Rowan Williams is in the news again. In preparation for his departure from Lambeth Palace, he’s been interviewed by the Torygraph, leading to lots of comment about what he said, including his admission that he got things wrong, his regrets that he failed to communicate well, and the reported plans for a “President of the Anglican Communion”. I can’t resist an invitation like that.
In Jesus’ alternative words from John 16:
Truly I say to you, it is for your good that I am going. Unless I go, the comforter will not come to you. But if I go, he will be sent to you. And when he comes, he will show the world to be wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. His main strength will be getting his message across clearly, because sometimes people just don’t seem to get the point of my parables, and they don’t really fit into the sort of soundbites that a 24-hour news culture expects.
And he will have a president to attend to the big picture. Actually, it would have been really helpful to have someone with overall responsibility for the whole world, because quite frankly, I’ve got enough on my plate just dealing with Galilee. Do you have any idea how long it takes to get from Nazareth to Capernaum by donkey? It’s no wonder that I can’t travel to Jerusalem as often as I’d like.
On that subject, maybe the president could also talk to disaffected factions and do all the dirty political wrangling. He could start by meeting with the Roman authorities, so that they understand our position and there’s no danger of misunderstandings. And it would be important to speak to the Pharisees on a regular basis, to listen to their concerns and take them on board. I think I’ve failed to really connect with those groups in particular – they just seem to see me as a hairy lefty.
I’m sure we’ll be able to talk it over and make up once I’ve retired.
Photo by clarita, used under morgueFile License
(Sorry about that!)
Rowan Williams has announced that he is to step down from his position as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year. So it seems an appropriate time to consider his legacy as an Archbishop. I’ve found his quiet, thoughtful approach a breath of fresh air, especially when compared to his predecessor, but his academic leanings, while contributing to that thoughtfulness, have also been a hindrance in other aspects of the job.
Despite his own liberal views, he’s always seen his role as reflecting the views of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, rather than leading them. As a result, he’s conscientiously taken great care to be balanced in dealing with the various disputes, even when the agenda has been dominated by views he would personally disagree with. Sadly, that’s only led to attacks from the liberal wing, while the conservatives continued to distrust and dislike him as much as ever.
Part of the difficulty he’s faced has been due to circumstances – he inherited a divided church, with various factions pulling in different directions and the whole body split in two on the subjects of women priests and homosexuality. This has continued, with the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) breaking an agreement by electing Gene Robinson, an openly gay and partnered man, as Bishop of New Hampshire, and appointing Katharine Jefferts Schori as their Presiding Bishop, or head of the church in the US, provoking angry reactions from traditionalists on both issues.
Meanwhile, the conservative wing has become ever more vociferous, with the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) meeting in Jerusalem to create a form of conservative alliance against what they described as the “false gospel” they believed was being promoted within the Anglican Communion, by permitting this sort of pernicious liberalism. With both sides stirring up trouble, he’s understandably struggled to keep the church together.
I don’t feel that Rowan is naturally suited to the politics that comes with being the head of a church. He isn’t the sort to play one side off against another in some sort of Machiavellian powerplay, and his gentle, considered thoughtfulness isn’t sufficient to keep warring factions like these from each other’s throats. That hasn’t helped him in his mission to keep the Communion from splitting.
His academic manner has also led to some difficulties in getting his message across, as his way of speaking, in dense and careful prose which needs to be fully digested, doesn’t easily lend itself to a 24-hour soundbite culture. His reported comments on Sharia Law demonstrated that, as did his recent speech in Geneva. The Coalition for Marriage picked up on it as evidence that he supported their cause, as did Robert Pigott for the BBC, without any agenda to support. To me, it looked like a measured discussion of the difficulties of balancing rights, and Lambeth Palace confirmed to me that no endorsement of the campaign against gay marriage was intended or implied, but his wordy impenetrability made it possible to draw other conclusions.
Where I have a particular grumble about Rowan’s tenure as Archbishop is in his handling of Jeffrey John’s appointment (or not) as Bishop of Reading. John, a gay man who was in a long-term celibate relationship, fulfilled all the requirements of the recently concluded CofE memorandum on handling homosexuality. Nevertheless, when conservatives objected to his appointment, the Archbishop pressured him to withdraw, and Reading lost a very decent and capable bishop because he wasn’t willing to face the conservatives down and hold them to their own previously stated position.
I like Rowan as a man, as a thinker, and as a theologian. He’s one of the few members of the church I would always listen to, because I know that he will be careful, moderate and above all, thoughtful. But I feel that the church has wasted his many talents by appointing him to a post which didn’t suit him, and by failing to support him having done so. That’s something I regret, even though I wouldn’t have had anyone else and his likely successors fill me with dread.
But I don’t want to dwell on my perception of the man’s weaknesses, because I genuinely respect him, so I’d like to conclude by quoting one of my favourite bits of Rowan. A six-year-old girl called Lulu wrote a letter to God, asking “How did you get invented?” and sent it to various religious leaders. Most didn’t reply, but Rowan’s response was as follows:
Your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –
‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected. Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’
And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.
Frankly, I think he’s wasted in Lambeth Palace, and I wish him all the best for the future.
I’ve rather painted myself into a corner here, having said that I expected everyone to judge the debate based on their own prior standpoint and preconceptions. I might have got away with that on its own, but as I also said how I expected the debate to go, I have the choice of admitting that my prediction was wrong, or leaving myself open to a charge of merely confirming my own expectations, as I somewhat critically suggested others would do.
Fortunately, I’ve been saved from having to cover that in too much detail, because there’s one issue that’s dominating discussion of the debate – Richard Dawkins’ self-description as agnostic, putting himself at 6.9 on his Spectrum of Theistic Probability.
