The steady rise of the statist in our churches has not gone unnoticed in recent years and is a phenomenon of which I have only a little experience, but experience nonetheless. A few months ago on my last Sunday morning trek I was horrified when we were asked to pray and the pastor asked the man upstairs, to "put an end to the greed of the bankers and help them to see the error of their ways". For a split second I mused as to whether my friend and I had actually wandered into the wrong building and found ourselves head down, eyes closed at a branch meeting of the Socialist Workers' Party.
Needless to say, I haven't been back since. For a long time I've believed in the man upstairs and a higher force, but had always viewed organised religion with the same suspicion held towards political parties. For but a brief period of my life I decided to give both a go, and if you want to find out how the other chapter ended, then a quick glance at some of the posts on the Uk Libertarian Party will explain all that you need to know. I understand that the majority of those who involve themselves in church/temple/mosque/whatever activity are men and women of genuine virtue. However, in my experience there are just too many rules as well as the wackos, hypocrites, thieves and charlatans who let all of organised religion's sides down rather badly.
Anyway, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, British organised religion's leader of sorts. had a 'Socialist Workers' moment of his own on Thursday. His article in the New Statesman, titled 'the government needs to know how afraid people are' spelt out a critique of some of the policies and language employed by the coalition. http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2011/06/long-term-government-democracy The piece is certainly not badly written, and makes some observations that while hardly earth-shattering, could be valid points of a worthwhile discussion. Dr Williams describes 'the Big Society' as a concept that "has fast become painfully stale" while also condemning the "quiet resurgence of the seductive language of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor". He then questions whether the current Libercon government has any sort of mandate to carry out its programme, "With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted. At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context".
Now that is an interesting point, and if we examine the details then he is probably right. None of the major parties actually talked about cuts in public spending on the scale of those that are (apparently) about to take place during the 2010 election campaign. Just over a year ago, the argument appeared on the surface to centre around a modest £6 billion of savings that David Cameron regarded as "a downpayment". Gordon Brown waxed lyrical about how "if you take £6 billion out of the economy", we would become a nation of shanty towns without running water within a matter of months. Vince Cable, widely seen as some sort of economic svengali back then (how times change) sided with Labour.
It was without a doubt the strangest general election that I have experienced, since everybody was aware that the plot of land that was likely to subsequently shift far exceeded the £6 billion over which the three parties battled and scrapped. Deep and serious public spending cuts of at least close to and probably more than £100 billion were unavoidable, and always on the cards. They knew, we knew, and they knew that we knew but nobody was being up front and honest about it. The most sensible explanation for this is that had one party broken ranks from the agreed understanding and clearly laid out the short-term consequences of the impending austerity, then this would have represented wipeout for them, total electoral suicide.
So the pain that all sides, including the general public accepted was necessary to some degree could never have received the mandate that Dr Williams talks about, because for all we yearn for politicians to stop treating us like children, there appeared to be precious little appetite for conclusively being told what was coming, either written somewhere in a manifesto or spoken during a TV debate. Ever done that thing where you withdraw cash from a machine then deliberately look away so you can't see the depressing balance afterwards? That makes two of us, and the whole country appeared to collectively turn its head last April, content with broadly understanding the imminent fiscal foreboding, but not actually seeing or hearing the full scale of it.
So Dr Williams is right - the government does not have a mandate as such for its (rather modest) public spending reductions in particular. Then again, regardless of who won and lost last year's election, this would have applied to whichever party (or coalition) had subsequently taken office. I was also interested in the Archbishop's comments in this area because they posed a second question as to what mandate he had for a major role in our political discourse, if any?
Like everybody else, Dr Williams is free to express the content of his social and/or political conscience to anyone who is prepared to hear it. From what I have seen, the Archbishop is an intelligent man who can articulate his thoughts perfectly well in either written or spoken form. His politics vary wildly from mine and many of our readers, but he does have quite a few interesting things to say, and it would be churlish to suggest otherwise.
However, what I take issue with is this:- on any question that does not involve faith, the treatment of faith groups or the future of the church itself, there is no sensible reason why Dr Williams could ever be considered any more of an expert than say an actor or musician who perhaps is semi-literate in political matters. He is not an economist, a medical expert, or a lawyer. He has never competed in, let alone won an election, nor has he ever been appointed as an advisor to the government to offer a particular strand of expertise. I should stress that this is not a personal attack, for I know not enough about Dr Williams to either like or dislike him. However, what is clear is that while his views are of interest to some, there is no mandate or justification for the take of this one individual to be lent the national weight and significance that it currently is.
I've long held the view that the State and Church of England are overdue some sort of amicable separation. Of course, the notion of an 'official state religion' flies directly in the face of any instinctive belief in personal choice, but there is much more to the case for such a divorce than this. People should be allowed to make up their own minds as to whether or not the views of an unelected public figure, with no expertise specific to the area being discussed (this would of course include the royal family), are of genuine interest or importance. Many would no doubt conclude that the Archbishop's answer to just about any question is well worth hearing. That is entirely their right, and the smart money would be on an OutspokenBishop blog rapidly acquiring a larger readership than this one.
That said, any argument that his personal opinion, however well-argued and whatever the subject matter is automatically newsworthy has no merit or basis in fact and needs to be strongly challenged.