The Archbishop of Canterbury has caused a political stir today with his guest editorial in the New Statesman (text here). Some will argue that he should keep his opinions to himself but I disagree. As a bishop it is right that he should speak about issues which concern wider society; one of the few reasons for allowing Anglican Bishops to sit in the House of Lords must surely be to give them a public voice.
His article raises some worthwhile points (some bloggers like Church Mouse and Archbishop Cranmer have blogged their thoughts alread). My impression is that many people are deeply suspicious of the direction the government is taking and a good proportion of them are antagonistic towards it. But there are plenty of voices to the contrary and the opinion polls don’t suggest huge public outcry. Certainly there is some ‘plain fear’ but the origins for this lie in the effects of the banking crisis on people’s sense of security which is now exacerbated by the anxiety that the services they rely on are going to be curtailed.
Yet the blame for some of his criticisms can’t be laid entirely at the Coalition’s feet. Political debate may be feel ‘pretty stuck’ but that is partly because the left, as represented by the Labour party, appear incapable of articulating any big ideas. Their primary tactic at present is one of opposition not alternative; to argue against the government rather than construct a credible alternative. The lack of debate in key policy areas owes more to the paucity of the opposition than the lack of opportunity for public engagement.
Williams raises questions about democracy but in a growingly secular society surely the most pertinent question is whether an inclusive, liberal democracy can exist without a Christian moral basis. It would also be interesting to hear Williams views on the desirability of growing mutual organisations and the place they could have in education, health provision, finance and commerce. Perhaps the church should seek to take a lead in encouraging their growth and development as a means of enriching society and developing a mixed economy in which enterprise can flourish whilst the least fortunate are protected?
Whatever interest Williams views might have, this will be a political mistake. His choice of publication and his use of language create a context in which his words can only be read as an attack on the Government, no matter how nuanced he seeks to be. I expect there will be some further clarification saying the Archbishop was seeking to stimulate public debate but in attacking the Coalition he sides with the Labour party over the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, thereby appearing partisan. Whatever the merits of his questions, they will be lost in the political crossfire. Lambeth palace has history here – remember the lecture about Sharia law – and the lasting public perception will be negative rather than positive.
As a Baptist church leader I have to confess to a tinge of jealosy. While I believe in the separation of church and state I would love to guest edit a national publication and have the opportunity to generate public debate about faith, politics and society. Till then I will just keep blogging.