The Sunday Times

June 12th, 2011

Go, archbishop, and take your church from the lords’ house

The present Archbishop of Canterbury is not merely a threat to the body politic. He is also a threat to the Church of England. This wordy, holy, hairy man is hustling his tiny flock towards the cliffs of disestablishment with the foolish, self-destructive recklessness of Don Quixote. Rowan Williams’s sensational attack on the government last week, in an issue of the New Statesman that he guest-edited, made plain once again that the Church of England can no longer have any place in the political establishment and must at last be disestablished. However sad, that is now necessary.

Since there are so few committed Anglicans in this country, there cannot be many people who think it would matter much if the Church of England were reduced to a religious sect like any other. However, I myself, though an unbeliever, have until recently I thought it would be a pity. I share the sentimental attachment to the C of E of many English men and women who are unbelievers and not mawkish about old maids on bicycles and warm beer either but who do see the glories of the old liturgy, the splendour of church music and the punctuation of the year by church festivals as part of their inheritance and their identity — the “customs of my tribe” as Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, recently put it. And the customs of our tribe are worth protecting.

Besides, there is the question of “the plant”, as trendy 1970s vicars used to call ecclesiastical buildings. What, if the church were relegated to the ranks of “other”, would happen to the much-loved churches and cathedrals of St John Betjeman? Would they become sports centres or homes for new age sects or mansions for Russian kleptocrats? Even so, the time for disestablishment has surely come. It has long been clearly absurd that a priest without any mandate from anyone, other than a few quarrelsome men in frocks, should have any ex officio position of power. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury sits in the House of Lords and so do 25 other Anglican lords spiritual by right of unelected office. So it was rather silly of Williams to claim in his outburst last week that “we are being committed to radical long-term policies for which no one voted”.

One can only ask who voted for him or for other lords spiritual and how many people he represents. According to the church itself, there are about a million communicants on Easter Day, the most important festival of the year: that is just under 1.7% of the population. This does not give Williams any democratic entitlement, of the sort he seems so anxious about, to preach politics from his throne at Canterbury or even from a desk at the New Statesman. As usual, his position is helplessly muddled: there was nothing democratic about the establishment of the Church of England, or about its appointed hierarchies and internal squabbles — the way that men of the cloth elbow their way to the top reminds me of Alan Bennett’s gloomy vicar’s wife in Talking Heads, who said: “If you think squash is a competitive activity, try flower arranging.”

What precisely the archbishop said last week does not really matter in itself, although some of it was rather silly, as one might expect. He is, after all, the man who opined that invading Iraq would be immoral and illegal, but said he would support it if the United Nations thought it all right. It was immediately clear that one could not expect much critical thought from a spiritual leader who turned to the kleptocrats and dictators of the UN for overriding moral guidance.

He, too, is the man who notoriously volunteered the suggestion that aspects of sharia should be recognised in English law because some people have “other affinities, other loyalties … and the law needs to take some account of that”.

“An approach to law,” he remarked, “which simply said there is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said … I think that’s a bit of a danger.” And this though he had earlier in the same speech said the principle of equality under the law “is an important pillar of our social identity as a western liberal democracy”.

Clearly judgment is not his strong point, so it is hardly surprising he has now been unwise enough to lurch into party politics.

However, that Williams is not the steadiest of moral compasses and is capable of making remarkably foolish pronouncements with what looks like misguided vanity is not the point. The problem is not what line he takes. The problem is that, with his constant meddling in politics, lacking any mandate but using his historic position within the Establishment to do so and to court publicity, he will encourage other religious figures here to feel they have the right to do the same. That is dangerous.

For centuries a useful hypocritical muddle surrounded the throne of Canterbury, rather like the unspoken self-restraint that surrounds the throne of the monarch: it was generally agreed that both would remain outside politics. A few archbishops in the past refused to accept this muddle and made a fuss about something, but broadly people have agreed that religion should be a private matter, even though no strong religious belief ever can be. The time for these useful English muddles is over; they worked only in a coherent and monocultural society.

We now live in a mixed, divided and multicultural society. Among us are people for whom religion is certainly not a private matter or an unimportant one; for them religion, politics and law are all bound up together, particularly for Muslims. If they see a figure such as Williams, complete with ecclesiastical trappings, holding forth about the government and using what is unmistakably a political position to sway political feeling, some of them will very understandably want a piece of that action.

If members of a small, dwindling, minority faith such as the Church of England can have seats in the Lords and ritual authority, why not Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, or Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses for that matter? Some of their faiths are growing. Equality and equal representation rule in every other walk of life. Why not in religious status, too? The antics of the Archbishop of Canterbury have now made that question unavoidable.

The best answer to the question, for the safety of the body politic, is the disestablishment of the Anglican Church to avoid the establishment in any sense of any other. Perhaps Rowan Williams has inadvertently done us all a service in making this awkward truth so plain.

The cryptic cleric is a martyr to his mitre, Profile, page 23