New Times,
New Thinking.

13 June 2012

Rowan Williams’ Jubilee Politics

The Archbishop of Canterbury preached a message of Communitarianism at St Pauls' Cathedral yesterday.

By Nelson Jones

Credit is due to the Mail for highlighting an aspect of Rowan Williams’ Jubilee sermon that might easily have got lost amid yesterday’s trumpets and carriages and cheering, flag-waving multitudes.  For the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury managed to slip a welcome stiletto of politics into the shoulderblade of pomp and deference.

For the Mail, he had “misjudged the Jubilee mood” by “hijacking” the ceremony to launch “a thinly veiled attack on a huge section of the population [otherwise known as Mail readers] who are worried about the unprecedented levels of immigration”.

In fact, he had done something rather more subtle and wholly in keeping with the Jubilee’s general mood of reflection and nostalgia.  The key phrase in his sermon praising the queen was that she has been “dedicated to the good of the community”.  By contrasting the Queen’s widely acclaimed virtues of quiet duty and service with the greed and selfishness of a “me-first” society he spoke for many.  

Whether or not the Queen really is the selfless paragon that has been depicted during the past few weeks is beside the point.  One of Elizabeth Windsor’s most notable characteristics is her inscrutibility.  She has a cipher-like quality that has, over the years, enabled her to embody the desires and preoccupations of a multitude of observers, from the romantic storybook princess invoked by Churchill to the “kaleidoscope queen” saluted a few weeks ago by Speaker John Bercow.  But the thing most consistently believed about her is that she is an embodiment of the old-fashioned virtues associated with the wartime generation of which she is part.  Praise for her thus necessarily involves some degree of criticism of the less buttoned-up, less deferential and more individualistic nation that Britain has become during her reign.

For the Mail, Williams is “well known for his liberal views”, but it is rather more complicated than that.  As Giles Fraser noted when he announced his retirement back in March, during his time in office the Archbishop has often allowed his liberal opinions to be overshadowed by his strong communitarian instincts.  Hence his accommodations of, and even apparent sympathy with, Church hardliners on questions of sexuality and gender.

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Fraser described Williams’ position as close to Phillip Blond’s “Red Toryism”.  He has, wrote the former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, an “old-fashioned ideal of community… where collective solidarity is always more important than individual choice and social diversity.”  As a result, he “never really felt comfortable in so fast paced and diverse a place as London.”

The word “community” recurred no fewer than ten times in yesterday’s sermon, and its overwhelming message was a call for the subordination of the self to the common good. “It is always in an ever-widening set of relations that we become properly ourselves,” Williams asserted.  Indeed, “I have no well-being, no happiness, that is not the well-being of the community.”  It is in this context that we should read the passage that so upset the Daily Mail:

Moralists (archbishops included) can thunder away as much as they like; but they’ll make no difference unless and until people see that there is something transforming and exhilarating about the prospect of a whole community rejoicing together – being glad of each other’s happiness and safety. This alone is what will save us from the traps of ludicrous financial greed, of environmental recklessness, of collective fear of strangers and collective contempt for the unsuccessful and marginal – and many more things that we see far too much of, around us and within us.

When he talks of “collective fear of strangers”, Williams means more than just a reaction to mass immigration: he is referring to the atomisation inherent in mass society, especially in a large city like London, where neighbours rarely interact socially and may not know one-another’s names.  Maintaining mutual trust and social cohesion in such circumstances can be a real challenge.  By proposing the Queen, not merely as a symbolic focus of unity but as an example to be followed, Williams is talking the language of the “big society”.
Rather more pointed was his reference to “collective contempt for the unsuccessful and marginal.”  Such a phrase might well be read as a thinly-veiled criticism of the Mail‘s coverage of, say, “benefit scroungers.”  A similar contempt was very much in evidence in the treatment of unpaid jobseekers left to fend for themselves under London Bridge and later consigned to a rain-sodden “camp” after a 14 hour shift working as stewards with inadequate food and, we’re told, no toilet facilities. Clearly something went wrong with the organisation of this particular piece of work experience, but even if the weather had been fine and the coach had not arrived in London several hours early the setup would still have seemed degrading and exploitative.

There are two divergent ways of reading this instructive modern parable.  One is that the contrast between the gilded pageantry of the Royal Barge and the squalid working conditions of the unpaid stewards exposes the oft-repeated lie that “we’re all in it together”, puncturing the illusion fostered by the Jubilee images of national togetherness.  Another would notice how swiftly and universally the company involved has been condemned.  The story has caused such a stink precisely because it contradicts the “Jubilee spirit” of community cohesion and mutual respect that many people have been celebrating and that Rowan Williams praised in his sermon.  

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