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The Archbishop Speaks, But Who Is Listening? The Dilemmas of Public Theology Today

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The occasion of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, acting as guest editor of the leftist journal the New Statesman attracted much media comment. Most of this focused on Williams’ criticisms of the right-of-centre coalition government’s advocacy of the ‘Big Society’, intended to shift the balance of welfare provision away from the State towards the community and voluntary sector. A closer examination of Williams’ intervention into the debate reveals it to be part of a tradition of public theology in which Christian teaching informs fundamental principles underpinning the nature of political participation and societal values. In this incident of a church leader and the media, therefore, we have an opportunity to explore in greater depth a continuing debate about the place of religion in what many are calling a ‘post-secular’ society, in which the phenomena of secularization and religious revival co-exist in novel and often contradictory ways.

1. fn11) A. Brown, ‘Rowan Williams is not interested in party politics’, Guardian (online), available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2011/jun/09/rowan-williams [accessed 14/06/2011].
2. fn22) A digest of responses can be found on the Thinking Anglicans website, at http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/archives/005019.html [accessed 24/11/11].
3. fn33) D. Gover, Turbulent Priests? The Archbishop of Canterbury in contemporary English politics (London: Theos, 2011), p. 20.
4. fn44) H. G. Ziebertz and U. Riegel, ‘Europe: A Post-secular Society?’ International Journal of Practical Theology 13.2 (2009), pp. 293-308, at p. 294.
5. fn55) As well as the New Statesman 13 June 2011, see also R. Williams, ‘How should churches respond to the Big Society’, 23 July 2010 (online), available at: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2956 [accessed 11/01/2011].
6. fn66) The novelist Martin Amis puts the case against religion in this way: ‘To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful.’ M. Amis, ‘The Voice of the Lonely Crowd’, in The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007 (London: Vintage, 2008), pp. 13-14.
7. fn77) P. Donovan, ‘Seize the day of the Big Society’, The Tablet, 29 January 2011, p. 11.
8. fn88) Conservative Party, http://www.conservatives.com/News/News_Stories/2010/07/Our_Big_Society_Agenda.aspx (accessed 5 August 2010). See also M. Brown, ‘The “Big Society” and the Church of England’, General Synod CGS1804, available at: http://www.churchofengland.org/about-us/structure/general-synod/agendas-and-papers/gs-paper-list/gs-1801-1850.aspx.
9. fn99) J. Norman, The Big Society: the Anatomy of the New Politics (Buckingham: University of Buckingham Press, 2010).
10. fn1010) Within the opposition Labour party, the most prominent (and controversial) tendency was the so-called ‘Blue Labour’ faction led by Maurice Glasman (and now disbanded). Others on the communitarian left, such as Jon Cruddas, endorse its emphasis on intermediate organizations and localism as an antidote to statist and centralising tendencies within successive Labour governments since 1945. See M. Glasman, J. Rutherford, M. Stears and S. White (eds), The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox (London: Soundings, 2011) (e-book), available at: http://www.soundings.org.uk/.
11. fn1111) L. Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 31-58.
12. fn1212) http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com/churchofscotland/Backing-for-39Big-Society39.6648962.jp
13. fn1313) Commission on Urban Life and Faith, Faithful Cities: A call for celebration, vision and justice (London: Church House Publishing, 2006), pp. 66-74; p. 91.
14. fn1414) E. Bleich, ‘Faith and State: British Policy responses to ‘Islamist’ extremism’, in R. Eatwell and M. J. Goodwin (eds), The New Extremism in 21st Century Britain (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 67-84.
15. fn6415) G. Smith, ‘Faith in Community and Communities of Faith? Government rhetoric and religious identity in urban Britain’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 19.2 (2007), pp. 185-204, at p. 198.
16. fn1516) S. Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 2007).
17. fn1617) R. Williams, ‘The government needs to know how afraid people are’, New Statesman, 13 June 2011, pp. 4-5.
