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Archbishop's Interview as Guest Editor of the Today Programme

Friday 29th December 2006

On 29 December 2006, BBC Radio 4's popular current affairs 'Today' programme was guest-edited by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Archbishop had asked the producers to look at issues around the morality of possessing Trident missiles, credit and finance for the very poor, the phenomena of 'invisible homelessness', the environment, the contribution of Christian values in public life, Christianity in the Middle East and the need for a happy and balanced childhood. As an antidote to the hectic nature of modern life, which is often characterised by the programme's pace and style, he asked the presenters to choose sound and music that helped them achieve a sense of calm and which prompted them to slow down. The following is the transcript of the Archbishop's closing interview with presenter Ed Stourton.

Ed Stourton (presenter): Our guest editor this morning certainly put a firm editorial stamp on the programme; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams gave us a strong news story as well as ideas for many of the items we've broadcast today. And he was behind the slightly different feel you may have detected; odd bits of music popping up and the sound of Sarah's children sleeping too - those items were dictated by his belief that we need to slow down a bit, and I asked him why.

Archbishop: I do get the impression that it's a hectic environment at the moment in media and culture generally and in politics; rather feverish, rather hasty; people wanting very, very rapid responses to things, the email culture, and people wanting solutions yesterday to all sorts of problems. I don't think it would hurt us to slow down a little, to be a bit more patient and to take the moment a little bit more seriously

ES: It would be a good thing to be busy about the world's business, or about God's business in your case - it's ... what do you lose by that?

ABC: By busyness you lose perspective, you lose a sense of anchorage in yourself and in something deeper than yourself; you lose balance I think very easily.

ES: Do you think you're a good example in this regard? You don't exactly live a quiet life yourself ..

ABC: Not exactly quiet, no; it need planning and it means making quite sure that every year I get a week or two of proper retreat, in silence, that every day I get a bit of silence and actually this coming year I'm hoping to take a couple of months to slow down, to do some study, to get out of Lambeth a bit and, yes, read a little, pray a bit more.

ES: A sabbatical in fact?

ABC: Not exactly a sabbatical, as it's not simply unwinding; it'll be doing some bits of work, some catching up.

ES: Can the Church run itself without you, do you think?

ABC: I should think they'll have no great difficulty in that; Bishops do take study leave and sabbaticals from time to time.

ES: Is that sense that we're too busy connected at all with the other theme, or one of the other themes that you want to explore in your programme, of childhood, losing a bit of what's special about it?

ABC: Very much so, I think. Because one of the examples of a sort of hurried culture is hurrying to get children into the market, to get children into the adult world rather than giving them the time they need; a sort of jargon - a sort of latency period to grow at their own rate, to explore at their own rate.

ES: What do you mean about hurrying to get them into the world?

ABC: We want to get children to be consumers as soon as we can get them to be consumers, we want them to be involved in the adult world of purchasing and marketing and all of that and I've been worried about that for quitea long time. It's not entirely a new thing but it does seem to be getting more marked.

ES: What's that mean in practical terms?

ABC: I think that means making sure in our education system that we've got a bit more space around; that we don't just attempt to fill everything with measurable, tested results. That our schools have a bit of time to explore the creative, the apparently not very productive, time for human growth. That's just one thing.

ES: Does that mean you think we've gone too far down the line of testing exams and so forth?

ABC: I suspect we may have. I think we very rightly wanted to make education an accountable business; I think the way we've gone about it has produced, again, a hurried culture where we want to make absolutely sure you've got children through the next round and over the next hurdle.

ES: It's a very competitive world that they've got to grow up into though, isn't it?

ABC: It's a very competitive world but if they're not going to be crushed and mangled by that competitive world, they've got to have some inner resources.

ES: Looking across a the piece, of the themes that you've chosen to explore, they're things like whether Christians make a contribution to public life, the moral dimension of public issues like the Trident missile programme, questions about homelessness and so forth - they're all about social values and I get the sense that you're groping around for what you might call the Christian skeleton under the surface of modern Britain. Is that a fair characterisation?

