‘Turbulent priest’ attacks government

Rowan Williams, head of the Church of England, has sharply criticised government policies. It's an echo of previous eras, when priests and kings, or priests and politicians, crossed swords.

The attack came out of nowhere – a quietly spoken elderly figure, bearded and wearing the clothes of a holy man, emerged from the shadows and struck.

'With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.'

Ouch! The Prime Minister and his Government had been politically mugged, robbed of the moral high ground by criticism of their policies from the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. The highest-ranking churchman in the country used an article introducing a special edition of the left-wing New Statesman magazine to lay into politicians in both the government and opposition.

But the main thrust of he attack was on David Cameron, for reforms that he says are causing 'bafflement and indignation' and even 'plain fear'.

The 'big society', Mr Cameron's plan to transform the UK into a nation of volunteers, was dismissed as a term that has become 'painfully stale' for an idea provoking 'widespread suspicion'.

The Government and its supporters fought back energetically – arguing, for example, that the Archbishop ignored the aims of welfare reform, to end dependence on state benefits and improve the health and prospects of the most disadvantaged in society by making work pay.

Mr Cameron said he profoundly disagreed with the Archbishop's views, but he defended his right to speak out: 'I think the Archbishop of Canterbury should be entirely free to express political views,' the Prime Minister said.

'By all means, let's have a robust debate but I can tell you, it will always be a two-sided debate.'

But one of his Conservative MPs, Roger Gale, was more aggressive: 'For him, as an unelected member of the upper house and as an appointed and unelected primate, to criticise the coalition government as undemocratic and not elected to carry through its programme is unacceptable.'

In 1170, a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, was murdered in his cathedral by courtiers who heard King Henry II cry out, in frustration at political arguments with his former close friend, 'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?'

Church versus statesmen

In modern times, no blood has been shed, but the tradition continues.

During Mrs Thatcher's long tenure in No. 10 Downing St, there were regular run-ins with the Church of England. And yesterday Tony Blair described criticism by church leaders as an inevitable feature of being in government.

'I seem to remember, going back to when I started in parliament in 1983, that bishops attacking government is a pretty recurrent headline,' he said. 'It's just part of the way things work.'

So the national debate continues – but it just got a whole lot livelier.

You Decide

  1. Do you agree with with the Archbishop's decision to attack David Cameron's policies? Is it clever to use a traditionally Labour political magazine?
  2. At the last general election all three main political parties promised to reform the House of Lords. If you were designing an upper chamber of Parliament, would you include the 26 bishops or Lords Spiritual?

Activities

  1. TS Eliot wrote a play about Thomas Becket calledMurder in the Cathedral. Write the opening scene of a play about today's political argument.
  2. Read the Archbishop's attack on the Government and write an open letter (for publication) in reply. Either agreeing or defending the government. Why not send it in to theNew Statesmanif you are pleased with it?

Some People Say...

“The Church should speak out more often.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why can't the Prime Minister just make the Archbishop keep quiet?
Although the Church of England is the official or 'established' religious body, it is not part of the government. In fact, as history shows, Lambeth Palace has often been a centre of political resistance to the King or prime minister.
Lambeth Palace?
The Archbishop's official residence and therefore his power base, just across the River Thames from the Houses of Parliament. He also has a seat and voting rights in the House of Lords, along with 25 other Church of England bishops.
And are they all as outspoken as Rowan Williams?
In the Lords, they are not affiliated to any political party, and the Church says they 'seek to be a voice for all people of faith, not just Christians.'

Word Watch

Primate
The Archbishop of Canterbury's title is Primate of All England, which means the foremost and most powerful bishop. Not to be confused with apes!
Turbulent
This poetic usage means 'troublesome'. Some historical accounts report the King saying 'meddlesome' instead.
Undemocratic
The Archbishop said 'no one voted' for the Coalition policies. But Coalition supporters argue that the Conservatives and Lib Dems, who formed a government after no single party won the 2010 election, together have a majority - and therefore authority to agree policies between them based on their two manifestos.
House of Lords
In the UK, the House of Lords is the revising chamber of parliament, which means it can adapt, question and sometimes send back laws that have been passed by the House of Commons. It is an unelected body made up of a few dozen people who have inherited titles, the bishops, and many political and expert appointees.

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