Rowan Williams sparks a political row in England

June 17, 2011

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) Nearly a millennium ago, four unruly knights
crossed the English Channel from France and confronted the archbishop of
Canterbury, Thomas Becket, over his feud with King Henry II.

Before the knights smashed the future saint's skull in front of
monks at an altar inside Canterbury Cathedral, Henry is said to have
wondered aloud, "Who shall rid me of this turbulent priest?"

These days, Prime Minister David Cameron might be wondering the same
about the current archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Williams sparked a political row by criticizing the government's
austerity measures and budget cuts as the cause of "bafflement and
indignation," saying they are nothing more than "radical, long-term
policies for which no one voted."

To be sure, Williams' two most recent predecessors angered the
governments of their day when Robert Runcie confronted Margaret Thatcher
over budget cuts in the 1980s and George Carey blasted Britain's support
for the war in Iraq.

But never have the words of a sitting archbishop of Canterbury
caused quite so much anger as Williams' during his stint as guest editor
of the left-leaning New Statesman magazine earlier this month.

The very public flap threw a spotlight on Williams' twin roles as
head of the Church of England and also the 77 million-member worldwide
Anglican Communion, and the difficulty of doing both.

If he wades into national politics, critics say he should instead
return to ensuring his global flock doesn't break up over human
sexuality. Yet if he ignores the politics of the day, he's criticized
for not using his bully pulpit.

Less than two months after the media hailed him as a "national
treasure" when he officiated at the wedding of Prince William and Kate
Middleton, Williams has become, in the words of the Sunday Times'
Minette Marrin, a "wordy, holy, hairy man" who is "hustling his tiny
flock towards the cliffs of disestablishment with the foolish,
self-destructive recklessness of Don Quixote."

Former Times editor William Rees-Mogg was a tad more succinct in
blasting Williams' critique of government spending cuts. Williams, he
said, had shown a distinct lack of "Christian charity."

Writing in the New Statesman's June 9 issue, Williams questioned the
value of the coalition government's reforms, and charged that Cameron's
"Big Society" platform had been conceived for "opportunistic and
money-saving reasons" and that its ideas were "painfully stale."

Taken aback by Williams' public critique, Cameron rejected Williams'
views but nonetheless said he had every right to express them. For good
measure, Britain's top Roman Catholic prelate, Archbishop Vincent
Nichols, sided with Cameron.

Williams has received support from some quarters of the church,
including a handful of bishops and one retired priest, the Rev. John
Papworth, who said, "Not only does the Archbishop of Canterbury have a
right to engage in public debate, but it is also his duty."

Others in the Church of England have noted this is not the first
time Williams stepped into the political arena.

He has condemned racism and advised voters not to support the far
right-wing British National Party (BNP). In 1985, Williams was arrested
during a protest organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at a
U.S. air base in Suffolk.

Williams comes from a tradition of activism in a poor part of Wales,
and was born into a family of Presbyterians-turned-Anglicans who were
steeped in a strain of Anglo-Catholicism.

By criticizing the current coalition government, Williams opened
himself up to questions about his own leadership skills, both in the
Church of England and the larger communion, where he has the power of
persuasion, but little else.

Within the Anglican Communion, conservative Third World archbishops
have blasted him -- and subsequently gone on to mostly ignore him -- for
not disciplining the independent-minded U.S. Episcopalians and Canadian
Anglicans for their embrace of homosexuality.

Western liberals, meanwhile, likewise ignored his pleas not to
ordain openly gay bishops or bless same-sex unions, and rebuffed his
plans for an Anglican "covenant" that would bind the communion's 44
member churches.

Williams, 61, has said that he would love to spend less time talking
about homosexuality in order to concentrate on what he calls "the real
issues" -- hunger, poverty and disease, especially in the developing
world.

Yet when he does, as in the New Statesman article, conservative
critics say he should spend more time healing the bruised Church of
England and leave politics to the politicians.

Marrin, from the Sunday Times, said the incident reflected the
church's unique role in governance of the state, and vice versa -- and
not in a good way.

"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," she wrote. "Yet the Archbishop of
Canterbury sits in the House of Lords and so do 25 other Anglican lords
spiritual by right of unelected office."

An editorial in The Daily Mail suggested that if Williams wants to
make political speeches, "he should resign and join the Labor Party
which over the last 13 years did such harm to the fabric of British
society."