Once described as the “Conservative party at prayer,” the Church of England has taken a decidedly leftward turn in the last century, prompting the Earl of Onslow’s immortal observation that “one hundred years ago, the Church was in favor of fox hunting and against buggery. Now it is in favor of buggery and against fox hunting.” In the vanguard of its continuing drift was Rowan Williams, a self-described “bearded lefty” and terminal casuist who has also happened to be the Archbishop of Canterbury for the last nine years, and thus effectively second only to Queen Elizabeth II in the spiritual hierarchy.
Among other things, Williams became infamous for a steadfast refusal to acknowledge the virtues of his own country — and his own church, for that matter. It is thus no loss to either Britain or the Anglican Church that Williams announced on Friday that he will be resigning his office, effective December 2012, and I must respectfully disagree with John O’Sullivan’s more flattering portrayal of Williams, and set the ball rolling on the “great many less flattering things” that O’Sullivan correctly predicted “will be said about him in the next few months.”
The nadir of the archbishop’s dubious work was a remarkable February 2008 interview with the BBC, during which he baldly suggested that the rule of law might not be such a good idea after all. This was neatly coupled with a call for the adoption of certain aspects of sharia law in Britain — an eventuality he claimed was “unavoidable.” “An approach to law which simply said, there’s one law for everybody,” said Williams, “I think that’s a bit of a danger.” This is the symbolic head of a church with 80 million worldwide adherents, publicly stating that the principle that the old-fashioned among us consider to be the bedrock of civilization is outmoded in the 21st century.
Such thinking should shock but not surprise, as Williams’s affection for Western civilization has always seemed lukewarm at best. It is questionable whether there exists a fire hot enough to distract him from the temptations of modernism. By chance, he was in New York City delivering a lecture on the morning of September 11, 2001, and witnessed al-Qaeda’s atrocities firsthand. In the days that followed, as the smoke settled and while most of us were still reeling, the archbishop stated both that terrorists “can have serious moral goals” and that “bombast about evil individuals” — of the sort practiced by Manichean rubes such as President George W. Bush, no doubt — “doesn’t help in understanding anything.” (Perhaps this is where the different-laws-for-different-people rule comes in: Hijacking passenger jets and flying them at 500 miles per hour into skyscrapers full of people is wrong for me, but who am I to judge if it is wrong for you? Heaven keep us from “bombast,” though, for that really is a universal vice.)
There is, of course, some truth in O’Sullivan’s contention that Williams’s tenure was “littered with avoidable errors,” that he made “bold statements that needed immediate corrections that themselves then needed further corrections,” and that he had “not really ironed out the wrinkles in his argument.” Indeed, that is true for most of us. But how people react in a crisis is nonetheless instructive, as are the bold brushstrokes they draw in haste. To compare the instinctive reaction of Archbishop Williams to the events of September 11 with, say, Tony Blair’s, is to see two different worldviews. The wake of a mass murder is no time for public equivocation, even if there are gray areas that will need examination further down the line.
Williams’s indifference to the pillars of the civilized world extended to capitalism, and in his post-9/11 paean to Western capitulation, Writing in the Dust, he argued 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.” Such sentiments are quotidian in the halls of academia, but for a man directly appointed by the Queen of England to give them expression does not exactly help the cause of Western civilization, especially when conveyed in a book that was written as a direct result of a brutal attack on its most prized symbols.
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.