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Politics, Morality and Leadership: Newsnight With Gavin Esler

Wednesday 25th April 2007

A transcript of the interview conducted by Gavin Esler and transmitted on BBC2's Newsnight programme on Tuesday 25th April 2007. The interview covered religion in politics, leadership, and the Anglican Communion.

It followed coverage received by the Archbishop's 2007 Wilberforce Lecture, which focused on issues of politics and Christian morality.

[An introductory film about these themes preceded the interview]

GAVIN ESLER: Well, when I visited Dr Williams in Lambeth Palace earlier today, I asked him to give me an example of how, as he put it, 'modern politics has lost its energy because it looks more like management than an engine of positive and morally desirable change'.

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY: What I mean is that the engines of government seem at the moment to be pushing forward a number of agendas, without giving very much space for discussion of how, particularly, they're going to benefit society in a positive, humanistic, and wide sense of humanistic direction. There are a couple of examples there; one of these would actually be the debate on the super casino, which some of us were involved in just before Easter. It seemed to me that there should have been a wider, better-resourced debate about whether the encouragement of semi-industrialised gambling was actually a proper tool for social regeneration.

GE: The Prime Minister's former spokesman Alistair Campbell once famously said 'We don't do God'. Do you think Prime Ministers should do God?

ABC: I think Prime Ministers as individuals ought to do God because I think everybody ought to. But I don't expect government to be talking religion, I do expect government to be giving space and opportunity for the kind of moral discussion informed by religion as by many other strands of humanistic thought.

GE: I wonder whether Tony Blair's problem in the eyes of many people in Britain is that he does do God, and some people are very uncomfortable about that, that they see him as having a very strong religious conviction, which he's slightly embarrassed by talking about it.

ABC: I wonder how many actually feel really uncomfortable about that, except when it's come out in the context of the Iraq war. I think that's where people began to shuffle; the implication - which I think is wrong - many people worked up that he was echoing George Bush's rather crusading attitude to the Iraq war. Suddenly his religious convictions became awkward and embarrassing for him and embarrassing for everybody. Apart from that I don't think it is an embarrassment to most of the population.

GE: Well, just to pick up on a point, when he appeared to be embarrassed being asked 'did you pray with George Bush?' You think he should have prayed with George Bush?

ABC: I'm sure he should have prayed, and I think he perhaps should have prayed with George Bush. Praying doesn't mean you get the answer you want; it doesn't mean you get the answer the other person wants either.

GE: But you see from this perspective I suspect the Prime Minister would say 'this was a very difficult leadership decision, we talked a lot about leadership; this was leadership, I felt it was moral, it was overthrowing a tyrant whom I believed, had every reason to believe, was a threat to the interests of this country. That was a moral decision, this was moral leadership'.

ABC: I fully respect his conviction and sincerity about that, though I don't agree with his conclusion. And I'm not saying that he's, as an individual in this context, failed; but I'm saying that it's in that particular context of discussion about the Iraq war that the question about his religious commitment has most come to the fore in what I think is a rather misleading way. I don't see it as having come to the fore in other contexts.

GE: Can I turn to your own leadership? You obviously do do God, does that make you a good leader?

ABC: No, not automatically. There are plenty of people who do God and who are not good leaders. It doesn't guarantee a supernatural wisdom and the strength to do it right. I hope it means that I am a responsible leader, because I feel I've got somebody to answer to.

GE: The criticism of you in the Church however, is that you do understand all sides of the problem; you do intellectualise these sides of the problem but you fail to lead, precisely because of that. That in other words you have not offered firm leadership.

ABC: Well obviously I'm not sure I'm the best judge of that. But I think I've tried to exercise responsible leadership in taking decisions when they've needed to be taken. And to decide when a decision needs to be taken doesn't necessarily mean that you go along with what everybody else thinks is the moment to take a decision.

GE: But that view for example on sexual matters within the Church; some people say this is a Church which is has become - publicly it seems - to be obsessed with sex. And the leadership is very different in the Anglican Communion in Africa from the Anglican Communion in North America, for example.

ABC: Indeed, which means that because I have to preside over the whole of the Anglican Communion, not just one part of it, or one party of it, that part of my job in leadership is keeping people at the table to try and broker some sort of understanding. I think that's the responsible way to do it.

GE: But your ability to prevent schism is what we're talking about. But isn't that, in your words, a form of management rather than an engine of positive and morally desirable change? You're trying to manage it, aren't you?

ABC: I think it's a good point. I think though that what I'm trying to do is not 'for the sake of the institution hanging together' or 'managing the process', but in the belief that it's by the process of real mutual understanding that we can look forward to a change that people can own together. Not just a change that's enforced, that's resented, but if there is to be a change, a change that people can fully understand and actually sign up to and sympathise with.

GE: But where does that leave right or wrong? I mean that is the core dynamic?

ABC: Yes, indeed. And this an area where because we have such sharply conflicting receptions of how we respond to the needs and dignity of a minority with such sharply differing perspectives, there isn't a right or wrong answer that I can give that will change it all tomorrow.

GE: But isn't that precisely what people look to churches, to Imams, to Jewish leaders, for? They look exactly for that sense of firmness and that is where your critics will say you have failed.

ABC: Sure. And I think they're wrong. I think to look at the Church for quick answers rather than clear and solidly founded answers is a mistake. You're expecting the Church to give you answers which come out of a slot machine. I think you're going to be disappointed.

GE: That takes me back to your lecture, when you said that politics was losing energy because of this managerial thing; isn't the church in precisely that position; losing energy because you're managing it rather than saying this is right or wrong?

ABC: I don't think it is, because if all our agenda were dominated by the sexuality question (as, saving your presence, the media would have us believe sometimes) then yes, it would be a great loss of energy. As it is, 90% of the energy of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion goes on other things and I was part of a conference in Southern Africa just before Easter on the Churches and the Millennium Development Goals which was looking in some depth and in some rather impressive ways at what the Churches are in fact doing on all this. That's where the energy is and there's plenty of it.

GE: On that happy note, Dr Williams thank you very much.

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