Thursday 18 December 2008


Reasons for secularists to be cheerful this holiday season:

Barack Obama hasn't been to church since election day, thus undermining the view that US presidents have to put on a show of religious devotion in public, whatever their private beliefs (though the President-elect slightly spoilt things this week by announcing that comparatively-liberal-but-still-stridently-anti-gay evangelical pastor Rick Warren will be doing the invocation at his Inauguration).

The Archbishop of Canterbury supports disestablishment of the Church of England. Well, kind of. In an interview with the New Statesman he says he 'recognises the case' for disestablishment, having seen the advantages of it firsthand as a priest and bishop in the Church in Wales.

But, as always with the dear old C of E, it's a case of 'on the one hand this, on the other hand something rather different', and Rowan Williams admits to some 'unease about going straight for disestablishment' because 'it's a very shaky time for the public presence of faith in society.' He elaborates: 'I think the motives that would now drive disestablishment from the state side would be mostly to do with...trying to push religion into the private sphere, and that's the point where I think I'd be bloody-minded and say, "Well, not on that basis"'. (Note to Dr. Williams: it's not necessarily up to you to decide.)

Elsewhere in the interview the archbishop repeats the usual platitudes about the apparent threat from 'secular fundamentalism', and gets a scandalously easy ride over his naive comments on sharia law from reporter James MacIntrye, who completely misrepresents the controversy as a conflict between the 'delicate' and 'complex' approach supposedly taken by Williams, and the 'feigned horror' and 'venomous attacks' of a 'rampant' and 'fickle' press. 

MacIntyre clearly supports Williams' approach to sharia, citing apparent evidence that it is now 'quietly' taking hold among British Muslims and claiming that the banking crisis has pointed up the merits of 'risk-averse sharia banking'. Anyone who is inclined to take seriously MacIntyre's and Williams' view of sharia as a rather benign method for solving family disputes and protecting one's investments, rather than an instrument of patriarchal control by unrepresentative fundamentalist elders, would be well advised to listen to what Muslim women such as Gina Khan have to say on the issue. 

Rowan Williams is obviously a big fan of The West Wing and towards the end of the interview he rather fancifully compares his own recent woes as Archbishop to those experienced by President Bartlet:

It's so consoling to watch those episodes when something goes terribly wrong - you know the president says something that is misinterpreted...and you think, 'Now what does that remind me of?'

West Wing devotees will recall that, in his very first scene in the opening episode, Bartlet has a group of self-righteous religious types thrown out of the White House, demonstrating that he has a much firmer grasp of the separation of church and state than Rowan Williams. To paraphrase: I know Josiah Bartlet. I've watched all seven series of The West Wing at least three times. Dr. Williams, you are no Josiah Bartlet.

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