Sadly, most of the comment on this has been rather hysterical and misinformed. So let’s clear a few things up: Dawkins is not backsliding on his atheism, and he’s certainly not about to suddenly convert to Christianity. His position has consistently been that he’s confident of the non-existence of God, and although he’s unable to prove that and must hold the possibility of God’s existence open, he does so in much the same way as the tooth fairy or Russell’s Teapot.
In fact, I find it ironic that some of the people who are claiming this “uncertainty” as some terrible admission are the same people who have previously castigated him for what they perceived as his dogmatic certainty, and refusal to admit that he could be wrong. He loses either way – he’s portrayed as arrogant and dogmatic, or else he’s so uncertain in his beliefs that they’re clearly not worth discussing, because even he isn’t really sure and doesn’t have the courage of his convictions.
As I’ve previously highlighted, this exposes an obvious weakness in the most commonly used terms to describe beliefs. I suspect Dawkins’ beliefs are getting so much attention not because of his degree of belief (he’s explicitly described himself as a 6 to 6.9 many times before), but because of the label he assigned to that position. It seems natural that an agnostic should be genuinely uncertain, rather than simply acknowledging the impossibility of being 100% certain – calling Dawkins an agnostic just feels wrong.
Now, I confess that I’m a little interested in his chosen label from a narrow perspective of practical theology, but seeing that his actual degree of belief hasn’t changed, I don’t see that it warrants the attention it’s been getting. Maybe there are more theology geeks than I’d realised.
The reports are half right, though – Dawkins is known for describing agnostics as feeble-minded fence-sitters, or at least partly agreeing with his school preacher who did, so he must have shifted his position. Except he hasn’t – the relevant passage in The God Delusion describes two types of agnosticism: Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP) and Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP). Dawkins reserves his scorn for the PAPs, and says:
Agnosticism about the existence of God belongs firmly in the temporary or TAP category. Either he exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question; one day we may know the answer, and meanwhile we can say something pretty strong about the probability
So it’s right there in his most famous “atheist” work, actually in a chapter on agnosticism – he strongly believes there is no God, but we are currently unable to answer the question with certainty in either direction. Even there, surely the first place you’d look to find out his views on agnosticism and certainty, it’s clear that he acknowledges a lack of certainty. He’s also unable to be entirely certain about the non-existence of fairies, unicorns or anything else.
So Richard Dawkins is, always has been, and almost certainly always will be confident that there is no God, but he nevertheless remains aware that he is unable to answer the question with absolute certainty. The only news here is that people (especially journalists) jump to conclusions without checking their facts, and that lots of them have never really paid attention to what Dawkins was saying.
Come to think of it, that’s not really news, either.
In the blue corner, all the way from Kenya, the meme-tastic Richard Dawkins! And in the pinko corner, from Wales, the Bearded Wonder – Rowan Williams! Right, gentlemen – I want a good clean fight. No begging the question, no false dichotomies, and no beard-pulling.
Yes, Messrs Dawkins and Williams are going to have a debate on Thursday, on the subject of “The nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin”, and I promise to ease up on the boxing metaphors now. I plan to watch it, and will probably blog about it afterwards (yes, I really live on the edge), but I expect it to be a rather damp squib.
Dawkins will most likely land some weighty blows, and Williams will dodge many more with some liberal and almost meaningless redefinitions of what Christianity is. The Archbishop in turn will almost certainly advance arguments that the enduring nature of religion is evidence in its favour, which Dawkins will bat away.
What prompts me to write about this now is that I wonder if there’s any point in having the debate, because just about everyone has already decided who’s going to win. In atheist circles, it’s a question of how stupid the beardy bloke in the dress is made to look. Among Christians, there’s widespread agreement that if Dawkins makes any arguments, they’ll be low blows, because he doesn’t fight fair or even understand religion, and his criticisms are always rather shrill.
In fact, this supposed shrillness has become a common theme in any criticism of Dawkins, along with stridency, being trotted out with startling regularity. But I’ve never noticed him to be at all shrill, and when asked for evidence of this quality, there’s rarely any offered at all, certainly not the mountain of quotes you’d expect to support such a widespread belief.
It’s true that Dawkins has occasionally said things which have caused a media storm far beyond the context in which they were said, but he’s hardly alone in that, as Williams himself would attest. A frequently-(mis)quoted example expressed the view that imposing beliefs on a child, and identifying that child by the religion in which it has been brought up (not a choice it has made), is a form of mental abuse. You may agree, you may not. You may even find such a view shrill or strident, although in the context I think it’s a fair, if provocative, point to make. But it’s surely not sufficient to explain this widespread belief.
But even if, for the sake of argument, we acknowledge that Richard Dawkins is (or can be) shrill, strident or any other negative description you might care to use, why does that matter to his opponents? I can understand that his supporters might feel frustrated if these qualities were deterring potential converts (although this criticism always seems to come from the “other side”), but surely his opponents should be quite happy to knock his arguments down and let his unpleasant manner (if indeed it is unpleasant) alienate waverers?
I suspect this criticism betrays a fear of Richard Dawkins and what he stands for – anything that challenges the dominant and privileged position held by religion is seen as a threat. So Dawkins is set up as an “Atheist Pope” so that the entire movement can be attacked by attempting to discredit him as the messenger. The accusations of shrillness are a part of this, as are other, stranger smears.
I think there’s also an element of special pleading and defensiveness on the part of believers – they often seem to view any criticism, rather than mere silent disbelief, as an unconscionable and aggressive assault on them personally. As with the secularism debate, the people in the position of power, or at least cultural dominance, do everything they can to shut down challenges to the status quo which suits them so well.
Bear this in mind when the debate is reported, and ask yourself whether you’d expect anything else from the source. I’ll be surprised if there’s a single case in which you couldn’t predict the verdict just by checking where it appeared.