Tuesday, 3 April 2012

“Hairy Leftys” and Liberal Theology – A Reflection on Rowan Williams

Controversial, progressive and hated by many groups within his own Church; is it any wonder the Archbishop of Canterbury has had it with his job?

It can’t be easy, being the Archbishop of Canterbury. Was it a surprise to anyone that Rowan Williams has announced that he is standing down as of December?[1]

After all it can definitely be said that people, whether they are religious or not, are hard to please; if your attitudes, speeches and policies are too far right you’re going to anger all the lefties and liberals, and if they are too far left you will do the same to all the conservatives and fundamentalists. This means that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, you can either toe the line and be a dull, irrelevant Church official who no-one knows the name of, or you can bite the bullet, stand for what you believe in and take the abuse that will inevitably come from it.

Even if you despise the man, you cannot deny that Williams has made waves and at least tried to do something with a position that he never wanted in the first place.

I’ve found it hard to make my mind up on the man. On a religious level we clearly have extremely different viewpoints; Williams is clearly a firm believer in god and the Christian faith[2], whereas I consider god to be a man-made and at times dangerous concept. There have been times when I have disapproved of some of the statements the Archbishop has made; his speeches in 2008 that seemed to advocate a version of Sharia Law in the UK are an excellent example of this (though Williams has always claimed this was not what he intended to imply)[3], and his condemnation of the attacks on Danish embassies over the depiction of the prophet Muhammad was nothing short of cowardice in the face of religious aggression.[4] Yet I cannot ignore the fact that in many ways Williams has been a breath of fresh air to a previously backward Anglican Church; his weighing on the Creationist/Intelligent Design debate, in which he made it clear that he believed Creationism had no place in the classroom[5], was much welcomed (it’s always good to see religious figures talking sense), and his attitudes towards homosexuality and the appointing of gay bishops is a genuinely brave and commendable move on his part.[6]

Williams is quite clearly a progressive theologist in many regards; throughout his career as Archbishop of Canterbury he has tried his hardest to drag his Church, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century.

Yet this has arguably earned him more scorn than it has praise. Since the announcement of his resignation in December my old favourite Peter Mullen has openly attacked the Archbishop on his blog with The Telegraph, accusing him of backtracking on issues and referring to him as a “hairy lefty”.[7] Good to see that Mullen’s staying classy in all this; he can imply that Williams is a coward all he likes, but I don’t remember ever hearing of Mullen taking a trip to Zimbabwe in an attempt to sort some of the chaos that’s going on there like the Archbishop did.[8] Still, it’s a sentiment shared by many in this country; just take a look at some of the comments from Mullen’s blog:

“The Archbishop is a joke. He is a typically liberal, PC churchman who has very little to do with genuine Christianity. He has nothing to offer the person on the street with his brand of wishy-washy waffle…”

“There can be no better example of his moral cowardice than the spineless way in which he is now spouting opinions in direct contradiction to the I'd-like-teach-the-world-to-sing drivel he churned out when his orotund evacuations might have made a difference to the well-being of the nation.
A worthless, despicable man.”

Yes, I know; taking the opinions of a few angry internet posters on an issue is like looking to the BNP for a consensus on British attitudes to foreigners (and yes, I will certainly admit that this extends to this blog as well). But the angry, disapproving sentiments towards Williams from within his own Church are clearly there; it’s not just Mullen and his far-right Bible-thumping crowd who dislike him. His attitudes towards homosexuality in his Church and the ordination of women has earned him plenty of stick in the past and to this day; former Conservative MP and all-round crazy person Ann Widdecombe famously left the Church to become a Catholic over the issue of women being ordained.[9]

Some may find his ‘lefty’ leanings troubling, but personally I feel this is something Williams should be commended for; I’ll quite happily admit that overall I like the man. Regardless of his religious loyalties and his adherence to outdated dogmas I’d say he’s a genuinely decent guy who’s tried his hardest to modernise the Church he found himself at the reins of. The religious and the non-religious cannot afford to make strawmen out of one another; Peter Hitchens is certainly right in saying that (though I would put out he immediately commits the same crime he’s denouncing in his description of “the god-hating faction”; I don't hate god, just as I don't hate the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus or other things that I don't believe exist).[10] Both sides have to acknowledge the other as people with differing opinions to their own, not as bogeymen to demonise and pour scorn upon. Both sides are guilty of this.

Dr Rowan William’s career as Archbishop has been an impossible one of trying to keep the peace with the more extreme, old-fashioned demographics of the Anglican Church whilst simultaneously trying to modernise it. He could have kept quiet, not made much of the position given to him and been forgotten and ignored by society and history. Instead, for good or worse, he tried to do something that he believed to be positive in a truly difficult situation.

That’s commendable, whether you’re religious or not.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17399403
[2] http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/pages/christianity.html
[3] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23083487#.T3suznkoq28
[4] Christopher Hitchens, ‘God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’, p281
[5] http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/mar/21/religion.topstories3
[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8024571/Archbishop-of-Canterbury-Anglican-Church-has-no-problem-with-gay-bishops.html
[7] http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/petermullen/100147490/dr-rowan-williams-a-hairy-lefty-recants/
[8] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-15228798
[9] http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2010/07/catholic-church-religious
[10] http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2012/02/einstein-versus-the-atheists.html