Rowan Williams’s powerful intervention in the New Statesman today, lambasting the “frightening” coalition, will no doubt draw a significant amount of attention. Like the recent celeb and phone hacking focussed Statesman issue guest-edited by Jemima Khan it’ll certainly help sell copies of one of my favourite magazines. But should we welcome a political intervention from a key religious figure, even when it might superficially aide our cause?
First things first, let’s deal with Rowan Williams as an individual. Despite being profoundly agnostic, I quite like Rowan Williams. I certainly respect him (despite some fence-sitting on LGBT issues), but then again I would do. I’m a young(ish), socially liberal, lefty living in North London. To people like me (and dare I say it, probably a large chunk of you reading this, and the New Statesman for the matter), Rowan Williams is an acceptable face of organised religion. We like him because he agrees with us, because he focuses on the fighting poverty aspect of Christianity (rather than any of the socially conservative stuff we don’t like) and because we think he’s secretly one of ours.
Unfortunately that’s also the wider perception of Williams in the media and witha significant portion of the public – as a lefty church leader who stayed largely silent under Labour and attacked the coalition at the first opportunity. And that’s before we get into the whole “Sharia Law” thing. Yes, he was taken out of context, but having someone the public thinks is that out of touch backing us does us few favours in the long term.
Then there’s a wider issue – do we really want to encourage religious leaders to become (party) politicised? It’s one thing to express concern about rising levels of poverty (for example), but altogether different to attack the democratic basis on which a government has been formed. Religious figures are important because they speak with the authority of the church. They don’t have a “personal capacity” in which to speak. This is a perhaps unfair, and almost unique, aspect of their calling, but it’s a matter of fact. People listen to Rowan Williams because they believe he speaks with the authority of the church – and the church shouldn’t be attacking a democratically elected government for the way it was formed.
Oh of course it’s comforting – exhilarating even – to have the backing of a major figure in our society for the messages that we as a party have been putting forward for the past year, but we have to accept this is a two way street. Would we feel quite so comfortable about a socially conservative archbishop attacking Labour on abortion or gay marriage? Would that be an acceptable intervention? Or would we lambast it, telling the church to butt out? Let’s be honest, it would be the latter.
There’s nothing wrong with faith informing someone’s politics – it would be churlish to deny how important that is, and how positive that can be. And whilst when it comes to policy, we as a party may not “do god”, we should accept that faith is a way in which many of our supporters, members and MPs help orientate themselves.
What we shouldn’t accept though is the interference of key religious figures in our politics – and we should be clear about that when it’s hardest to make that point – when they agree with us. And we need to see that whilst this is a great story on a quiet Thursday, it could easily be the thin end of a very big wedge.