ABC: That would be fair. I think there are perhaps more bones around than people give our society credit for.

ES: We're more of a Christian country than we think?

ABC: In terms of values and priorities, you don't have to dig very deep. I think the voluntary spirit is still pretty well entrenched in this country's culture though I think less than it was maybe twenty, thirty years ago.

ES: So when people talk of this as a post Christian society, you would challenge...

ABC: ... I would challenge that very strongly, actually, I think. If 'Post Christian' meant a society that had given up on both Christian moral values and some sense of the transcendent, we're clearly not in that sort of league.

ES: If we are still some sort of Christian society, what does that mean for the new religions coming into this country? I mean new in the sense that they're relatively new here, particularly Islam, which is such a self confident religion in this country.

ABC: I don't really find myself worried about that because it seems to me that a firmly-rooted faith is one that can afford to be hospitable, welcoming, relaxed in the presence of other faiths, not seeing it as just another market affair where the Church has to keep its market share and fight back hard. I think that Christians need to recover confidence in what they're contributing and what they believe in and from that basis they can engage much more creatively with people from other faiths.

ES: Some of your colleagues have seen a tension between the two, haven't they? The Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Rochester, both of them on the question of the veil, have said that they think it's inappropriate in this country, that it's not part of the Christian culture here.

ABC: It's clearly not part of the Christian culture here

ES: They've said it's actually in conflict with it in some way or suggested that.

ABC: Well I don't know, I've not sensed any great disagreement about this between myself and my colleagues. I think they're flagging up a concern about what I'm tempted to call a rather 'empty-headed' multiculturalism, which doesn't know where to put itself, which has no centre to it. I'm saying that I think a Christian-based, historically Christian society can cope with that and needn't panic with the visible signs of other faith commitments.

ES: I don't want to create disagreement where there isn't one, but you have said something different, haven't you? Because you've said that we should all be free to wear religious symbols whether it's a cross or a niqab, and they've said that there are some things, in some circumstances, when you shouldn't do?

ABC: I haven't heard my colleagues say there ought to be legislation against niqabs.

ES: No, but that's not quite the same thing is it? They've merely said that the...

ABC: There are contexts and I've said this where I think a niqab may not be appropriate; and the school teaching one is a very difficult one. And I think you have to judge it on common sense and the interests of the children involved.

ES: So there are some circumstances where ...

ABC: ... there are circumstances where you might say, yes, negotiate, negotiate.

ES: But, just to be clear about this, you think there are circumstances where the veil might not be appropriate for someone to wear?

ABC: I think that in the instance that was discussed a few months ago with the niqab in a primary school, there was an argument to be had - and I don't know the details of what happened in that particular school - but you would need to establish that the interests of children were not affected by someone else's liberty to wear the niqab.

ES: You talked a bit about the social values that you seem to be looking for in some of the ideas that you've put forward. How does the whole question of a green agenda, which you've phrased, fit into that particularly in the Christian sense? It's not traditionally a Christian issue?

ABC: A lot of people think it's not a Christian issue; in fact if you look back and see how theologians and mystics have talked about the natural world it's by no means such a novel thing. But what I wanted to underline really in this particular context was that while it's a massive public moral issue, it's also got to be something to do with the personal responsibility of everybody. How do we come to live in a more responsible attuned way? How do we come to live in a way that's more manifestly at peace, in some sort of wholeness with our environment? And that has, as the programme demonstrates, some very specific, very local and personal outworkings; decisions that anyone can make.

ES: You also asked us to look at an area where you see the developing world having something to teach us. Do you think there's quite a lot out there that we could learn?

ABC: Well it's just the same principle, really - what are the decisions that anyone and everyone can make that will make a small but significant difference? And I think when people reclaim some kind of control over their very economic life, that's a very important aspect in their spiritual, moral, liberation. I think what we're looking at in terms of microcredit schemes, the Grameen Bank and so forth across the world, and what we see in local credit union schemes here in this country, that gives us I would say an enormously positive sense of what people without very many skills or without very much background can achieve in terms of reclaiming control of their lives and the dignity that comes from that.

