Rowan Williams and the Fairweather Postsecular

Mea culpa update: comments have shown that at least one of the quotes from the article is taken completely out of context. The others, though, remain to my mind problematic. But since the quote under discussion in this post is the very one discredited it does render the post itself mostly useless.

Rowan Williams is often held up as the paragon of theological humility and excellence, but his time as Archbishop has shown that when it comes to dealing in the public sphere he is nothing but a muddled thinker, regardless of how beautiful of a soul he may have. While claims about the radicality of the Anglican Church were always laughable (seeing as it is a State church), the notion that they the Church could somehow act as a moral centre for British society (already a strange notion for a religion claiming universality) has always been problematic when you actually look at the stands officials make. So, some grunts and words of protest when the welfare state is completely dismantled, and strong threats of breaking down the relationship between the State and the Church when gay marriage looks likely to happen. In other words, even for the supposedly more enlightened Anglicans, sexual issues are still more important than questions of class and justice. Williams has always seemed to me to embody this particular tension leading to political worthlessness and nowhere is that clearer than in a recent Guardian story about leaks from his forthcoming book.

The Guardian, of course, focuses on the scorn heaped (and rightfully so) upon the concept of the Big Society, a concept first developed by Phillip Blond and John Milbank (who ghostwrote about 1/3 of Red Tory), but passes over some rather troubling remarks concerning Muslims in Britain. This is what I found interesting, since everyone who reads this site either already knows that the Big Society is (to put it bluntly) bullshit used to try and cover up an attack on civil society that sees wealth being directly taken from the worst off, or, if they don’t think that, are never going to be convinced since this sort of politics has now been taken as a kind of creedal element of their thought.

Consider this long extract form the article, including quotes from the forthcoming book:

The archbishop also says that the Labour party was wrong, in 2006, to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence, arguing that anti-Muslim statements or images could show courage. “The creation under British law of a criminal offence of incitement to religious hatred has provoked bitter and sustained controversy. Disproportionate attention has been given to a hypersensitive minority.

“Some anti-Muslim images or words (foolish and insulting as they may be) may well exhibit courage in a world where terrorist violence reaches across every national boundary.”

He also calls for greater integration of Muslims living in Britain and insists they make their loyalty to “the nation state” rather than “the international Muslim community”. “To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the International Muslim Community [the Umma] is extremely worrying,” he writes. “Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state.”

This coming from a thinker who often has praised the notion of the postsecular, the idea that religion now has returned to public life, and a thinker often held up by those Christians who assume themselves radical in their allegiance, not to the State, but to the Church. It would appear that the postsecular is fine if it can help Christianity to colonize the world, but thankfully for the Anglican Church it will always have the police power of the nation state when any other religion wishes to compete.

32 thoughts on “Rowan Williams and the Fairweather Postsecular

  1. I don’t have much of a personal or emotional investment in Rowan Williams’ thought (and never did), but I’m a little shocked. If nothing else, I would have assumed he had more tact than that. Maybe he’s gone crazy.

  2. Hmmm…would like to see the quotes in context before making any rash judgement. Wouldn’t be out of character for Grauniad to chop stuff around a bit. But be interesting to see when it’s released.

  3. I find it difficult to imagine how the sentence “Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state” could be read differently in any context, but I await the infinitely nuanced hermeneutics necessary to get Rowan off it when the book comes out.

  4. It’s days like these that make me love AUFS. I haven’t read much Williams, but these quotes are surprising and disturbing.

  5. The only context that could make those quotes okay would be if he were summarizing someone else’s beliefs, which he made clear he opposed, and they were misquoting them as his own direct statements. Or if they were just made up. Other than that, I don’t think nuance can save those kinds of sentiments. Would any of the Barthians who love Williams so much tolerate it if he said that Christians should be loyal to the nation-state first and foremost, rather than the ecumenical Christian community? I mean — Jesus Christ!

  6. I also like how racism and bigotry are being uplifted as morally courageous. This reminds me of the way the far right wingers approach race in the US. For example, Newt Gingrich made some racist comments during his campaign about Obama being the food stamp president and then congratulated himself for telling it like it is. “The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct you are not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable”. God save us.

  7. I don’t follow Williams that closely, but I want to echo my shock of his quote regarding the loyalties of the state over the larger Muslim community. This could only come from a cleric who has a fundamental misunderstanding of the historical contexts and basic principles of Islam–one of the five pillars of Islam, exactly, is an intentional act of recognition of the international Muslim community. Thanks for posting this.

  8. Thank you for posting this. I too hadn’t followed the man much, and to be honest, had a vague notion of him being generally a warm/fuzzy non-entity.

