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December 04, 2007

Archbishop Rowan Williams and the Issues of the Day: A New "Red Dean of Canterbury"?

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth - argues that with his political pronouncements Dr Rowan Williams follows in the footsteps of a long tradition of left-wing clerics in the Church of England, perhaps best exemplified by Rev. Hewlett Johnson, the Red Dean of Canterbury. The major difference today, argues Prof. Rubinstein, is that the likes of Hewlett Johnson never rose above the "middle management" of the Church of England - Rowan Williams has risen to the top of it.

Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gave a
lengthy interview to Emel magazine, a Muslim publication, in which he makes a number of remarkable claims which received widespread publicity in the press. Much of it consisted of a one-sided rant against the United States, which, according to him, is the:

only one global hegemonic power at the moment. It is not accumulating territory, it is trying to accumulate influence and control.
In other places he appears to appease and even justify the denial of human rights in the Islamic world. After noting, with elegant British understatement, that the Muslim world should be prepared to accept that their
present political solutions aren't always very impressive,
he states that we can learn from asking questions of
classical liberal democracy that might fit in with an Islamic world view
- whatever that might mean.

His Grace then takes potshots against Israel's security fence - which exists to protect Israeli civilians against Palestinian suicide bombers, and has done so very effectively - as well as against "Christian Zionists" in the United States, as ever his main target.

Dr Williams's rants are, of course, nothing new. He is a tireless opponent of the Iraq War and, it seems, of virtually everything and anything associated with Western democracy and mainstream policy. In 1985 he was arrested in Lakenheath, Suffolk, during a protest organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. After the 9/11 attacks he stated that

Bombast about evil individuals doesn't help in understand anything
- except, seemingly, when they are emitted by Archbishops about American policy-makers. Turning to economics, he opined that
Every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game.
These represent only a tiny selection of his views, and are in no way taken out of context.

His Grace emerges from a well-known tradition in the Church of England. Let me preface these comments by noting that I am not an Anglican, and would normally not wish to comment on any internal matter within the Church of England. But Dr Williams gave these opinions as public comments, not on religious matters but on political and economic issues of the day. He is still an ex officio member of the House of Lords, a member of Parliament. Anyone, therefore, is entitled to criticise his views on public matters.

As an Anglican clergyman Dr Williams has had some very visible predecessors who presented a similar viewpoint in the past. Probably the most obvious example was Rev. Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966), the famous "Red Dean of Canterbury". Johnson, a lifelong Fellow Traveller, among other things served as Chairman of the Board of the Daily Worker (this sounds like a joke, but is actual fact), and wrote best-selling books like The Socialist Sixth of the World (1939), in which he claimed that

the communist puts the Christian to shame in the thoroughness of his quest for a harmonious society. Here he proves himself to be the heir of the Christian intention.
Johnson made this claim a year after Stalin's Great Purge, in which over one million innocent persons were murdered as "enemies of the people" and up to ten million others sent to the Gulags. Johnson never repented, but went on the make similar claims about Communist China under Mao.

Despite the confusion which apparently existed in the minds of the uninformed - unlike Rowan Williams - Johnson was never, of course, head of the Church of England. The position of Dean of Canterbury is "middle management", despite its grandiose sound. Nevertheless, in his tendentious extremism, and the very public and continuing dissemination of these views, Williams appears to be an altogether worthy successor to Hewlett Johnson in updated form.

It is not hard to show that the Archbishop's views are woefully misguided and misdirected. It is understandable that he should be concerned with peacemaking and with conflict resolution. Internationally, the one sure-fire way to diminish international conflicts is to create more democracies, since - remarkably - no democracy has ever gone to war against another democracy. The values which, presumably, the Archbishop wishes to defend - mutual toleration and civil rights for all - also flow almost exclusively from democratic governments where these values are enshrined by law and defended.

This is exactly and precisely what America, Britain and the other allies in Iraq are trying to do: to create a viable, peaceful multi-ethnic parliamentary democracy in a country which, until 2003 was ruled by a genocidal dictator -about whom, by the way, Dr Williams had precisely nothing to say.

The attempt has proven far harder than was thought, chiefly because of the ferocity of Islamic extremism and terrorism in Iraq, but it now appears to be increasingly successful. It is not an attempt by the United States to gain "influence and control" for itself, as the Archbishop, with his systematic anti-American bias has it, but the precise opposite, to allow the people of Iraq to govern themselves democratically. This effort may well be nave, given the extreme difficulties of implanting a genuine democracy in an undeveloped Third World country riven by deep ethnic and religious cleavages and without a democratic tradition, but its was surely a praiseworthy effort.

Turning to the "economic losers in the worldwide game", the victims of "aggression", the Archbishop, needless to say, misunderstands the very nature of capitalism, which, since Adam Smith first set out its ethical underpinnings, has been seen as morally rooted in the fact that there can be mutual gainers, not gainers and losers, from any economic transaction, that a growing economy can produce gains for all, and that the "invisible hand" makes for benefits for all, certainly in the long term, as the history of Western affluence under capitalism plainly shows.

