The Archbishop and the Prime Minister: Religion and Politics in Britain
I myself disagree, at least in terms of the commentary being a partisan attack on the government. A few sound bites aside—and it is always dangerous to try and sound-bite Rowan Williams, a writer and speaker who constructs beautiful and intricate arguments—the Archbishop's commentary seemed to me, as to The Guardian, instead to be inviting people to dialogue about the future of British democracy and about the building of sustainable communities where individuals care about more than simply themselves. It also seemed to challenge both the Government and the Opposition as it called for "a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity." But such a measured and thoughtful invitation to the table, although it is typical of Williams both as theologian and as Archbishop, doesn't sell papers or attract listeners; as even a producer at the magisterial BBC said to me about the selling of the New Statesman commentary as a story, "We do have to have news."
Americans might have trouble comprehending why Rowan Williams' words have caused such a media and political uproar. In the States, religious figures regularly criticize legislation, court decisions, and government leaders. Conservative preachers and priests castigate the Obama government for failing to defend the Defense of Marriage act; progressive religious leaders condemn the Obama administration for failing to close Guantanamo Bay. This criticism is not unexpected, and often, unlike Prime Minister Cameron's high-profile response, it goes unremarked. All Americans consider that they have the right and privilege to comment on their government, and the only restriction we place on political dialogue from American religious leaders is that attempts to influence voters from the pulpit may jeopardize a church's tax-exempt status.
The difference between our two situations is that over here the Church of England—of which Rowan Williams is the religious head—is the official and established church, and the ties between Church and State run deep. According to the official website of the monarchy, the Queen of England is titled the "defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England," and priests and bishops take an oath of allegiance directly to her. After the previous Archbishop of Canterbury has been given permission by the queen to step down, a new Archbishop of Canterbury is chosen in consultation with the prime minister and approved by the queen. Moreover, the Archbishop and twenty-five other Anglican bishops and archbishops sit in the House of Lords as the so-called "Lords Spiritual," and the Archbishop of Canterbury often speaks in the Lords on ethical and spiritual issues, as well he should; few people are better informed or more seriously engaged with such questions.
The connection between church and state in Britain is thus very different from that in the United States, where our First Amendment assured that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." From the outset, Americans resolved that we did not wish to have an established church, and while religious freedom was hardly uniform among the Colonies, the diverse religious traditions represented by our settlers mitigated against any single official expression of it. But did we lose anything in choosing not to have an established church?
Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.