The first thing to be said about Dr. Rowan Williams is that he is by common consent a subtle theologian, a sensitive pastoral priest, and a genuinely good and holy man, because a great many less flattering things will be said about him in the next few months, some of them further down this column. Dr. Williams announced last Friday that he intended to resign at the end of the year as Archbishop of Canterbury and therefore as spiritual leader of the Church of England and, by extension, of the 77 million–strong Anglican Communion around the world.
His announcement came as a surprise. He had been appointed archbishop only ten years ago at the age of 52. As archbishops go, he was a mere stripling. The general expectation had been that he would serve a good round 20 years before handing in his miter. But when the initial shock had faded, his resignation seemed, however regrettably, the right decision.
His tenure had been littered with avoidable errors — mainly bold statements that needed immediate corrections that themselves then needed further corrections. He was the angel who rushed in where journalists, policemen, politicians, and cynics of every kind feared to tread. He would then fall with innocent surprise through a series of trapdoors marked “partisan politics,” “Islam,” and, riskiest of all, “sexual politics.”
The trapdoor through which he plunged most frequently was partisan politics. Like almost all Anglican bishops, he was a man of the Left, and his political sermons reflected the fact. Like his fellow bishops too, he seemed more self-confident breezily issuing pronouncements on political questions than agonizing over religious ones.
But as the late T. E. Utley, a distinguished Anglican journalist of an earlier generation, pointed out: “Christianity does not tell us what answers to give in politics; it tells us what questions to ask.” With certain obvious exceptions, the faithful may give a range of political answers to them. Their answers should rightly combine the moral arguments implicit in the questions with practical considerations resting on non-religious authority. Thus the pope may ask how best to help the poor; but Milton Friedman is better equipped to prescribe the method. Since there may be several legitimate answers from a Christian standpoint, the Church should in general make the moral questions plain, stand back, and allow the laity to choose between the answers.
Rowan Williams found that hard, if not impossible. Following the 2008 financial crisis, he declared somewhat wildly: “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.” As Wilmoore Kendall remarked of a similarly rash statement (from Senator Barry Goldwater, as it happens): “There’s nothing wrong with that remark that couldn’t be put right by 100,000 well-chosen words.”
As if to justify Kendall, Williams wrote a longer and considered piece in the London Spectator, available here, on the crisis of financial capitalism as a species of idolatry. It dealt reasonably with the moral and other problems of managing risks that even their inventors didn’t fully understand. One of the things it made plain, however, was that someone other than the Archbishop of Canterbury would have to solve this conundrum.
Unlike left-wing politics, the gradual advance of Islam in Britain was a challenge that the spiritual leader of Anglicanism could hardly avoid. It was a task that required a nice balance between defending the Christian faith and assuring British Muslims that there was an honorable place for them in British society. And as if that were not difficult enough, Williams had to contend with a secular officialdom that did everything it could to appease extremist Muslims while treating Christian anxieties with indifference and even a kind of bland contempt.
Maybe no one could have squared this circle, but Williams blundered badly. He gave a long, thoughtful, and well-intentioned speech that the tabloids were able to compress into the headline “Sharia Courts in Britain, Says Arch-Bish.” Nor were the tabloids being wholly unfair; that was what he was more or less saying.
And as a general uproar erupted, it became clear that Williams had not really ironed out the wrinkles in his argument. He had called for the limited use of sharia courts within British law — rather like Orthodox Jewish marriage courts or private arbitration between companies — on the grounds that this was “unavoidable” in a Britain that included large Muslim communities. He now stressed that such a partial accommodation would not mean the lower legal status for women that sharia enforced in the Muslim world.
But which was it? Was sharia unavoidable? In that case how could British officialdom arbitrarily determine which parts to incorporate in secular law? Or could the Brits pick and choose from a menu of sharia rules and penalties? If so, then it wasn’t unavoidable.
Any move in the direction of incorporating sharia could therefore be made conditional upon explicit statements from Muslim authorities acknowledging the sovereignty of British law. Such a balanced proposal might have soothed Christian (and secular) anxieties, strengthened the authority of moderate imams and mullahs, and been seen by Muslims generally as a further step in their honorable integration into British society. But that wasn’t quite what Williams had advocated, and what he had advocated produced uproar and ill-feelings all around.