One would, however, like to have more information on the "aggression" and the "economic losers" generated by the Central Board of Finance of the Church of England's various Investment Funds and Property Funds. These are, in fact, the Church of England's main sources of investment and finance. According to its website, the Church's Central Board of Finance, managed investment funds worth 2.26 billion at the end of 2006, while the Church Commissioners managed assets of 4.8 billion. In 2005 the Church Commissioners

achieved a return of 19.1 per cent on their investments.
I assume this was secured by letting homeless people sleep for free in the properties they own. Seriously, one wonders whether the Archbishop actually believes that the Church of England's investment funds somehow behave differently and exploit less than any of the other 1,500 unit and investment trusts sold in the U.K., and whether these funds are immune to "aggression" and producing "economic losers".

It seems plain to any outsider that the Anglican Church is in very serious trouble. It is at the point of fragmenting internationally over homosexuality; in England, it is losing membership and authority on a continuing basis; its growth areas, such as they are, are found in its conservative Evangelical and Third World wings.

Given all this, it beggars belief that it would choose as its head an obsessive, ideologically-driven, political extremist. I suppose such a leader might be useful if he was a charismatic personality who could attract new members. But Archbishop Williams strikes me, at any rate, from whatever I have seen of him, as utterly devoid of charisma, a mixture of the humourless fanatic and - as the articles, sermons and speeches on his website show - pedant scholar.

Indeed, it seems more than strange that Dr Williams would want to hold such a position, with its endless troubles in the best of circumstances, rather than live a quiet life as a professor of theology at a leading university, where he might well make a lasting contribution to scholarship. One also wonders if his period as Archbishop has stemmed the relentless downward trend in the Church of England's membership and authority, trajectories which are surely painful even to those who are not Anglicans.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of The Richest of the Rich: The Wealthiest 250 People in Britain Since 1066, (Harriman House, 2007).

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'Dhimmi' Williams is a figure beyond satire.

Posted by: Robert Sharppe at December 4, 2007 10:27 PM

Williams is one of a small cluster of Anglo-Catholic leftists in the Church of England who are disproportionately powerful and highly politicised. Stockwood, Huddleston et al were all in this tradition That is why Blair appointed him even if he regetted it later. Blair is a gesture leftist and a Catholic. Hewlett Johnson was appointed by Ramsey Macdonald. They are political appointments made on ideological grounds.
Williams always turns against everything in the British tradition. He began life as a strict Bible Christian, a Calvinistic Methodist and then converted to bells and smalls in the C of E
His involvement with CND, by then heavily infiltrated by Communists, at the height of the Cold War showed his disdain and disregard for the preservation of Western and for all that the West stood Just as he was prepared to risk our enslavement by the Soviets so he is willing to risk Islamic dominance. In either case the Church of England would be destroyed but you can always rely on him not to fight the good fight. He is a complete South Banker It is time to get rid of bishops root and branch.

Posted by: Jack at December 6, 2007 04:36 PM

It is not my church nor my nation but it baffles me why the Church of England now has a foreigner as Archbishop of Canterbury. I thought that the whole point of breaking away from the Catholic Church was to create something nationally distinctive. Williams is the most unEnglish person imaginable. English is his second tongue and his command over it is very deficient. He writes very obscurely as if he is thinking in another language and then painfully translating it into the language of his new country. Why did you not have the sense to pick that wonderful Bishop of Rochester?

Posted by: James at December 10, 2007 10:38 PM

It has to be remembered that the Government has the final say over the appointment of Arch Bishop. Williams, as I understand it, had the backing of anyone in the Labour Party that had a view on the issue. At the time of his appointment, it was pointed out that his political views were naive, and were basically those of "The Guardian".

There are reasons why the liberal wing is now dominant in the Church of England, and this doesn't just apply to England herself. One is the high status given to "academic achievement" within the C of E. Universities have been drifting towards the soft-left, "progressive" line for some decades now, and people who do well in this environment are often part of that culture. On top of that there was the issue of the ordination of women. I won't go into the rights and wrongs of this issue - particularly as I'm not qualified to do so. But it was a decisive victory for the liberal wing of the church. It has had the effect of massively increasing the numbers of the "liberal wing" at the expense of the conservatives (both evangelical and high church). This is partly because some traditionalists have felt driven out, and left. It is also because of the decision to refuse to ordain "impossiblists" - those who say the decision to ordain women isn't one the church could make (needless to say that anyone with this view is an ecclesiastical conservative). Most important though is that I would imagine the vast majority of female candidates would have to be considered "liberals". The basis of the argument for the ordination of women was what the Church has to reflect "contemporary society" - hence it is less directed by the Bible and tradition, but by what they think are the social trends of the age. This is, basically, the liberal mindset. It stands to reason that female candidates would be liberals as well. The effect is analogous to the creation of hundreds of peers to pass the great reform bill, or the emasculation of the Lords in 1911 (and I know it didn't actually happen, but was only a threat). The voting weight in the synods has shifted decisively towards the liberals.

Considering the three elements: the status of high acclaim in a liberal, "progressive" academia; a soft-left Labour government; and a church increasingly dominated by a liberal clergy - it is only to be expected that someone like Arch Bishop Williams would be the preferred candidate for the top position. I think the politics of the church is the most obvious example of liberals not really practicing what they preach regarding broadmindedness of views. Liberals need the conservative wing to push against otherwise they'll end up flat on their faces in the mud - which frankly is where they've ended up.

Posted by: PT at December 13, 2007 03:00 PM
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