I have been out all day visiting clergy and parishes in Airedale. Time was tight and I wasn’t able to get stuck in to the Rowan Williams media frenzy – although I did manage to do two quick radio interviews in-between meetings. Having read the actual article in the New Statesman, I am wondering if the media are actually feeding from the wrong menu. If Rowan wanted to attack the government, he could have done it better than this. But this isn’t the purpose of his article. It clearly suits the agenda of the media to look for conflict where there is only debate.
First, it is clear that some commentators haven’t actually read the original article, but are responding to the second-hand articles produced by others. Good for a story and venting a little spleen, but not terribly useful.
Second, whatever answers people want to give to the questions he articulates, is anyone seriously suggesting that the questions aren’t the right ones?
Third, aren’t some of the attacks on him simply a form of distraction therapy for people who find his questioning embarrassingly on target?
One of the more bizarre elements of this business is the suggestion that the Archbishop of Canterbury shouldn’t interfere in politics. That view assumes that either politics is the preserve of those who think they have a right to occupy a fantasy ‘neutral’ space or that politics has nothing to do with real life. At least David Cameron acknowledged the right (if not the imperative) for the Church to speak out on such matters. However, his response seems to be to reporting on the Archbishop’s article rather than the content of the article itself.
It is worth noting also that the article is the leader written by Rowan as guest editor of this edition of the New Statesman. It introduces articles by several politicians who go on to address the questions raised in ways which the Archbishop might find unconvincing. In other words, the leader has to be seen in the context of the whole and read as an introduction to what is intended to be an intelligent discussion of the very themes the Archbishop thinks should be raised more widely.
I would love to ask some of the screaming commentators when they last trod the pavements of some of the poorest communities in our cities and rural areas. When did they last encounter people who are genuinely bemused by what is going on with the economy, education or the NHS? When did they last listen to the stories of those who constantly lose out and for whom the future looks hopeless?
David Cameron (interestingly) was heard to say that he disagreed that people whould be paid to stay out of work. I have no idea to which question that was deemed to be a relevant answer. Identifying the consequences of economic and other policies on poor people is not to say that they should be kept in perpetuity by the State. But it is to ask what sort of society we wish to shape, how we will cope with the dispossessed or the disaffected (who won’t simply disappear quietly into the ether), and which values should run through that society. Indeed, the Archbishop is asking politicians – not just the government, but those failing to state a credible alternative – to articulate the values and philosophical assumptions underlying their determined policies.
Why is that request deemed inappropriate or odd? Do we not think that our democracy is impoverished if we simply accept electoral apathy, political disconnectedness or lack of engagement with the public discourse on those values that will shape us – wittingly or unwittingly? Do we really not need a more diligent and intelligent debate about which values we wish as a society to espouse – or do we just accept uncritically the notion that pragmatism should be unchallenged? Shouldn’t the electorate have been given an opportunity to know where any potential goverment might take education or the NHS – or are we just to accept that elections are to be seen as a sort of shadow boxing after which the lights can be changed and the shadows ignored in favour of some other substance?
When the frenzy has ended and the calmer commentators are picking over the bones of this matter, I dare to think that the questions and challenges put by the Archbishop will be seen to be the right ones – prophetic in the best sense of the word. As he says towards the end of his article:
… a democracy capable of real argument about shared needs and hopes and real generosity: any takers?