18. fn1718) Ibid., p. 5.
19. fn1819) R. Williams, ‘How should churches respond to the Big Society’, Friday 23 July 2010, (online), available at: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2956 [accessed 11/01/2011].
20. fn1920) Ibid.; see also A. Brown, ‘Rowan Williams is not interested in party politics’, 9 June 2011, (Guardian online), available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2011/jun/09/rowanwilliams [accessed 14/06/2011].
21. fn2021) See E. L. Graham, ‘Establishment, Multiculturalism and Social Cohesion’, in M. Chapman (ed.), The Established Church: Past, Present and Future (London & New York: T&T Clark, 2011), pp. 124-140; and M. M. Lé Mon, ‘The “In-Between” Church: Church and Welfare in Darlington’, in A. Bäckstrom and G. Davie (eds), Welfare and Religion in 21st Century Europe: Volume 1. Configuring the Connections (London: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 113-128, esp. pp. 126-127, for an illustration of the relationship between the local (parochial) and national (constitutional) reach of the Church of England in relation to its public role.
22. fn2122) Duncan Forrester, ‘Speaking Truth to Power’, in M. Halteman and A. Thomson (eds), Seek the Welfare of the City: Church and Society in Scotland and Northern Ireland (Belfast: Centre for Contemporary Christianity in Ireland, 2002), pp. 106-116.
23. fn2223) D. Gover, Turbulent Priests? The Archbishop of Canterbury in contemporary English politics (London: Theos, 2011).
24. fn2324) Gover, p. 19.
25. fn2425) For a reappraisal of Temple’s work for contemporary society, see J. R. Atherton, C. R. Baker and J. Reader, Christianity and New Social Order: a manifesto for a fairer future (London: SPCK, 2011), esp. Chapter 4.
26. fn2526) A. Bradstock, F. Davis and E. Paulhus, Moral, But No Compass: Church, Government and the Future of Welfare (Chelmsford: Matthew James, 2008).
27. fn2627) Since Quadrogessima Anno in 1931, Catholic Social Thought has warned against excesses either of individualism or statism. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987) argued that the well-being of the individual was neither to be found in the suppression of individual freedom via too much state control or of the isolation and atomism of individualism.
28. fn2728) See Atherton, Baker and Reader, Christianity and New Social Order, pp. 75-78.
29. fn2829) W. Temple, Christianity and Social Order (London: SPCK, 1976; first published 1942), pp. 69-70.
30. fn2930) Temple, p. 42.
31. fn3031) Williams, ‘The government needs to know how afraid people are’, New Statesman, 13 June 2011, pp. 4-5, at p. 5. See Temple, Christianity and Social Order, p. 72, where he similarly characterizes the State as a ‘Community of Communities’.
32. fn3132) W. Hutton, The State We’re In (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), p. 306.
33. fn3233) Temple, Christianity and Social Order, pp. 95-97.
34. fn3334) This is one of the potential dangers of a turn to virtue ethics in public policy, such as currently put forward by commentators such as Phillip Blond. See P. Blond, Red Tory: How Left and Right have Broken Britain and How we Can Fix It (London: Faber & Faber, 2010).
35. fn3435) P. Berger, The Desecularization of the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).
36. fn3536) J. Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).
37. fn3637) See: W. Keenan, ‘Post-Secular Sociology: Effusions of Religion in Late Modern Settings’, European Journal of Social Theory 5 (2002), pp. 279-290; G. McLennan, ‘The Postsecular Turn’, Theory, Culture & Society 27.4 (2010), pp. 3-20; Jürgen Habermas et al. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Cambridge: Polity, 2010); J. Beaumont and C. R. Baker (eds), Post-Secular Cities: Space, Theory and Practice (London: Ashgate, 2011); H. de Vries and L. E. Sullivan (eds), Political Theologies: Religion in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordam University Press, 2006). See also C. Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
38. fn3738) H. de Vries and L. E. Sullivan, ‘Preface’, in de Vries and Sullivan (eds), Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), pp. ix-xii, at p. ix.
39. fn3839) H. de Vries, ‘Introduction: Before, Around, and Beyond the Theologico-Political’, in de Vries and Sullivan, pp. 1-88, at p. 1.
40. fn3940) de Vries in de Vries and Sullivan, p. 3.
41. fn4041) de Vries, p. 67.
42. fn4142) de Vries, p. 9.
43. fn4243) De Vries, p. 8.
44. fn4344) The commentator Jonathan Rauch has coined the term ‘apatheistic’ to denote those who are religiously indifferent rather than militantly atheistic; J. Rauch, ‘Let it Be: Three Cheers for Apatheism’, The Atlantic (online), May 2003, available at: http://www.jonathanrauch.com/jrauch_articles/apatheism_beyond_religion/index.html.
45. fn4445) J. Plaskow, ‘The Right Question is Theological’, in S. Herschel (ed.), On Being a Jewish Feminist (New York: Schocken, 1983), pp. 223-233.
46. fn4546) S. Hauerwas, ‘The Church as God’s New Language’, in G. Green (ed.), Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), pp. 179-198.
47. fn4647) S. Hauerwas, Vision and Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1981), p. 240.
48. fn4748) G. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984); D. Kamitsuka, Theology and Contemporary Culture: Liberation, Postliberal and Revisionary Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
49. fn4849) S. Hauerwas, Truthfulness and Charity (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1977), p. 143.
50. fn4950) Bretherton, ‘A New Establishment? Theological Politics and the Emerging Shape of Church-State Relations’, Political Theology 7.3 (2006), pp. 371-392, at p. 388.
51. fn5051) Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, pp. 10-16.
52. fn5152) Ibid.
53. fn5253) L. Bretherton, ‘A New Establishment?’, p. 390.
54. fn5354) M. Stackhouse, God and Globalization (New York: Continuum, 2007), pp. 107-111.
55. fn5455) Stackhouse, God and Globalization, p. 84.
56. fn5556) Stackhouse, p. 112. See also Faithful Cities, 2006, pp. 13-15.
57. fn5657) 'The Big Society', para. 73-4.
58. fn5758) R. Dovey, ‘The Voice of God in Charitable Activity: Can it Be Heard Today?’ in P. Riordan (ed.), Words in Action: Speaking in our own Words (London: Heythrop Institute for Religion, Ethics and Public Life, 2008), pp. 39-50, at p. 43.
59. fn5859) William Temple knew this, of course. The first three chapters of Christianity and Social Order are essentially defences of the Church’s right to speak.
60. fn5960) D. K. Hainsworth and S. R. Paeth, ‘Introduction’, in Hainsworth and Paeth (eds), Public Theology for a Global Society: Essays in Honor of Max L. Stackhouse (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), pp. viii-xx, at pp. xiii-xiv.
61. fn6061) J. Sacks, ‘If you’re searching for the big society, here’s where you may find it’, New Statesman 13 June 2011, p. 21; Archbishops’ Commission on Urban Life and Faith, Faithful Cities (Church House Publishing, 2006).
62. fn6162) ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes]’ in A. Flannery (ed.), Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents (Leominster: Fowler Wright, 1981), pp. 903-1014, at p. 919, para. 19. See also S. Bullivant, ‘Atheism, Apologetics and Ecclesiology’ in A. Davison (ed.), Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition (London: SCM, 2011), pp. 81-97.
63. fn6263) Eagleton reviewed a book on the new secularism for Williams’ edition of the NS: T. Eagleton, ‘Who Needs Darwin?’, New Statesman 13 June 2011, pp. 58-60. See also T. Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
64. fn6364) See also C. Lamb, ‘Red Christian’, The Tablet 13 November 2010, pp. 14-15.
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/content/journals/10.1163/174553112x630462
2012-01-01
2015-07-29

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