Theo Hobson’s View of Rowan Williams

From The Guardian:

Despite his theological brilliance, Rowan Williams’ approach to the place of religion in society has been deeply flawed. In my opinion, it is this that has marred his leadership of the Church of England. I am reluctant to say this, for I greatly admire his thought, particularly his insight into the sacramental essence of Christianity. I paid close attention to his utterances as archbishop. I wrote quite a few articles on him, and even a short book about his ecclesiology. I do not expect to pay his successor such attention. I feel I ought to express gratitude that such a serious thinker has led the church this past decade. But it needs to be said: I do not think that he has been good for the Church of England. I consider him a brilliant, but flawed, theologian. And I think that the past decade has brought out his flawed side, given it great exposure, influence. I am talking about his deeply ideological view of liberalism.

To put it bluntly, he has a very low opinion of the liberal state. This is influenced by various things: the Marxist critique of liberalism as a veneer for capitalism, the communitarian idea (associated with Alasdair MacIntyre and others) that liberal values are weak, thin, illusory, and most obviously his deep preference for Catholicism and Orthodoxy over Protestantism. These factors led him to see liberalism as an essentially secular ideology that wants to “privatise” religion, push it from “the public square”. (It was ironic that the press dubbed him a liberal on account of his relative sympathy with gay rights and his leftwing politics, because he represented a militantly “post-liberal” form of theology.)


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  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I almost want to write my own Theo Hobson’s flawed view of Rowan Williams. Why should Williams have a high view of the liberal state? Is this not the problem within American civil religion? Why should Williams wed his Christian theology to the meta-narrative of liberal democracy? Hobson needs to read Stanley Hauerwas’ critigue of society and cultural values.

    Secondly, Williams does historical theology. Why should he preference protestant theology over Catholic and Orthodox perspectives. Newman once said that the more one immerses onself in history, the less protestant one becomes. I for one have also found this to be the case. In other words, one does not have to cease to be protestant like Newman, but one can become a suspicous protestant like D. H. Williams suggests.

    Lastly, Williams is probably despised by some liberals because as their pro-gay guy theologically, Williams would not change the stance of the church on this issue. He cared more about ecclesial unity (he knew this would split the churches of England even more) than promoting his own theological preferences. I for one am appreciative of Williams contributions to theology and the church of England at probably one of the most theologically divisive times in its history.

  • dopderbeck

    What CGC said.

    (The spam filter said my “comment was a bit too short” so this parenthetical is filler…)

  • DRT

    CGC (and dopderbeck), do you have a link where I can read more along the lines you discussed? I am woefully unenlightened on this.

  • This guardian article shows a basic misunderstanding of Williams. The kind which has haunted the British media throughout his time as Archbishop. The media here in the UK have been unconvinced for a while by anyone who thinks so deeply that they don’t speak in single syllable sentences, so a character like Rowan who speaks in paragraphs and lectures has been consistently misquoted. The only consistent exception has been Ruth Gledhill at the Times.

    Williams has been fantastic, read anything he’s written and you’ll realise it. He has been roundly criticised by people who think their own ‘hot topic’ is more important than the unity of the church. His decision to step down now seems, to me, as much a prophetic statement as the various criticisms he has levelled at government and society. I am convinced the church will be worse without him.l

  • Two more things.

    CGC makes his point really well

    The hyperlink to MacIntyre isn’t a link to the MacIntyre Hobson is writing about. Find the right one by reading ‘after virtue’.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Buenos días todos,
    Can’t resist a comment, but don’t want to sidetrack this important discussion.

    DS Harvey
    Speaking in paragraphs – love it! Would that we could get back to those happy days. Our bumper sticker, T-shirt and now tweeting society certainly cannot handle paragraphs, and it’s a great pity since lots of good paragraphs are exactly what we need! For now I just hope that twits are not superseded by grunts. But then, if they are, maybe we will have come full circle and can start on the long road back.  🙁

    Thanks for that analysis. I haven’t much followed Williams so can’t add anything. I’m with DRT, woefully un enlightened on this.

  • CGC

    Hi everyone,
    I have followed Rowan Williams for years. He is a prolific writer and has written many books. He reminds me of the late John Paul the 2nd and Pope Benedict is probably writing more than even Williams has ever written but it goes to show we need people who are both pastors and scholars in Christian leadership. There are biographies on Williams and people might try looking up Rowan Williams in the news. As far as researching more of these topics, see Stanley Hauerwas’ works, D. H. Williams, John Henry Newman, Ephraim Radner, and R. R Reno to name a few. There are also a few newer works out on Anglicanism and ecclesiology.

  • Percival

    Classical liberalism has deep roots in Christianity in the sense that it recognizes the need for limited government, rule of law, and freedom of thought and expression. I’m not sure what Rowan Williams believed in, but if he didn’t believe in these things at least, he was misguided.

  • Ben Thorp

    As a relatively conservative (theologically) Christian, I was a bit unsure when Rowan Williams became the ABC (despite the fact that he looks just like my Dad). However, over his time at the ‘top’, I have been very impressed with him. I believe he has actually done a very good job whilst under extreme pressure from many quarters, both within and outwith the church. He also (to my mind) worked surprisingly well with John Sentamu, despite their obvious theological differences.

    Of course, Hobson’s critique seems to be mostly about Williams’ impact on society, but that, surely, should be a byproduct, and not the purpose, of his role.