  9. I’d say it’s extremely likely that the remark about Muslim loyalty is (as Adam suggested) just William’s summary of someone else’s view, with whom he disagrees. He has discussed this issue of loyalty in other settings, and his view on it is pretty clear. He thinks that loyalty to the Umma “is very close to what a Christian would say about loyalty to the church”. He notes that “the kind of comprehensive loyalty we associate with the nation state is a very modern and local phenomenon.” He stresses that, for Muslims (and Christians), loyalty to one’s country is not a “foolish” patriotism, but is “fundamentally a moral and religious loyalty, the kind of loyalty which holds you accountable to God”.

    Those quotes are from his published lecture on “Islam, Christianity and Pluralism”, pp. 6-7:

    He’s written so much on Islam in recent years, all along similar lines, that it’s pretty much impossible to believe that he now believes that “Muslims must make clear that their loyalty is straightforward modern political loyalty to the nation state”.

  10. My eyes bulged when I read this too. However this book sounded like a collection of previously delivered lectures, and sure enough this quote shows up in one from 2004 on “Convictions, Loyalty and the Secular State” – the context is indeed that he is summarising a view of ‘liberal commentators’ (exemplified by Nick Cohen in the New Statesman) which he goes on to reject.

  11. OK; I think I can claim that I have followed Williams’ work fairly closely, and probably have to admit to an academic and psychological debt if I’m being honest.
    So let’s be clear: if he thinks muslims should purely owe their allegiance to the nation state (without the option, say, of religiously grounded civil disobedience) then he is guilty of double talk and a misunderstanding of Islam. This is where I wait for the book itself, because this is unusual for him. Sorry, Anthony: I have argued too often with readers and journalists who have misunderstood his texts.
    However, I think his argument about inciting to religious hatred refers to the Jyllands-Posten’s publication of caricature drawings of Mohammed in September 2005 (here we have a fairly clear context). And he argues against the criminalisation of incitement to religious hatred. In other words, as long as I can argue that you make me hate you, then you are the criminal. He’s not trying to justify racism per se, but this odd juridical arrangement.
    It is true to say that the editor of the Jyllands-Posten – who has received a number of death threats – does indeed experience himself as courageous rather than foolish. And a lot of people agree with him. Surely making his publication illegal would both mean an increase in censorship and a support of his impression that he’s doing something brave and commendable?
    Finally, I’m a foreigner in my current residence and find language of integration abhorrent. So it’s very likely I’ll disagree with Rowan on this.
    In his defence (and granted that (1) I think there are contexts that justify some of these quotations, like representing others’ arguments, and (2) I still listen to people who are wrong about some things) the vast majority of the Observer article was precisely about issues of class and justice, and Rowan has repeatedly couched issues of sexuality in those terms (drawing the focus towards the crime of homophobia in high level discussions). I think that Anthony’s presentation here is a little too black and white (I should probably not use the word reactionary): there are times when we should be really quick to condemn injustice and racism. But those are when the diagnosis is clear. I don’t think it is here, and I don’t think an afterthought in an article summarising an unpublished book is a good place to start.
    And if Rowan is guilty of racism, then his soul is never gonna be pretty, is it? He’s not even that charismatic…

  12. When the Guardian ran this story, they will have phoned Rowan William’s office and his book publicist to confirm that these things were the case in the leak. This is a legal requirement of most, if not all journalism to do due diligence. I too am shocked that Williams said these thing, but also know how journalism works, so I have little doubt they appear in the book.

    Besides, the quote Ben Myers cites above doesn’t exactly get him off the hook. That patriotism is “fundamentally a moral and religious loyalty” similar to the duty one owes to God is rather aligned with this statement in the Guardian than opposed to it. I can imagine Hauerwas having a field day with this. Its just plain ridiculous. All patriotism is idiotically foolish in my view, and Muslims have a strong reason not to get involved with it considering the ummah as Christians have with the Church.

    Or put differently “actually Rowan’s position is better than this, its to baptise loyalty the nationstate as a religious duty, bye for now”. ??!?!

  13. OK, I still think it’s a thin basis for critique and an unambiguous condemnation seems premature before we hear the entire argument in order to see where he went wrong.
    The accusation (mine of course) of double standards would be warranted if he allowed Christian disloyalty but not Muslim. And Muslim commitment to the House of Islam is very different from Christian devotion to the church and the political commitments that flow from that. So notwithstanding Ben’s quotations, I don’t think I’m ready to shout hypocrite yet.
    I’m not sure about the patriotism question yet, but I don’t think advocating it calls for moral outrage as yet.

  14. Andy,

    Those commitments are very much mediated by their context. Of course Williams doesn’t have to tell Christians to be disloyal (though effectively that is what the CoE has done regarding gay marriage) since the state is effectively Christian.

    That said, yes I’m being polemical here. Mostly because the unrelenting positivity about Williams you find amongst younger theologians allows them to feel nuanced while still taking the essentially centrist or conservative position on a number of political issues. For me the institutional stands taken matter more than words, and with regard to Williams I’ve been disappointed time and time again.

