Interview: Rowan Williams

The Archbishop of Canterbury talks about religious longing,
how the Church of England enriches soc

Can we make sense of morality without a religious notion of a transcendent or supernatural being?
I think that, to make sense of unconditional rights or claims, we need to be clear that there is such a thing as universal human nature and that it has some intrinsic dignity or worth. To try and ground this independently of the idea of a transcendent source of value seems to me not finally feasible. People do, of course, make such claims, and do so in good faith, but I don't see how you can define a universally shared, equal, independent-of-local-culture-and-habit conception of human flourishing without something more than a pragmatic or immanent basis.

In other words, I think morality ultimately needs a notion of the sacred - and for the Christian that means understanding all human beings without exception as the objects of an equal, unswerving, unconditional love.

What are the consequences of pushing religion to the margins of the public sphere?
If religion is pushed into private spaces, as increasingly it tends to be by our public discourse, we lose one of the most emotionally and imaginatively resourceful ways of seeing human behaviour; we lose something of the sense that certain acts may be good independently of whether they are sensible or successful in the world's terms. I suppose you could say that we lose the "contemplative" dimension to ethics, the belief that some things are worth ­admiring in themselves.

Are there forms of secularism that religious believers can accept?
Certainly a religious believer can be firm in their faith without assuming that their point of view should be privileged in public discussion or has any absolute right to be followed. Elsewhere I have distinguished between a "procedural" and a "programmatic" secularism. The first recognises that public discussion must make room for explicit reference to the roots of moral judgements, including their roots in religious belief. It makes for a fuller and more lively argument in society, and it avoids the creeping assumption that all reasonable people think in exactly the same way, for the same reasons.

I think it's perfectly fair that believers should have the right to speak in public about why their faith prohibits suicide or torture, for instance, so that others can see into the thinking of religious people and ask questions about their own reasoning. Believers can't expect to win arguments just by appeal to faith, but they need to be able to explain where they are coming from. It's the point made recently by Michael Sandel in his book Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? - about enriching public argument by taking more seriously the moral and religious dimension.

The philosopher Charles Taylor has suggested that there is a connection between the increased readiness of Anglican leaders to speak out on political matters, especially in the 1980s, and the postwar decline in church attendance. He suggests that that decline "unshackled" Church leaders from the "mental weight of being an established church". Do you agree?
I'm not sure at all about the "unshackling" thing. Archbishops Davidson, Lang and Temple were all hugely involved in public and in international issues - Davidson's record on international matters, especially with minorities and refugees after the First World War, is remarkable. But in the 1980s there was a sense that political discourse had forgotten a lot of its moral ­compass and there weren't many other places to look for it. Faith in the City [a report on Britain's inner cities, published in 1985, commissioned by the then archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie] has had a lasting impact, even if its solutions now look dated - rather too "centralist" or statist.

Taylor also argues that, despite the decline in church attendance, there remains in societies like ours a strong "religious longing". Does this have anything to do with the growth of non-traditional, especially non-Christian, forms of "spirituality"?

Religious "longing" is a really interesting issue. Outside the metropolitan village in which a lot of the media work, there remains a powerful residual investment in the local church - witness the role of the church and the vicar in communities in trauma, whether the Soham murders or recently in Cumbria. I could parallel this from experience in deprived communities in Wales, too.

There are bits of human experience and ­suffering that have to go somewhere, and ­secular society simply doesn't have the
spaces, the words or the rituals. This does not translate into conventional church attendance and orthodox belief - and perhaps it seldom has in history, if the truth be told; but it still takes for granted a body/community/place where a person can feel related to something more than the sum of their own anxieties and their society's normal patterns of talk and behaviour.

It isn't quite the same thing as the interest in "spirituality", which is more to do with the individual's discovery of new ways of feeling nourished or supported, that may or may not be anchored in any place or tradition. I'm personally wary of giving too much weight to this trend or cluster of trends; but Taylor is right in seeing it as an expression of discontent with an exclusively secular frame of reference. The ambiguity about it is that it can appear as just another way of making the consuming individual feel good, without much in the way of commitment or demand.

You have written an essay, to be published in the autumn, in which you describe a "framework" in which economic motivations are regarded as "fundamental". Has that framework corroded the structures of religious and communal life?
Issues around religious practice are closely bound up with our picture of the human being or the human person. A consumer-oriented picture - one in which the human person is a customer before all else, looking for goods that can be acquired - is pretty hostile to a traditionally religious framework in which you find your meaning in the attempt to become aligned with, or united with, a reality that entirely exceeds your grasp, and in which you expect to be drastically changed by the practice of faith. This course of life, both exploratory and sacrificial, is going to be very countercultural the more we settle for the customer as the basic model of identity.

Christian faith centres on giving up the claim to be yourself at everyone else's expense, and on the challenge to find your self or identity in giving and receiving life in community - "Take up your cross and follow", "Love your neighbour as yourself". Ritual, community, contemplation, the sense of being called to account before a truth that is displayed to you, given to you, not just discovered - all of this is essential to traditional faith and is bound to be harder to communicate.

In that essay, you write about the need to rethink our "economic practices". The political class is telling us that this means accepting "austerity".
Which is why, finally, I do believe it's important to ask whether we can rethink our economic habits in relation to some of those things like community and family, habit and rite and celebration, the breaking up of the calendar into seasons of feast and fast. I don't see much sign at present of this rethinking.

People will accept austerity for the sake of something they love and value - their children, their calling, their community. Accepting austerity to salvage something called "the economy", especially if austerity is not very evenly distributed, is a much bigger ask.

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman and James Macintyre is political correspondent. "Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economics and Justice" by Rowan Williams and Larry Elliott will be published on 30 September by Palgrave Macmillan.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain