A Separation of Church and State? Not in the UK, Mate

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The British government has no mandate to pursue its austerity policies, according to Dr. Rowan Williams. Dr. Williams is not an opposition politicians or firebrand activist; he’s the Archbishop of Canterbury and primate of the Church of England. But in his capacity as guest-editor of the latest edition of the leftie magazine New Statesman, the Archbishop has torn into  the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of Prime Minister David Cameron, accusing it of implementing “radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.” That’s a reference to an election that produced no clear winner, forcing the rare act of cohabitation, and to privatization-oriented policies in education and health that the cleric said were spreading fear in Britain.

Williams was no less scathing of the Labor Party opposition, challenging it to stop simply crying foul and explain its alternative policy: “We are still waiting for a full and robust account of what the left would do differently.”

But nobody in Britain’s political class has suggested any impropriety in the fact that a man of the cloth was using the moral authority of his pulpit to excoriate government policies. On the contrary, it’s a time-honored tradition in Britain, and as former Conservative cabinet minister and Margaret Thatcher acolyte Norman Tebbit noted, such political interventions are “part of [the Archbishop’s] job.” Former Prime Minister Tony Blair concurred, saying Bishops attacking the government is a tradition in British politics, recounting his own experience over the Iraq invasion. “It is just part of the way things work. I should imagine the govenrment will say they are relaxed about it, and just get on with the things they want to do.”

Indeed, Prime Minister Cameron responded by affirming Williams’ right to express his views, even if he those ideas were wrongheaded.  “I’ve never been one to say that the Church should fight shy of making political intervention,” said Cameron.

The Church of England has always been an institution of state at the same time as playing a global role as the mother church of the Anglican World Communion. It was created, after all, in response to the refusal of the Vatican to annul the marriage of  Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon. And to this day, while Williams is its primate, the Church of England’s Supreme Governor is Queen Elizabeth II, who is also the head of state.

In its contemporary incarnation, the Church of England has long been a repository of progressive social and political ideas, and successive governments, whether Conservative or Labour, have typically faced criticism from the Church on their left flank.

Williams, in fact, offered a broad progressive challenge to political conventional wisdom in his own critique, stressing the importance of a theological tradition “that is not about ‘the poor’ as objects of kindness but about the nature of sustainable community, seeing it as one in which what circulates – like the flow of blood – is the mutual creation of capacity, building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility.”

“A democracy that would measure up to this sort of ideal – religious in its roots but not exclusive or confessional – would be one in which the central question about any policy would be: how far does it equip a person or group to engage generously and for the long term in building the resourcefulness and well-being of any other person or group, with the state seen as a ‘community of communities’…?”

That the leader of the national Church would traffic in ideas he freely acknowledge come from the earlier socialist tradition of “syndicalism” is a reminder that the C of E, as it is known, has hardly followed the latter-day drift to the political right of its Catholic forebears.

And talking of Catholics,  Tony Blair — who converted to Catholicism once out of office (Britain has never had a Catholic Prime Minister) — was making waves of his own in Britain this week, while touting a paperback edition of his memoir, The Journey. In a new foreword, he urges — among other things — a more interventionist Western role in the Arab Spring.  Autocratic regimes in the Arab world must “change or be changed,” Blair urged, and where they respond with violence to demands for peaceful change and close down the path of reform, the West should stand ready to intervene as it has done in Libya — and to use force, where necessary, on a wider front than is currently the case.

But Britons don’t necessarily share Blair’s enthusiasm for democratic crusading in the Arab world. Certainly not Archbishop Williams, who savaged the then-Prime Minister’s decision-making and rhetoric that took Britain into Iraq. Nor the party faithful, whose backlash to his unpopular decision to join President Bush’s invasion of Iraq ultimately cost Blair his job.