From the Archives: Rowan Williams on Social Vision

The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams recently created a stir with an article in the New Statesman in which he declared that “the political debate in the UK at the moment feels pretty stuck.” Williams demanded that the current coalition government go beyond localist platitudes and slogans to show how it would guarantee social provision for the most vulnerable members of UK society. He expressed particular concern over changes in health and education policy, suggesting that “we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.” The opposition, he claimed, seems bereft of any better ideas, and the political system in general appears beholden to the financial firms.

In this scenario, Williams argued, it is unclear what democracy means anymore. By contrast, a religious conception of democracy focuses on “sustainable community” and the “mutual creation of capacity”:

A democracy going beyond populism or majoritarianism but also beyond a Balkanised focus on the local that fixed in stone a variety of postcode lotteries; a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?

Williams’s rant has its defenders and its detractors–even the Prime Minister spoke out against it. It likely cost the Archbishop’s public affairs secretary his job. The article has also led reporters to dig through Williams’s political past, and when they did they came up with this:  “In a speech at Edinburgh University in 1989 he talked of ‘the alarming religiosity of Ronald Reagan … and Margaret Thatcher.'”

That quote is from Williams’s paper “Christian Resources for the Renewal of Vision,” which was delivered at a conference held by the Centre for Theology and Public Issues in January 1989. Williams’s paper, along with conference papers by Lesslie Newbigin, Raymond Plant and others, was published in the CTPI Occasional Papers series and is available on Google Books.

Two observations about the recent furore are worth making in light of Williams’s CTPI paper. First, Williams has sometimes been portrayed as a “radical Marxist.” But in his CTPI paper he strikes out against both liberal democracy and Marxist communism as unable to support genuine discussion about the fulfilment of human needs.

For Williams, both liberalism and Marxism are children of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, in his estimation, overthrew traditional religious understandings of the nature of human need, insisting instead that need is transparent to reason. But if need is wholly transparent to reason, then there is nothing to debate:

The paradox of modernity thus comes in the conclusion that there are no questions about the human good, no serious possibility of a self-moving criticism within our talk about humanity in general: we end up, in short, with demystification without accountability.

Marxism, far from being a solution to this problem, offers a parable of its excesses: in the Soviet Union dissenters were not merely shunned, they were sent for psychiatric treatment. Dissenters were regarded as irrational, because the secular state had determined definitively the rational good for each citizen.

This point brings us to the second observation that arises from Williams’s CTPI paper, namely, that his recent musings on religion and democracy in the New Statesman exhibit much continuity with his earlier thought, at least with his thought in the late 1980s.

The passage about Reagan and Thatcher is meant as a rejection of any attempt to sacralize the modern state. “The modern state,” he argues, “with its assumptions about defence and security and about the centralisation of power, is quintessentially secular.” Appeals to religion within the modern state only buttress state power.

The church and other religious bodies’ place in the modern state is rather as gadfly, always questioning and criticizing. Yet they also have the place, along with interested secular others (Williams gives special attention to the then-nascent Green Party), of working “to construct sensibilities and structures of human accountability.” They have the place–in 1989 as in 2011–of attempting to create a pluralistic moral community based on a genuine debate about the nature of the human good.

With these observations in mind, we invite you to read Williams’s speech and reflect on its continued salience (or otherwise) in the comments.

Image: Bishop Behind Bars, by Steve Punter.

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