ES: One of the questions that you've asked us to look at is the question about Trident. It's an intriguing question, whether the mere threat of using a weapon like that can be considered morally acceptable. What's your answer to that question?

ABC: I've never been convinced that the threat of using a nuclear weapon is totally different from the actual use. You imagine what would be involved in the mass slaughter of the innocent, you plan for what would be involved in the mass slaughter of the innocent: I think there are moral problems with that, I really do. And I think it does something to your own imagination to go down that route of planning and thinking of it.

ES: So you think the mere threat of using a nuclear weapon is morally unacceptable?

ABC: Personally, yes. But I realise that that is a minority view, and when I phrased the question of the use and possession of Trident, it's been with an awareness that many people will have other kinds of objection.

ES: But to be absolutely clear, the Archbishop of Canterbury is saying Britain's nuclear deterrent is immoral?

ABC: My judgement has always been that the nuclear deterrent - the threat of mass slaughter of the innocent by a nuclear weapon- is not morally acceptable.

ES: That's a very strong thing to say.

ABC: Well, it's what I've believed most of my adult life.

ES: Will it get you into trouble with your colleagues across the river in Government?

ABC: Who knows? I think they know what I think.

ES: You also got into a bit of trouble for what you said about Iraq. You cast your criticism in terms of the impact on Christians in the Middle East, but it's a much bigger question than that. What is your view of the morality of that whole enterprise, because it's something that has really been the dominant foreign policy crisis throughout your time in office?

ABC: It has, yes. I said before the war began that I had grave reservations about the morality of it; and as I've said recently, I haven't really been convinced that that case was fully made. And that's not to impugn the actual motives of people making those decisions - I'm wholly prepared to believe that those who made the decisions made them in good faith - but I think those decisions were flawed and I think the moral and the practical flaws have emerged as time's gone on. I'm painfully aware they've put our own troops increasingly at risk in ways that I find deeply disturbing, as someone with friends in the military - as many people must have, family members.

ES: o you think, looking back then over the three years, you could have been stronger in what you said on that subject and it might have made a difference?

ABC: It's a good question and I don't know the answer. I don't know the answer. I can't easily balance for myself the pros and cons of thinking, well, putting yourself at the head of a popular movement and resisting and that might be effective or that just becomes words, that just becomes noise. I said what I believed I needed to say. I shall need to think quite a long time about whether I ought to have said more or less for that matter.

ES: One pressing question in Iraq at the moment is of course is that of Saddam Hussein's execution; do you believe that he should be executed?

ABC: Once again, I'm not a believer in the death penalty as a general principle. He's being tried under a jurisdiction which has the death penalty. He seems to be undoubtedly guilty of what he's been charged with, but I think I'd have to separate out the morality of the death penalty from 'should Saddam Hussein be hanged?' because I don't believe in the death penalty. I think that Saddam Hussein is manifestly someone who has committed grave crimes against his own people and grave breaches of international law. I think he deserves punishment, and sharp and unequivocal punishment. I don't think that he should be at liberty, but I would say of him what I have to say about anyone who's committed even the most appalling crimes in this country, that I believe the death penalty effectively says 'there is no room for change or repentance'.

ES: At your encouragement we've all produced bits of music and noises that we find help us reflect and feel peaceful; what are yours and why have you chosen them?

ABC: The Cello suites, the solo cello suites of Bach for me are, well, like listening to the voice of the soul itself. These are just meditative, exploratory movements of quiet internal harmonic development. For me it's like listening to something very, very simple, gradually moving, shaping a dark environment around it. The soul, if you like, the soul exploring, discovering, reflecting on itself and, Bach would certainly say, doing that in the presence of God. That whatever one says about the meaning of the sense of the cello suites, the fact is that they are among the most sublime pieces of music; for me, they still me and centre me.

ES: Archbishop, thank you very much.

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