Greetings from London: The theme of the season may be Peace on Earth to men (and women) of good will, but there is a distinct lack of peace between David Cameron, the Prime Minister of England, and Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (ABC) … and therein lies a tale.
On Friday the 17th at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, Mr. Cameron delivered a speech as part of a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. The Prime Minister took the opportunity to assert that it was time for public figures to focus on teaching right from wrong. Specifically, he challenged the Archbishop of Canterbury to step up his efforts in defending Christianity and to lead a national return to the moral code of the Bible. The location was meant to sting the ABC as Christ Church College is where Dr Williams served as Canon and the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity on his way to greater glory.
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This feud was set in motion when the unlikely Coalition between the conservatives and liberal democrats formed a government in 2010 and began announcing its austerity plans. Williams, who came out swinging against public program cutbacks, said the Coalition was operating without a proper mandate. He pushed the envelope even more when he later expressed his sympathy for the rampaging rioters who caused serious property damages here this past summer. Some of them turned out not to be lower class individuals lashing out in anger against alleged police heavy handedness and deprivation, but were from distinctly privileged backgrounds. They confessed to being swept up in the destruction and robberies as just a rebellious lark. Slumming with intent to plunder.
This is not the first time in living memory that a Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury have found themselves at odds. In the 1980’s, Dr. Robert Runcie ran afoul of Margaret Thatcher over her handling of striking miners. He accused her of treating the miners “like scum.” He compounded the distance between them with his anti-war position on the Falklands Islands conflict between England and Argentina. He made a display of praying for war dead and under-preached a celebratory sermon after the British won. Mrs. Thatcher felt the Falklands War was the jewel in her foreign policy crown and did not approve of the Archbishop’s diffidence toward her victory.
Last year, when Rowan Williams started criticizing Cameron’s coalition for potentially raining down pain on the poor and needy with proposed austerity measures, the Prime Minister blew a small fuse. Although he acknowledged that Williams had a right to his opinions, it was clear that the Prime Minister did not appreciate hearing them.
More recently, the Archbishop made some controversial statements about the Occupy the London Stock Exchange protesters who had set up camp outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Although not being a supporter of the protest per se, Williams told a reporter from the widely read Radio Times magazine that if Jesus was in London today he would be with the Occupiers, sharing their risks, although he stressed, not taking sides. He would be on hand, Williams explained, to change the atmosphere by asking awkward questions about society’s values. “Christmas doesn’t commemorate the birth of a super-good person who shows us how to get it right every time,” Williams concluded, rather it celebrates “the arrival in the world of someone who tells us that everything could be different.” This is probably not one what expects to hear from an Oxford professor of divinity, let alone an Archbishop.
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To add to the festivities, Jesse Jackson recently appeared outside of Saint Paul’s to raise the spirits of the Occupiers. He told them that they embodied a just and moral cause. One reporter mused that Jackson’s intent was to prove that he knew Jesus and his social justice positions better than Rowan Williams. Jackson’s message began with a litany of causes he felt were yet to be accomplished: educating children, a clean environment, and conquering cancer and AIDS rather than using science to make weapons. These were followed by an incantation of historical challenges (communism, fascism, Nazism) against which “we” prevailed. Oddly enough, there was no mention of banking reforms. His well-known vocal rhythm sounded off, probably because it was a very cold day. And he came close to breaking out into a chorus of “This Land is Your Land.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0lnztzoi7M&feature=player_embedded.
If the Reverend Jackson was interested in finding out more about the topic of banking and financial reform, he might have wandered into Saint Paul’s Cathedral and inquired about obtaining a copy of the report: Value and Values: Perceptions of Ethics in the City Today, prepared by the St. Paul’s Institute. (www.stpaulsonstitute.org.uk). Although the Cathedral does not necessarily share the views of all the contributors to the report, it supports and endorses the work of the Institute.
The Foreword to The Value and Values Report was written by The Right Rev. Graeme Knowles, Dean of Saint Paul’s. The Introduction was written by the Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser, the Cathedral’s Canon Chancellor. Or should one say Former Dean and Former Canon Chancellor? Both men resigned in October, early on in the Occupy London protest days. Fraser went first. Considered a leading left-wing voice in the Church of England, Fraser said he could not countenance an announced plan by the Metropolitan Police to forcibly remove the protesters from their settlement in front of the Cathedral. This seems counter-intuitive as one assumes he should have stood his ground and stayed to speak up for the Occupiers. Dean Knowles resigned a few days later saying his position had become untenable. In addition to being criticized for considering the violent removal of the protesters, Knowles was also slammed for closing the Cathedral doors for a week over health and safety issues. Protesters were defecating in the halls of Saint Paul’s.
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It would be fascinating to discover how many of the Occupy London people have read the Value and Values Report, and also to learn how many regret that their actions caused two clergymen – clearly sympathetic to their cause – to resign. The Value and Values Report was approved by Archbishop Rowan Williams himself, who wrote in the afterword about “the health and well-being of the society we inhabit.”
But in his Oxford speech, David Cameron faulted the Archbishop for not engendering a society in which Christianity, in fact, could thrive in health and well-being. This, he asserted, was due in part to Williams’ failure to speak to the nation about its Christian identity and values.
‘We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so,” the Prime Minister said. “Whether you look at the riots last summer, the financial crash and the expenses scandal or the on-going terrorist threat from Islamist extremists around the world, one thing is clear, moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it any more.”
Strong words. Some in the press even called them “daring” on the part of Cameron. So what are the chances of peace breaking out between the Prime Minister and the Archbishop? Slim to none. There is to be a scheduled withdraw from the field of battle on the part of the Archbishop. Rowan Williams has announced he is voluntarily stepping down from his lofty ecclesiastical position sometime next year. This will provide David Cameron an opportunity to appoint Williams’ successor. Curious readers may be surprised to learn that the Prime Minister of England gets to choose the Archbishop of Canterbury. The reason: the UK does not practice separation of church and state as it is enshrined in the US Constitution. It all began with Henry the Eighth.
Merry Christmas from London….
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