The Turbulent Priest
Good riddance to Rowan Williams.

Dr. Rowan Williams


Charles C. W. Cooke

However wrinkled they may be, ideas, as the saying goes, have consequences. And, in recent years, as the British state attempted to reverse decades of profligate spending and reduce its dangerous debt, it could rely upon the archbishop to oppose it at every turn. In June 2011, Williams guest-edited the hard-left New Statesman, writing in his editorial that the government was indulging in “radical, long-term policies for which no one voted,” and that the moves had caused him “bafflement and indignation.” Although previous archbishops had occasionally waded into political matters, the strength of the attack was unprecedented, and caused a row over the role of the Church in political affairs, and questions over what exactly Williams considered his mandate to be. The right-of-center Daily Mail went as far as to suggest that Williams “should resign and join the Labour Party which over the last 13 years did such harm to the fabric of British society.” Again, O’Sullivan is correct to note T. E. Utley’s maxim that Christianity “tells us what questions to ask” in politics; but it is difficult for even good-faith questions not to appear biased and rhetorical when they come from a publication with a clear and defined agenda.

Much of what Rowan Williams writes and says carries the air of a man who has grown accustomed to being received seriously regardless of the soundness of his ideas, and who is used to having even the most incomprehensible of his pronouncements met by the irritating acquiescence common to other “bearded lefties.” But sounding profound is not the same thing as being profound, and we should not let the man’s spiritual standing distract us from the reality that he is wholly dangerous to the power of Western ideas.

Documenting his many missteps is a little like cataloguing the utterances of Prince Phillip, but without the compensation of the consort’s dry sense of humor. An example: In response to protesters whose actions were steadily destroying the income, and thus upkeep, of London’s St. Paul’s cathedral, Williams claimed that Jesus Christ would have been an Occupier. Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey took a different view, noting that the protesters were “opportunistic and cynical,” and questioning the way in which senior clergy “mismanaged” the situation; his skepticism was vindicated when protesters began to defecate inside the cathedral and spray-paint graffiti — including “666” — on its walls.

With all of this in mind, Rowan Williams will, no doubt, fit in nicely in his new post as master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge, and, naturally, I wish him every success in his return to academia; though one cannot help but also wish that he had never left the profession in the first place.

Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.