The Archbishop of Canterbury has publicly called into question the judgement of the Prime Minister and his ministers in taking the country into war with Iraq.
Dr Rowan Williams warned last night that national leaders had a moral duty to act on criteria that went beyond national interests and to listen to the voices of their people.
"Governments know things we don't know but we know things governments don't. Democratic government is about hearing what it does not know," he said.
Dr Williams, who muted his misgivings about the war as British troops went into action, was speaking at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, in a lecture about the concept of a "just war".
Although the Archbishop maintained a theological, and mostly generalised, tone throughout his 30-minute lecture, his criticism of the Government's decision to take the country to war against strong public opposition was clear to his audience of foreign affairs specialists, diplomats, government officials and others.
Dr Williams also said that American aims "cannot be assumed to be compatible with order in the world". Answering questions, he described the US decision not to sign up to the International Criminal Court as "regretful". The Archbishop suggested the UN should create a standing commission on security to provide an international arbiter that would provide law-based rulings beyond the narrow interests of individual nations. Until that time, however, we would have to rely on national leaders to take responsible decisions.
He said: "What we can properly expect in our own political leaders is virtue the virtue of political prudence."
The Archbishop was well aware that the word "prudence" was politically loaded. But he went on to say that unless people outside government had the opportunity to "exercise discernment on knowledge which is publicly available for judgement", the state was "morally exposed".
At the memorial service at St Paul's Cathedral last week for those killed in Iraq, Dr Williams had acknowledged the continuing divisions in the country over the war. But he was careful, to say nothing that would offend either the bereaved families present or the representatives of government and royalty by directly calling into question the justification for the war. His views were made clear, however, by his lecture last night.Reuse content