Tea With Honey But Not in Jerusalem: The Archbishop of Canterbury Makes His Peace With Post-Christian England

Dr. Rowan Williams is retiring as the Archbishop of Canterbury to take up the post of Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge.  His “valedictory” book, Faith in the Public Square, is attracting considerable media interest.  I was prompted to buy it after reading Dr. William Oddie’s particularly colorful review in the London Catholic Herald.  Oddie concluded that the ideas promoted in the book are the sort of impractical nonsense one only hears on Oxbridge high tables and in senior common rooms.

I have never met Dr. Williams but I once quoted him in a paper I delivered in Italy, a short time after he was inducted into a society for the promotion of all things Welsh and made an honorary “Druid” within the society.  I was quoting from an article he had written on St. Augustine which had absolutely nothing to do with Welsh Druids, their drinking clubs or literary societies, but after the lecture a Spanish academic complained to my boss (who is both an Oxford graduate and an Anglican convert and thus understands the British sense of humor) that I was being influenced by Druids!

Having once been tarred with the Druid brush I thought I would see what the most prominent Welshman since Tom Jones and Bryn Terfel had to say about Faith in the Public Square.

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The macro-level point of the book was that it is possible to distinguish between what Dr Williams calls “procedural secularism” and “programmatic secularism.” He offers the practices of the Indian government as an example of “procedural secularism,” and of the French as an example of “programmatic secularism.” He could equally have placed Australia in the “procedural secularism” category.

The hallmark of “procedural secularism” is that governments do not privilege any one faith. For example, in Australia all religious schools receive some government funding. It doesn’t matter whether the “religion” is Islam, Judaism or some form of Christianity.  No one faith community gets a better funding deal than any other.  Dr. Williams is in favor of this kind of “procedural secularism.”

However he opposes “programmatic secularism” which bans all faiths from the public realm. He also notes that “secularism in its neat distillation is inseparable from functionalism” and that “in having no criteria other than functional ones, secularism takes for granted contests of power as the basic form of social relations.”  He doesn’t like this latent social Darwinism and he is well aware that “secularism fails to sustain the imaginative life.” He argues that “religious convictions should be granted a public hearing in debate, but not necessarily one in which they are privileged or regarded as being beyond criticism.”  So-called “public reason” should be a sufficiently broad concept to encompass religious convictions. Governments, he suggests, should see themselves as a community of communities rather than as a monopolistic sovereign power.

When it comes to human rights Dr. Williams acknowledges that Alasdair MacIntyre has a strong point in his criticism of the liberal tradition of rights, including his provocative assertion that such “rights” have no more basis in reality than a belief in witches and unicorns.  However Williams wants to push on with the use of “rights” language at the same time as presenting programmatic secularists with something like the MacIntyrean critique of the liberal natural right tradition.  Williams concludes that “the uncomfortable truth is that a purely secularist account of human rights is always going to be problematic if it attempts to establish a language of rights as a supreme and non-contestable governing concept in ethics.”  In short, without something like the Imago Dei underpinning the rights jurisprudence, rights not only have no foundation apart from power politics, but we have no criteria for determining what is or is not a “right” other than by reference to power politics.  A right becomes whatever you have the power to assert.

In drawing distinctions between different types of secularism as he does, Dr. Williams’ proposals are evocative of the perfectionist liberalism of Joseph Raz and the theory of communicative action of Jürgen Habermas.  There is a heavy emphasis on the “Anglican virtues” of compromise, middle paths, dialogue and debate. What one doesn’t find is a grand soteriological vision, a passionate enunciation of what the United Kingdom could be with reference to elements in the Christian faith.  There is no defense of the United Kingdom as a Christian kingdom. Christians are told not to be concerned about their fate in what is rapidly becoming a post-Christian culture, because that is “in God’s hands.”

In the final analysis, notwithstanding the many very reasonable observations made about how to conduct a dialogue with people from other faiths and none, I concluded that Oddie had a point.  What was missing in the work was an engagement with the problem of evil.  It is a sociological fact that not every member of the community is into Oxbridge common room urbanity, and anyone who has been anywhere near an Oxbridge College knows that behind all the urbanity there is no politics as lethal as academic politics.  The battles are simply fought in a different forum.

Until the end of the world there will be what Hans Urs von Balthasar called the “battle of the Logos.” Members of the city of God will be persecuted by members of the city of man. Christians are not only up against militant materialists but they have to contend with the powers and principalities of the “Prince of this World.”  As St. Paul noted:

Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness ­in the high places.

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had a deep understanding of this state of play. The battles are different for each generation, but there are always battles. We can’t just open another bottle of wine and say “God will take care of it.”

The British national myth or “social imagery” in whatever manifestation, from Shakespeare’s sceptered isle with its kings renowned for their “Christian service and true chivalry” to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, rests on the notion that the British lion, call him Aslan or Alfred, Richard or George, is a Christian lion. No doubt this Christian lion has good Oxbridge virtues, like urbanity, civility, respect for other people because they are God’s creatures too, regardless of what theological nonsense they might believe, but he is also a lion who has to roar and fight.  He has taken on all manner of psychopaths from Napoleon to Bismarck to Hitler.

The negative reviews of Faith in the Public Square seem to arise from the impression that Dr. Williams wants the fruits of a Christian culture while being somewhat shy about the idea that we might actually have to fight for these fruits. He wants the civility of Rupert Brooke’s honey with tea served under the cherry trees in Grantchester meadow but he doesn’t quite have a strategy for engaging with Sauron and Morgoth apart from inviting them to tea. Those who do, like members of the British SAS sleeping in snake ridden caves in Afghanistan, need to believe that they are risking their lives for something a little more eternal than mere “argumentative democracy.”

If I were a UK soldier in Afghanistan I would be there serving Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. I would have taken an oath of loyalty to her. She in turn took her Coronation Oath on the Gospels. She believes that she serves the Christian God. The chapel in her castle is named in honour of St. George. He is represented on the Union Jack flag by the red stripes. The blue and white stripes are in honour of St. Andrew—another Christian martyr.

Dr. Williams is critical of consumerism and the idea that our human relationships should be defined by market forces, and he acknowledges that secularism fails to sustain the imaginative life, but what exactly is the alternative if singing Jerusalem becomes politically incorrect or even banned as hate speech?

The imaginations of British youth need to be nourished on something.  I agree with Dr. Williams that I wouldn’t offer them Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as a first choice—it’s way too mingy a tale—but what’s wrong with fighting for the legitimacy of Aslan’s New Jerusalem? One would hope that a British archbishop (Anglican or Catholic) could do this.


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