

Modern secular states take for granted what Williams regards as a partial and impoverished notion of citizenship. According to what one might call the "public philosophy" of liberal secular democracy, to be a citizen is, in his words, to "be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state".

The problem with this idea of citizenship, for Williams, is that it is too narrow. It takes no account of the cultural and religious affiliations citizens might have above and beyond their status as legal subjects - or, at best, it relegates those other kinds of attachment or belonging to a private world. And that is especially problematic in ethnically, culturally and confessionally diverse societies. It risks, Williams argues, producing a "ghettoised pattern of social life", in which religious forms of "interest and reasoning" are treated as infra dig, and not given an airing in public debate about "shared goods and priorities".

Williams maintains that one of the consequences of religious interests being excluded in this way is a coarsening of political discourse. Religious perspectives can, he thinks, imbue the language of public deliberation with a "depth and moral gravity that cannot be gen­erated simply by the negotiation of . . . balanced self-interests".

They can do this, in part, precisely by expanding our notion of what it is to be a citizen. Over the past 30 years or so, politics in much of the western world has been dominated by a drastically simplified vision of the idea of freedom, in which this has been regarded as iden­tical with the ability of individuals to pursue their preferences with "minimal interference". "Liberty," Williams has written, "is more than consumer choice." He is certainly right about that, though it is not at all clear that the blame for this calamitous narrowing of our horizons lies entirely with"secularism", unless that concept is defined in the broadest terms. There are, after all, versions of secularism that do not require the banishment of religion from the public sphere.

Williams's most sustained treatment of these issues - a lecture he gave in Rome in November 2006 - suggests that he also recognises this. The lecture was an intervention in a long-running debate among political philosophers over the implications of the doctrine of state "neutrality" towards religion. Roughly speaking, this doctrine holds that, in conditions of diversity and pluralism, the state ought to be neutral with respect to the competing moral and religious outlooks of its citizens. The question is what follows from this. Does the burden of neutrality fall on citizens, requiring them to divide their lives into public and private parts? Or is it only the agents of the state who are obliged to keep their moral and religious beliefs to themselves?

Williams sketches two competing visions of the secular society: one in which neutrality does require the exclusion of religion from public deliberation and debate, and one in which it doesn't. A secular state, he argues, need not demand of the religious that they set aside their most deeply held beliefs when they enter public space, so long as they don't expect those beliefs to be given a free pass just because they are religious. The result may be "noisy and untidy", yet that is surely preferable to the "empty public square" of the more "programmatic" form of secularism that Williams rejects.

Shortly before the General Synod began in York this month, the Archbishop spoke exclusively to the New Statesman about secularism, faith and politics.