Telegraph interview with Archbishop Rowan Williams
Saturday 8th September 2012The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, spoke to Benedict Brogan from the Daily Telegraph newspaper, in advance of the publication of his collection of lectures and essays, "Faith in the Public Square".
The article, which appeared in the Telegraph on Saturday 8th September, follows in full.
Teetering piles of books crowd the floor of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s study. He apologises for the clutter; he is having a clear-out. Dr Rowan Williams has more than three months to go before he leaves office, yet already the preparations are under way. As we sit by the fireplace lined with icons for what he intends to be the last major interview of his episcopacy, he is happy to sift through the highs and lows of a decade at Lambeth Palace.
To mark his departure he is publishing a collection of lectures in which he grapples with the themes that animate his restless mind: secularism, liberalism, multiculturalism, the place of faith in society. It is the latest in an outpouring of words - from books on Dostoevsky and CS Lewis, to volumes of poetry - that has characterised his time. Indeed, its very intellectual density highlights the “Archbishop Rowan” conundrum that has long baffled his critics: is he too thoughtful to cope with the modern-day demands of an impossible job? He considers the question himself in his introduction to Faith in the Public Square, when he muses on the pitfalls put before the Primate of All England. Archbishops who let themselves be tempted to become commentators, he says, are doomed to fail. Has he? “I don’t think I cracked it.” It’s a striking mea culpa to open with. By trying to talk to everyone, “you’re bound to sound odd, or incomprehensible to somebody”. Nor has he succeeded in being taken seriously. He has learned resilience, and rebelliousness, he says. He has taught himself that it does not “matter for my eternal salvation or the good of the Kingdom of God that everybody likes this, or agrees with it.” He laughs: “Well you know, if it annoys The Daily whatever, then why not?”
Of all the controversies that marked his decade in office, none annoyed the “Daily whatevers” as much as his suggestion that Islamic sharia law might be recognised by the courts, particularly to arbitrate family disputes. There were calls for his resignation. The episode risks defining his legacy, which may be why he brings it up before I can. “Let’s cut to the chase, the sharia controversy. I don’t think I, or my colleagues, predicted just how enormous the reaction would be,” he says. “I failed to find the right words. I succeeded in confusing people. I’ve made mistakes - that’s probably one of them.” Yet four years on, he does not apologise for the argument he made, that there is a case for allowing Muslims the same legal latitude that applies to Christians or Jews.
He is a self-avowed “hairy lefty”, so he watches the economic programme of the Coalition with a degree of scepticism. He recognises the scale of the fiscal challenge, but worries about the means. He senses a “massive anxiety” about “an austerity programme that has not yet delivered what everybody hoped”. He singles out the welfare reforms, praising Iain Duncan Smith for the humanity he shows but fearing their “social cost”.
For him anxiety about austerity is offset by national rejoicing, first for the Diamond Jubilee and then the Olympics and Paralympics. He has been moved by the “nobility” of the national capacity for greatness. Britain has noticed the “dignity and modesty” of its athletes, and how they compare with celebrities in their attitudes.
His time has been marked by an often vitriolic debate about the march of militant secularism. He laughs at the recollection of his exchanges with the atheist academic Richard Dawkins, whom he describes as the latest “pub bore” in a tradition of “great public atheists”.
He points out that public spirituality is on the increase: witness the shrines of flowers and teddy bears at the scene of accidents. Christianity might be in decline, but people still search for a substitute. What he warns against is the state driving religion from public life. Austerity should not be an excuse not to be “thoughtful about minorities”, he says.
Does it worry him that, of the three main party leaders, two are atheists, and the third - David Cameron - says his faith comes and goes like “Magic FM in the Chilterns”? Doesn’t it make them unreliable allies against those secularising forces? “It does give me some concern. That means we have, as people of faith, to encourage our own folk to be a bit more willing to go into politics, and get their hands dirty.”
Nothing illustrates better the insensitivity to minorities than Mr Cameron’s wish to legalise gay marriage. Dr Williams is critical of the “embarrassment” the Prime Minister has caused the Church. A “very inadequate” consultation overlooked the legal position of the Churches and marriage. By opposing the change, however, the Church attracted accusations of homophobia, and for good reason, he thinks. It has been too – he says “lily mouthed” before correcting himself: “We’ve not exactly been on the forefront of pressing for civic equality for homosexual people, and we were wrong about that.”
To those who fear the constitutional consequences, he says legalising gay marriage would not of itself trigger disestablishment. “We’ve been assured that there will be no pressure on the Church to perform marriages, but of course as things stand, every citizen has the right to be married in Church. That’s alright, so long as the State’s definition of marriage and the Church’s definition are the same. If the State’s definition shifts … then we have a tangle.”
That word “tangle” illustrates that Archbishop Rowan conundrum. Where others would want to hear clarion clarity about a crisis that goes to the very heart of the Church, he shies away and hedges. To his critics, this is the reason why the Church appears weak, because he does not communicate certainty. His supporters, however, say it exemplifies his quality as a conciliator and shepherd, whose paramount duty is to keep the flock together and moving, intact, in the right direction.
He has tried to keep the Anglican Communion in one piece despite the strains of a feud between liberals and traditionalists over the ordination of gay and women bishops. The Church has been on the verge of fragmenting. “I know that I’ve, at various points, disappointed liberals and conservatives,” he concedes. The barracking has been the most wearing aspect. The Church remains intact – just – but for how long?
The Jubilee year has given him reason to reflect on the place of the Queen in national life. She keeps us sane, he says, because the monarchy is outside the endless cycle of politics and public opinion. It is “one of the very few clear national symbols we have”. I ask him whether he worries that the younger generations of the Royal family may not share the sovereign’s faith and what that might mean for the Church. He points out that she is unusually pious when compared with, say, George IV. “But of course I see the point that it becomes odder, and harder to defend if there’s a real public alienation.”
He is also upbeat about relations between Lambeth and Rome, in particular after the Pope’s visit last year, but doubts “that we’re any nearer institutional reconciliation”.
The end of his reign is a good time to consider the future of the office he holds. The workload of priest, bishop, administrator, spiritual leader is enormous — has it become too much for one man? He discloses that the Church is considering spreading the load to a “more presidential figure” alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury. This would be a landmark moment for the Anglican communion. Can he imagine a time when the Archbishop of Canterbury is no longer its head? “It would be a very different communion, because the history is just bound up with that place, that office. So there may be more of a sense of a primacy of honour, and less a sense that the Archbishop is expected to sort everything.”
Next year he takes up his post as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He will teach, think, write poetry, and keep quiet for a while, and “have the conversations with a rising generation that I enjoyed before”. It is plain that after 10 years of struggling to make himself heard by everyone, he can’t wait.
Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams will be published by Bloomsbury/Continuum on Sept 13 at £20.