Rowan Williams, public embarrassment

Pity the Anglican Church. Not only is it disintegrating from within–what will they do with all those gorgeous churches now that no one uses them?–but it has leaders whose embrace of politically correct pap is as thoroughgoing as it is contemptible. Consider Rowan Williams, since 2002 the Archbishop of Canterbury. The London Times reports today that the Archbishop recently opined in an interview with Emel “The Muslim Lifestyle Magazine” that “the United States wields its power in a way that is worse than Britain during its imperial heyday.” Maybe so, maybe so. But then Imperial Britain is a hard act to follow. Everywhere it went, it brought the rule of law, better education, better physical infrastructure, better health and hygiene, improved literacy, greater freedom, and greater civility.


Somehow, though, I suspect that is not what Archbishop Williams would care to emphasize. According to the Times, American foreign policy–its efforts to intervene overseas by “clearing the decks” with a “quick burst of violent action”–has led to “the worst of all worlds”. Gee. The worst of all worlds? Worse than one in which the United States had not intervened violently? Worse, for example, than a world presided over by Nazis, Japanese militarists, or Communist thugs?

But according to Archbishop Williams, the problem is not just America’s actions but also its attitude, its “misguided sense of its own mission,” the “chosen nation myth of America, meaning that what happens in America is very much at the heart of God’s purpose for humanity”.

Not that the Archbishop confined his criticism to America. In his view, “the West” as a whole was “fundamentally adrift”: “Our modern western definition of humanity is clearly not working very well. There is something about western modernity which really does eat away at the soul.”

Right. I am perfectly willing to concede that there is plenty to criticize about American society and, indeed, about Western society writ large. But that is a trivial observation. Every society in history has been gravely flawed. But compared to all the rest, Western society–and in the last century, pre-eminently American society–has been (as Churchill said of democracy) the least worst of all, by far.

Archbishop Williams occupies a serious office. But he is not a serious man. I think, for example, of the moment back in 2000 when he was Archbishop of Wales and he recommended the TV cartoon characters Homer and Marge Simpson to his flock as admirable exceptions to the entertainment industry’s usual unromantic treatment of the institution of marriage.


Or think of his admonition, shortly after his installation at Canterbury, that America should recognize that terrorists, too, can “have serious moral goals.” Not that he, Dr. Rowan Williams, advocated, condoned, or otherwise gave countenance to the actions of terrorists. Heavens no! Dr. Williams is frank in admitting that he does not like what terrorists do. But even terrorists, Dr. Williams counsels, are people. And although they express themselves in ways we find, er, distasteful–Dr. Williams even allowed himself the daring word wicked–still, it is possible that, in their own way, terrorists are pursuing “an aim that is shared by those who would not dream of acting in the same way, an aim that is intelligible or desirable.” Got that? Terrorists may be misguided, poor chaps, but even terrorists, although they have an unfortunate propensity for incinerating thousands of innocent men, women, and children–despite all that, even terrorists dream of a better world.

The same, of course, could be said of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and other proponents of unorthodox routes to utopia. Each, in his own way, believed he was working to make the world a better place. If that happened to involve the extermination of the bourgeoisie, the Jews, or anyone who had glasses and could read–well, you cannot make an omelette without etc., etc.

Really, though, Dr. Williams was only incidentally interested in terrorists. The real focus of his censure, then as now, was that ominous bastion of evil, the United States. The problem–one problem–is that America has not been sufficiently sensitive in its response to al Qaeda. Many policy makers in America have failed to appreciate the “serious moral goals” of Mohammed Atta and his pals. (Come to that, many ordinary citizens have also failed on that score.) Not, again, that Dr. Williams approves of young men slitting the throats of airline pilots and steering airliners into densely populated buildings. No, no. Dr. Williams is against violence. (I think of that stirring poem by Hilaire Belloc, “The Pacifist”: “Pale Ebeneezer thought it wrong to fight./ But roaring Bill, who killed him, thought it right.”)


Back before the war with Iraq even began, Dr. Williams warned that the conflict would be “immoral and illegal.” Similarly, he argued that, in its indelicate response to al Qaeda, America “loses the power of self-criticism and becomes trapped in a self-referential morality.”

Eh what? “Self-criticism”? “Trapped in a self-referential morality”? As Dr. Williams might recall, the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “to everything there is a season.” A time for hand-wringing self-criticism, and a time for deliberate action: “a time to kill,” as the Good Book says, “and a time to heal.” When a gang of Islamist fanatics commandeer several airliners and proceed to murder 3000 people and destroy a couple billion dollars worth of real-estate, you don’t ring up your local group therapy leader.

And what about all that Ecclesiastical real estate over which Dr. Williams presides? The buildings are empty now, but maybe by giving interviews to magazines like Emel he is just sussing out the future tenants.


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