The Archbishop and the Prime Minister: Religion and Politics in Britain
The Church of England has provided a backbone of tradition and liturgy most apparent during the recent Royal Wedding when Rowan Williams and the Dean of Westminster Abbey presided at a fairy-tale confluence of Church and State. As the nation has grown more diverse and actual church attendance less and less a part of national life, many observers have noted that the parish church and the Anglican prayer book have continued to provide a core identity for even those Britons who feel no attraction to Christianity. As novelist Philip Pullman, an atheist, noted in an essay in the offending issue of the New Statesman, the Anglican way remains part of the "customs of his tribe":
We can't abandon those early memories, by which I mean both that it's impossible and that it would be wrong. It is those that have made us and not we ourselves. . . . I'm not a believer, but at the same time it is my business: because of those memories of mine and because the Church of England is the established church of this nation. It belongs to all of us. We're all entitled to hold opinions about it.
Tradition and common values are all very fine, however the Williams kerfuffle brings up the obvious negative of an established church where national politics are concerned: How does the government's church criticize the government? How can it serve as a countercultural force when it is an established part of the culture? How does it condemn Constantine when Constantine has given so much to the church and to those who make it run?
Although he is the religious leader of a national church, Rowan Williams is also the convener of one of the world's largest gatherings of Christians, the Anglican Communion. He is also a Christian theologian and ethicist of the first rank. Thus, whatever the political fallout, he simply cannot keep silent when he witnesses what he perceives to be inequity or injustice, even though his position in the Established Church may cause others to believe he should remain still. He is a Christian leader first, a British leader second, and where those roles come into tension, it is his identity as follower of Christ which must take precedence—and does.
Williams was criticized last summer for his supposed naiveté in opposing the Trident nuclear missile (which he also did in 2006 during the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair), and more recently for suggesting that the killing of Osama bin Laden, while a happy political outcome, was not an event to be celebrated. The Archbishop has actually, at one time or another, made those on the left and the right angry, and that is perhaps as it should be. As Nick Spencer wrote in The Guardian, offending all parties "underlines the idea that the gospel for which the archbishop is such a prominent ambassador cuts rudely across our narrow political mentalities." And British evangelical Krish Kandiah wrote that
I share neither a political loyalty nor a denominational affiliation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, but I admire his willingness to speak courageously and graciously in the name of Christ. He models for the rest of us a willingness to engage in the political discourse, to champion the rights not of Christians but of the needy and marginalized, and to offer sensible, nuanced, firm and gracious counsel to both government and opposition.
The Church of England continues to be Established, although current debate about continuing that status is also loud and substantial over here. But even though it remains the institutional church of Britain, the Church of England is first and foremost Christian, and when the Archbishop speaks for those without a voice, stands up for peace and justice, and invites those on opposing sides to come together and seek reconciliation, he is reminding the entire world whose we are and what we do. And that, it seems to me, is worth the risk of controversy.
I will write again next week from this lovely island. May the Lord bless and keep you until then.
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.