  15. That said it appears Robert B has shown this is taken out of context. I’m still very disappointed by the discussion of integration and, while the CoE is willing to make some actual strong institutional changes on the basis of gay marriage, perhaps a condemnation of the Big Society should come with pulling funding to Res Publica?

  16. Andy, no need for apologies btw, as I said I was intentionally being polemical and I’m happy to admit when I’m wrong (and reactionary would be the wrong word, I think people confuse two different senses of this… Yes I was reacting off the cuff in a manner befitting a blog, but that’s not to be a reactionary). That said, what do you make of him telling American episcopalian churches who were breaking away from the communion on the basis of gay and female bishops that they should take the confessing church as their model? He’s always seemed to have a kind of doublespeak to me.

  17. Okay, yup, seems like Robert B has shown that this quote was him summarising the views of others and thus a false flag. In which case the response from a publicist would be “yeah those are in the book”, with no word of context.

    However, I’d still maintain that the point he makes in the text Myers points to is rubbish.

  18. On quite a few occasions the Graun amongst others has cherry-picked quotes from Williams and attributed to him views which aren’t in fact his; I’ve never been able to determine whether they were being deliberately malicious or just astoundingly sloppy and illiterate. That thing of taking someone’s summary or ventriloquising of a position they’re in fact opposed to, and attributing it to them as if it were being said in propria voce, is a particularly nasty tactic – sort of thing Chabert goes in for, and you know how fucking frustrating that can be.

  19. I could see how misunderstanding could arise if one read quickly that piece linked to by Robert. But… Again, there are other quotes here and a history of weak positions. I know his academic work is good!

  20. Critiquing someone for their summary of someone else’s view is seriously a first-year undergrad move. And here I thought that the journalistic standards in the UK were absolutely rigorous and top-notch!

  21. I can see how misunderstanding would arise if one read quickly *and incompetently* that piece linked to by Robert. But I think it’s a wilful, aggressive kind of incompetence. Graun hacks are allergic to public discourse that doesn’t fit into a journalistic rhythm, i.e. he said, she said, ooh really, well I never. They actually seem to be affronted by it, and to want to cut it down to size: never mind the waffle, beardy, tell us what you *really* think. They punish intelligence by reporting on it stupidly.

  22. I presume Adam spoke in irony about the rigorous journalistic standards in the UK – otherwise, see !

    Technically this story, although on the Guardian website, is from its sister Sunday paper The Observer – indeed its major front page headline (so we can’t blame interns). The Observer has a history of slightly more right wing liberal stances (most notoriously, pro Iraq war; Nick Cohen whose views on Muslim ‘integration’ Rowan was paraphrasing is an Observer columnist) and, in my perception, sloppier journalism; and doesn’t, so far as I am aware, have a specialist religious affairs correspondent.

    I’ve located the quotes on incitement to religious hatred in Rowan’s James Callaghan Memorial Lecture of 2008:
    Unsurprisingly they are respectively a summary of others’ views and a protective caveat against the main thrust of his argument.

    (The Big Society waffle comments are also old news – – though you might be disappointed to find them part of a more balanced, indeed largely positive, engagement with the concept.)

  23. I recognized the stuff on the big society already, should have assumed the other stuff was from previously published lectures. Though to call the work on the Big Society a “balanced” view is quite loaded, no?

  24. I do think the confidence in Rowan’s work is pernicious, and if it’s because (as I think you’re right) people consider he has a beautiful soul or some other crap, then it’s really important to call him on that. Personally, I think his academic work is great, but he has a tendency to domesticate some of the church fathers a little too quick (desert fathers in particular).
    As to his attitudes to ECUSA, I do think he’s prioritising the unity of the church over the consecrating of gay bishops. Personally I don’t think the consecration of a gay bishop is a really important milestone (gay clergy is something else). I think trying to keep the church together so more conservatives can be persuaded is a good idea. This way, the substantive ethical issue has more time to be discussed, and hopefully the truth will out.
    Personally, I live in Norway, and the church has managed to stay fairly united through these issues (with two valid views on gay clergy for a while and no big organisations leaving), and although we don’t have any openly gay bishops here (there are only 12 bishops anyway) some of my gay friends are getting their marriages blessed in church this week, and the general feeling is that development is only going one way.
    So I think there are good reasons to work hard for church unity. It seems counter-intuitive that you have to make certain sacrifices in obvious progress (and that’s something he’s clearly got to square with his own conscience), but the alternative might be really strong counter-cultural movements living and dealing out injustice.

  25. Andy, thanks as always. Just to clarify though, with regard to the American churches, he was speaking to some who had left the ECUSA already. But I take your points. Since I’m also no longer an ECUSA member I have rather little to say I suppose.

  26. Gosh, I was unaware of that statement! Yeah, that’s a pretty horrific comparison. I thought you meant he was referring to those in favour of gay rights to bear witness and persuade their co-religionists.
    Gonna have to trash all this “What Would Rowan Do?” paraphernalia. At least Milbank is still pure as snow…

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