What the Archbishop really said

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A miniature media storm has been whipped up this morning about comments made about the Coalition in a leader article in the New Statesman by Archbishop Rowan Williams.  Having read the blog posts, tweets and commentary so far, you have to wonder how many people have actually read the article.

Unfortunately that may be because only just came onlineA much edited and somewhat unbalanced retelling of it was available instead.  So when the storm began brewing I popped out of the office to the local newsagent and read the article itself.  Perhaps to the modern-day tweeters and bloggers the idea of reading a paper magazine just doesn’t come to mind.

I have no intention of launching a full defence of the Archbishop’s comments.  Nor am I inclined to engage in the wider question of whether he should be commenting at all.  This will not be the last time, and is definitely not the first, that those in power and those close to them grind their teeth at a troublesome priest.  Personally, if vocal and ardent atheists are going to comment on public affairs by virtue of their identity as atheists then I see no reason why Christians (or any other confession for that matter) are different.  Indeed, Cranmer has explained why – even though he disagrees with Rowan Williams – he gives the Archbishop three cheers and Alastair Campbell has ridden to his defence.  But that is another issue for another day.

It would simply improve the quality of comment far more if people read the article for what it actually says.  Some left-wing commentators are celebrating the Archbishop as the new champion of opposition.  Meanwhile, ConservativeHome has gone into an overdrive defensive operation ranging from childish kneejerking to righteous indignation.

First, some of the more straightforward points.  Several Conservative cheerleaders were furious that the Archbishop didn’t mention the Coalition’s position on, for example, international aid or making work pay.  Except he did.  It just wasn’t reported.  So on the first issue the Archbishop wrote:

It is welcome that, so far, pressures to treat international aid as a soft target for cuts have been resisted.  But it would be good, now, to see some clarity about how development resources can be targeted towards the consolidation of civil society institutions.

And as for the welfare reforms, the Archbishop has given Iain Duncan Smith an entire article to explain his approach.  The Archbishop does warn about the fear being felt in large sections of the population but stresses that “to acknowledge the reality of fear is not necessarily to collude with it”.  Denial is not a sensible or sensitive strategy when facing the fear and anger of large numbers of people affected by changes being made.  Perhaps Westminster is so conflict ridden and zero sum that the idea of seeking to reassure people has not occurred.  Understanding that the people ‘out there’ feel disenfranchised (note the reaction to Lib Dem MPs voting for tuition fee increases) and afraid does not mean that those feelings are justified.  But recognising they exist might change the language you use to be not only more humane, but more effective too.  One day the Government will face an election.  It would do well not to rebuff too many people too robustly.

In fact, Rowan Williams makes a rather barbed comment towards Labour, arguing that just as the Government need not collude in the fear neither should the Opposition indulge in fear mongering.  Asking opponents of the Government to “define some achievable objectives” is a challenge regularly laid down in starker terms by the Prime Minister himself.

As for the Archbishop’s comments on the Big Society, they are remarkably pragmatic and shared by a fair number of the idea’s supporters.  He writes:

The uncomfortable truth is that, while grass-roots initiatives and local mutualism are to be found flourishing in a great many places, they have been weakened by several decades of cultural fragmentation.  The old syndicalist and co-operative traditions cannot be reinvented overnight and, in some areas, they have to be invented for the first time.

This hardly constitutes a blistering attack on the Big Society.  It is instead a straightforward observation that (re)creating it will not be easy. As he has done before, the Archbishop actually offers several thoughts on how the Big Society concept might be extended, in this case into the arena of international development.

Now for all that there are of course concerns about the wisdom of Rowan Williams guest editing the New Statesman.  He could have waxed lyrical about how wonderful the Coalition was but, for some on the right, the fact that he was writing in the New Statesman at all was all the proof they needed to smoke him out as a ‘weirdy beardy lefty’ as I’ve heard him called.  Similarly, were the Archbishop to guest-edit the Spectator for example and make hesitant comments about Labour, some commentators on the left would have apoplexy.  Are there any impartial outlets out there that don’t carry such intrinsic perceptions of allegiance?

And he should know by now that the mass media (and, it seems, the blogging and tweeting community) don’t really do nuanced debate.  But that is not so much an indictment of the Archbishop as it is for the rest of us.  Is the quality of our public debate now so poor, our demand for new news so insatiable, that we cannot even wait to read an article before commenting on it?  The cynic in me wonders if the pre-briefing was all a marketing ploy by the New Statesman.  I suppose I for one fell for it and bought a copy on the back of the media interest.

Ultimately this story will not change anything.  Those who resent meddlesome priests and think the Archbishop should stick to mumbling theological irrelevancies will be reinforced in their view.  Those who want to use the Archbishop as a political football, to co-opt by proxy some shadow of divine authority for their position, will do so.  And those who respect the Archbishop as a thoughtful observer will find his comments – and perhaps more importantly his choice of articles and contributors for the rest of the magazine, since he is guest editor – engaging.

But all of us would do well to remember that articles about articles are always shining light through a prism.  The outlets who led the charge this morning – particularly The Telegraph, the Guardian, ConservativeHome, and the New Statesman itself – all have their own editorial assumptions and perspectives.  To rely on a retelling is lazy.  To criticise another person on the back of it is ultimately not much more than malicious gossip.

Our politics needs better than this.  Our readers deserve better than this.

Joshua Harris – Contextual Theology Centre (writing in a personal capacity)

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