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What's the point of the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Daniel Gover

The royal wedding may have put him back on Britain's TV screens, but is the modern Archbishop of Canterbury anything more than quaintly decorative? Daniel Gover scours recent history for evidence of positive political clout.


'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?' asked an exasperated King Henry II after several years of standoff with Archbishop Thomas Becket. The man he had appointed to rubber-stamp his own ambitions had turned out to be something of a thorn in the flesh - which is why, on 29 December 1170, four of Henry's knights took matters into their own hands and murdered Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

Church-state relations are thankfully less perilous today but - potentially, at least - no less turbulent. As the leading bishop in the established Church of England, Rowan Williams continues to exercise considerable influence in Britain's national and political life, including through his seat in the House of Lords. Over the past three decades, Williams and his two immediate predecessors - George Carey (1991-2002) and Robert Runcie (1980-1991) - have intervened in public debate on a wide range of social and political matters, from urban poverty and sharia law to climate change and war in Iraq.

But are such political pronouncements of any real value, or are they nothing more than the vestiges of a bygone era? Does the Archbishop of Canterbury even have a useful role to play in a 21st-century and increasingly plural Britain? And what should we expect from him in the years ahead under the premiership of David Cameron? Less-than-reverent assessments by the media often give the impression that nothing more useful than hot-air has emanated from Lambeth Palace since Robert Runcie was elected to the post more than three decades ago. But what does the detailed evidence for that period show?

The first popular charge against the Archbishop is that he uses politics as a ploy to further the institutional interests of the Church, understood as its attendance figures, resources, and social authority. It was, after all, the Church's interests that brought Thomas Becket into deadly confrontation with the Crown almost a millennium ago. While the Church may not defend its interests quite so brazenly today, surely self-interest lurks not too far below the surface? When Rowan Williams advanced the case for faith schools in 2006, the National Secular Society was clear about his true motivation: 'The most vociferous proponents of keeping or expanding faith schools are those with a vested interest. It is no surprise that the Archbishop is so keen on these schools. His Church has got most to gain from them.' In a submission about the reform of the House of Lords, the British Humanist Association identified these sectional interests as a central reason for booting the Lords Spiritual off the red benches: '[The bishops] are likely to vote collectively in the interests of an external organisation - the Church of England - with its own agenda.'
But even where self-interest is not on display, surely the Archbishop stands for a now-outdated set of moral values? Attendance at religious services, including those performed by Church of England, has plummeted over recent decades. Social attitudes on a range of moral questions - from gay rights and gender relationships to euthanasia and the place of religion in society - have become increasingly liberal. It is sometimes claimed that religious groups, including the Archbishop, stand in the way of such progress, particularly when they are present in our legislative bodies. 'Indignation about social injustice may be lacking in politics, but today the faiths use their greatest firepower not to challenge gross inequality,' wrote Polly Toynbee. 'No, what ignites their torchlit excitement is, yet again, other people's sexuality.' Or, as Johann Hari put it in the Independent, the Lords Spiritual 'use their power to relentlessly fight against equality for women and gay people, and to deny you the right to choose a peaceful and dignified death when the time comes.'

Yet perhaps the most damning charge of all is that the Archbishop is irrelevant or unnecessary to mainstream politics. Even if the Archbishop were able to articulate a voice that is both altruistic and befitting of the contemporary era, surely there are others - most likely with far greater expertise - who could do the job even better? As the National Secular Society put it, 'We reject the implication that the Bishops somehow provide special moral insights denied to other members of the House ... Those who profess no religion are no less capable of making moral and ethical judgements.'

The Archbishop's involvement in politics, then, is self-serving, outdated and unnecessary. Or so think some of his critics. But how accurate is this assessment?

Of course, like any good caricature, this one does capture something of the reality. The Archbishop has, to a limited extent, used political activism as a way of furthering the Church's interests. The best example is the Archbishop's periodic appeals to the government for financial assistance for the upkeep of the Church's ancient buildings. In 1990, the government responded to Runcie by announcing a multi-million pound fund towards the maintenance of cathedrals. A decade later, a similar request by Carey was met with a deal to offset VAT on church repairs. The Church's interests must also have at least figured on the Archbishop's agenda on a number of other occasions. Both Runcie and Carey spoke out against efforts to liberalise Sunday trading laws, which would have had obvious implications for Sunday worship services. All three officeholders were vocal in their support of religious schools, a very large number of which were affiliated to the Church of England. And, most recently, Williams supported religious exemptions from some provisions of the Equality Bill.

Yet these examples represent only a small proportion of the Archbishop's political activity over these three decades. In the vast majority of cases, it is much more difficult to make the charge of self-interest stick. The extent to which the Church's interests drove the Archbishop's political behaviour is admittedly a complex one, which I deal with elsewhere.1 But, on the face of it, the Church's institutional interests do not appear to account particularly well for, say, the Archbishop's support for better treatment of Britain's prison population. Nor do the Archbishop's increasingly vocal remarks about the dangers of climate change appear to have been rooted in the Church's interests. Nor his activism around the plight of the urban poor. Nor his consistent support for the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers. If self-interest played any part in motivating the Archbishop's political activism on these topics, it was a secondary concern at best.

