Archbishop delivers harsh farewell attack on PM

Dr Rowan Williams looks sombre as he addresses a congregation earlier this month © Getty Images

The Head of the Church of England has called a government initiative ‘waffle’, in an extract from a book to be published on his retirement this year. Should a churchman be talking politics?

The government and the Church of England are two mighty pillars of British society. But what happens when one attacks the other? That is what happened over the weekend, when the country’s most senior cleric delivered his verdict on the policies of the country’s elected Prime Minister.

The Archbishop, Dr Rowan Williams, is an intellectual who has spent a decade trying to hold together a fragmented Church. He has taken his role seriously and has tried to avoid controversies that could harm the standing of the Church within British society.

But now, as he prepares for retirement later this year, Williams is clearly feeling more able to show his true feelings about the state of his country. In extracts from a new book, to be published this autumn, the Archbishop warns that Britain has been caught up in a damaging culture of consumerism, materialism and greed, and tries to set out a stronger role for religion and spirituality in public life.

Then, in a headline-grabbing digression, he let slip some of his views on a famous government policy, introduced by the Conservative Party before the 2010 general election: the Big Society.

Championed by David Cameron, the idea of the Big Society was to get charities to take more responsibility for social care. The business of keeping communities healthy and happy could be left to local volunteers, not directed from above by a distant government.

Williams’ view? The Big Society is ‘heard by many as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities.’

From the mild mannered bishop, this is stern stuff. And it comes at an awkward time for the Prime Minister, who spent the weekend talking about plans to cut benefit payments for low income workers and the unemployed. He wants to end what he sees as a culture of dependency on the state. ‘Some of the measures being considered,’ a government source told The Sun newspaper, ‘will make your hair curl.’

Bishop bashing

Reaction to the row has been mixed. Conservatives say the Archbishop has misunderstood the Big Society, and is being unfair on the Prime Minister.

On the other hand, of course, most opposition supporters are delighted to have the head of the Church of England on their side.

But not all. Some commentators on both sides of the political spectrum find this Church intervention in politics rather disturbing. Williams is a man of God, they say. That does not give him license to comment on affairs of state.

You Decide

  1. Is Williams right? Is society too materialistic and greedy?
  2. Is an Archbishop of Canterbury worth listening to for people who are not Christian?


  1. Write a short story set in a future Britain, where the country is ruled not by politicians but by the Church.
  2. In groups of three, devise and perform a short drama. The scene is: a televised discussion panel with Rowan Williams, David Cameron, and a ferocious interviewer.

Some People Say...

“The Archbishop of Canterbury would be a better political leader than David Cameron.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Another week, another political row.
This one is pretty unusual. Archbishops almost never get involved with politics like this. Collisions between Church and State have a history of not ending well.
Oh really?
Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, tried to oppose the power of King Henry II back in the 12th Century. He ended up getting his head chopped off by some knights in his own cathedral. Anyway, it’s the principle of the matter that is important.
What’s that?
Well, one argument goes like this: In a democracy, political authority should come from thedemos – the people – expressing their will through elections. The authority of Archbishops comes not from the people but from the Church. Therefore, Archbishops should stay out of politics.

Word Watch

A fragmented Church
The broader Anglican Communion, of which Williams is the head, has more than 80 million members in churches spread around the world. Within that communion, there is a wide range of strongly held opinions on controversial subjects like gay marriage, abortion or female and gay clergy. Williams has had to be very moderate in an effort to keep the Church from splitting apart.
A digression is a departure from the main topic of a speech, book or conversation. It is one of many English words which come from the Latin gradi, meaning 'to step'. Others include 'aggression', 'progression', 'regression', 'egress', 'ingress', 'retrograde' and 'graduate'.
Make your hair curl
This is a slightly unusual English expression. The idea is of something so shocking that it makes straight hair curly. This does not, of course, really happen, but a surge of adrenaline really can cause a tingling feeling in the scalp and make a person's hair stand slightly on end. Hence the association between hair and shock.

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