The Church is in no position to preach about politics

People are switched off not just electoral politics, but clerics, bankers, surgeons, and now judges
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The Independent Online

I have somewhat reluctantly come to the conclusion that no Welshman will ever really be taken seriously by the English except as singers. If they start to weave words, they are accused of being "Welsh windbags"; if they remain discreet, they are accused of being toadies. Lloyd George got away with it because he was an effective political operator which the English, while they always say they dislike cleverness, in reality admire (it is why Tony Blair still retains a degree of respect, if no longer popularity, among voters). When the "Welsh Wizard" retired, he seemed to revert to type and lost much of his reputation as a result.

I have somewhat reluctantly come to the conclusion that no Welshman will ever really be taken seriously by the English except as singers. If they start to weave words, they are accused of being "Welsh windbags"; if they remain discreet, they are accused of being toadies. Lloyd George got away with it because he was an effective political operator which the English, while they always say they dislike cleverness, in reality admire (it is why Tony Blair still retains a degree of respect, if no longer popularity, among voters). When the "Welsh Wizard" retired, he seemed to revert to type and lost much of his reputation as a result.

George Thomas was widely appreciated as Speaker of the Commons, but that was for his voice rather than his importance. Poor old Neil Kinnock, for all his qualities, was quickly tagged with the "windbag" sobriquet, and lost the 1992 election partly as a result. And now the Archbishop of Canterbury is finding the same wretched sobriquet applied to him.

As with Kinnock, it is unfair. After all, when he was appointed to the see of Canterbury two years ago, Dr Williams was widely acclaimed for the very qualities of locution and thought for which he is now castigated. The media wanted a church leader who would speak out on issues after the dither and drift of his predecessor, George Carey. Now that the media has enthroned him, it is eager to tear him down at the first hint that he says anything controversial or remotely political. From applauding him as a thinker and theologian, the press - in the words of a Times editorial - accuse him of talking "gobbledegook".

The occasion this week was a very cerebral university sermon by the prelate in Cambridge. In it, he tried to examine the way that a Christian citizen's view of political authority was changing from the days when the Church was regarded as primarily spiritual, with politics left to those in charge, to the position today when authority was no longer trusted. In a carefully chosen and very generalised way, he suggested that, if political leaders were to regain trust, they needed to pay more attention to truth.

So far so anodyne. But you don't have to be very savvy in the ways of the press to understand that using phrases such as a "government that habitually repressed criticism or manipulated public media", and "the continuing damage to our political health" from the "events of the last year", to know what everyone will assume you are referring to. The words Iraq and Blair will be put into the equation before you've finished your sentence. But then you have to be a churchman, and an Anglican at that, to wrap it all in a pretty opaque sermon about Christian obedience.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is in an impossible position, damned if he does say anything "contentious" (ie, interesting) but damned if he doesn't. On the one hand, he is the head of the established religion, a religion politically founded and inextricably entwined with "authority". On the other hand he is regarded as the spiritual voice of the country, meant to give moral judgements on the developments of our time, from cloning to drugs and war.

Well, say government ministers, with that unerring establishment instinct to diminish critics by categorising them, of course the Archbishop would say what he does because he's always been against war. But why not? The war is a serious issue which has impassioned the public in a way few issues have done. It is the fault of politics that the Commons majority and the pro-war stance of the main opposition party have given these feelings so little outlet in the system, not the Archbishop's. You could argue that he was failing in his duty if he didn't say something.

Rowan Williams' real problem is not that he has chosen to say something political. It is that he carries so little weight when he does so. He argues that Iraq and the dissembling of the Government has been a major factor in turning off the citizen from politics. In reality, the Church which he heads is part of that turn-off, not an independent commentator on it. People are switched off not just from electoral politics, but clerics, bankers, surgeons, oil men and now judges too. All are assumed - on good evidence, it has to be said - to be playing their own game, including the Church.

If Dr Williams wants to understand why, he needs to look to the diminishing ranks of his own parishioners and the impossible position the Church has as the established religion of a monarchy and a political system in disrepute. Within 20 years, the Church may well have lost its position as the established church and become a minority practice in its own country. Part of this is due to general social trends. But part, too, is due to the institutional failings of a church that is irrelevent to the concerns of its parishioners and institutionally arthritic when it comes to questions such as the ordination of gay bishops.

The Church's parlous state is not going to be solved by becoming a voice in the political fray, however much the media may wish this role upon the Archbishop. Going down that path will only earn you the reputation of talking too much in too many platitudes. In other words, a "Welsh windbag".

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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