In a few cases, the Archbishop even appears to have acted in opposition to the Church of England's interests. During the passage through Parliament of the Education Reform Bill in the late 1980s, Anglican bishops apparently resisted any reference to the primacy of the Christian faith on the face of the Bill, which Runcie warned could cause 'unintended damage' to other religious groups. According to the then Education Secretary, it was only under pressure from other peers that the bishops relented.2 Likewise, in 2008 Williams delivered his now-notorious lecture in support of recognising elements of sharia law in the British legal system. Not only did the Church of England not stand to gain from the proposals, but Williams' comments may even have damaged its social standing. Indeed, politicians from across the political spectrum lined up to condemn his remarks, and he received the questionable honour of being the subject of the Sun's front-page headline two days in a row: 'What a Burkha' and 'Bash the Bishop'. Whatever Williams' true motivation, ecclesiastical self-interest it most certainly was not. So while vested interests may have fuelled some of the Archbishop's foray into politics, this seems to have been the exception rather than the norm.

What about the claim that the Archbishop was often at odds with public opinion? For good reasons, this charge usually centres on the so-called 'traditional moral issues' of sex, relationships and the sanctity of life. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, acceptance of same-sex relationships has become increasingly widespread over recent decades. In apparent contradiction to this trend, Carey publicly raised concerns both about the abolition of Section 28, which outlawed the promotion of homosexuality in schools, and about the decision to lower the age of consent for gay men to 16.

Likewise, British Social Attitudes data indicate growing support for abortion rights over the past three decades, as well as consistently high support for the legalisation of euthanasia under certain circumstances. Despite this, Williams raised serious questions about abortion and took a prominent stand against euthanasia, through appearances in the media and by speaking and voting in the House of Lords.

So is the image of an outdated moral guardian correct after all? Well, not quite. Even on these traditional moral questions, there are some surprising features to archiepiscopal political comment. Runcie's only speech in the Lords that focused specifically on sex and relationships was delivered in support of allowing divorced clergy to be ordained as Church of England priests - a move that was subsequently rejected by the House of Commons! When the House of Lords considered the case for Clause 28 of Thatcher's Local Government Bill - the now-infamous Section 28 - Runcie voted for an opposition amendment that aimed to limit its effect. Following the launch of the 'back to basics' family values campaign at the Conservative Party's 1993 conference, Carey delivered a speech that was interpreted by the Guardian as an attack on the Conservatives' rhetoric.3 Moreover, traditional morality formed the focus of only a small portion of the Archbishop's political activism over this period: out of all of the speeches that the three officeholders made to the House of Lords as Archbishop between 1980 and 2010, only two of them - both by Williams - focussed specifically on public policy about these traditional moral concerns. The image of the Archbishop being obsessed with these issues is very far from the truth.

On a number of other topics - including climate change, urban poverty, and support (or not) for various episodes of military combat - the Archbishop seems to have been firmly in line with the popular mood. Where the Archbishop was out of line with popular opinion - including on support for the rights of immigrants and prisoners and Runcie's opposition to reinstating the death penalty - it is difficult to characterise the Archbishop's position as outdated, so much as simply 'unrepresentative'. This may well raise legitimate questions about the continued establishment of the Church of England - questions that are comparable to those about a non-elected House of Lords - but it does not necessarily undermine the value of the Archbishop's input to debate. Indeed, that the Archbishop was not a slave to public opinion may even be regarded as a virtue. The claim that the Archbishop has used politics to lobby relentlessly for outdated moral values is far from compelling.


The final criticism is that it is unnecessary for the Archbishop to participate in political debate because other figures are able to do the job just as effectively. It is, of course, true that the Archbishop has been a marginal figure in much political debate, which has tended to be dominated by party politicians. But it is also striking to note just how central the Archbishop has been on a number of specific occasions. The best example is Runcie's publication in December 1985 of 'Faith in the City', a report about the challenges facing urban areas. Within days, dozens of Labour MPs had signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons in support of the document. By the time Runcie addressed the General Synod in February 1986, he was able to rightly claim that the report had 'generated a national debate'.4

Similar observations can be made about other episodes of archiepiscopal activism. In the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, Williams issued a joint statement with the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster in which they questioned the case for military operations. The Guardian subsequently observed that 'the churches are at the centre of opposition and concern about the probable coming conflict', adding, 'The archbishops have greatly increased the pressures on Mr Blair'.  A separate article in the same newspaper suggested that 'opposition to the war on Iraq has given [the Church] its highest public profile on a secular, political issue for nearly 20 years, since its tussles with the Thatcher government over social policy.'  Likewise, Runcie's decision to speak, vote, and table an amendment in the Lords made him a central player in parliamentary opposition to the 1981 British Nationality Bill. The Archbishop was clearly also an important figure on a number of 'religious' topics, including the repeal of blasphemy legislation, Sunday trading and, of course, sharia law. Even where the Archbishop was not at the forefront of the debate, the fact that his comments were widely reported in the national press indicates that the media, at least, felt that they justified attention.

Nor is it true that the Archbishop's arguments simply replicated those of other political spokesmen. All three officeholders drew on rich theological resources when making their cases, which frequently allowed them to articulate fresh perspectives on important political questions. On armed conflict, for example, the Archbishop drew on the Christian 'Just War' tradition, while his comments on immigration and prison reform were based on a Christian understanding of the dignity of every human person. The Archbishop's ability to contribute to debate was similarly enhanced by the structure of the Church of England: its parochial reach into urban communities fed directly into the officeholders' comments on urban poverty and immigration, while the Church's links to the international Anglican Communion informed their perspectives on international development and climate change. By bringing these distinctive perspectives - whether theological or relational - to bear on political debate, the Archbishop almost certainly enriched it.

Contrary to some of the claims at the start of this
article, the evidence of the past three decades strongly suggests that the Archbishop of Canterbury continues to sound a valuable moral voice across a very wide range of social and political topics. Far from being driven by ecclesiastical interests, his aims seem to have been overwhelmingly altruistic, designed to further the national (and international) common good. Despite some interest in 'traditional moral issues', the norm has been for him to engage with a wide range of mainstream concerns, often in line with the popular mood. And although he has frequently arrived at similar conclusions to other spokesmen, his theological reflection has enabled him to rise above the political fray by providing a distinctive perspective. On more than one occasion he has found himself at the very epicentre of political debate. We could surely do with more, not less, archiepiscopal input in the years to come.

So what are the implications of all this for the next few years of the political cycle? It is now more than a year since David Cameron took up residence at 10 Downing Street, and already there are clear signs of trouble on the political horizon. Last year's large student protests against rising tuition fees have grown into this year's even larger demonstrations against government spending cuts. It is unlikely that we have seen the worst of it yet. In recent decades, the Archbishop has shown himself to be an impressive political operator, willing to commend or criticise governments of various partisan hues, and capable at his best of being a focus for moral opposition to government policy. It is likely that this will continue in the years ahead.
Thus far as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has held back from direct criticism of the new government. It is not his style to grab the headlines with populist rhetoric. But neither has he been shy to criticise governments in the past when he has felt it necessary. Moreover, his own political sympathies surely put him at odds with the new centre-right administration. According to one account, his 'politics are more "old Labour" than "new Tory"'. In the 1980s, Williams' political ideals led him to be arrested for - in the words of Tony Blair's biographer Anthony Seldon - 'breaking into an American nuclear air force base to sing psalms on the runway'.5

It is already clear where some of the fault-lines may lie. Shortly after the new government took office, Williams raised a memorable 'two-and-a-half cheers for the Big Society'. His principal reservation was that the initiative had the potential to be 'an alibi for cost-cutting, and a way back to government washing its hands of that shared connection-making responsibility'. When asked a few months later about the government's welfare cuts he expressed further unease: 'I have a lot of worries about that, I really do. I don't immediately think it's fair, no.' If he feels that government policies are causing unnecessary hardship, particularly to the most vulnerable, Williams is unlikely to sit quietly. Furthermore, his most probable successor at Canterbury, John Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, has been even more vocal in his opposition to the cuts. 'I am not an economist, and I am not a politician,' he wrote, 'but to cut investment to vital public services, and to withdraw investment from communities, is madness. You do not escape an economic downturn by cutting investment and by squashing aspirations.'

Only time will tell how the next chapter of archiepiscopal politics turns out. But if George Osborne's public spending axe does end up falling on real need, cutting people off from support or damaging vital public services, the Archbishop of Canterbury could well emerge as one of his sharpest critics. If the evidence of the past three decades is anything to go by, he would be a formidable political opponent. Even in the 2010s, a turbulent priest may well be a force to be reckoned with.

1  Daniel Gover, Turbulent Priests?: The Archbishop of Canterbury in contemporary english politics (London: Theos, to be published later this year).
2  Kenneth Baker, The Turbulent Years (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), pp207-209.
3  Patrick Wintour and Walter Schwarz, 'Cabinet Ire as Carey Backs Lone Mothers,' 12 October 1993, The Guardian.
4  Robert Runcie, speech to the General Synod, 5 February 1986, Report of Proceedings 17:1 (London: Church House, 1986), p121.
5  Anthony Seldon with Chris Ballinger, Daniel Collings & Peter Snowdon, Blair (London: Free Press, 2004), p524.

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