In his reflections on the meaning of Maundy Thursday – the day when the Queen distributes silver coins to the congregation in a symbolic act of Christian humility during Easter week – the Archbishop of Canterbury courted controversy with a tongue-in-cheek suggestion.
Rowan Williams put forward the idea that we might make the rich and powerful emulate the Queen's example by passing a law that obliged bankers and cabinet ministers, among others, to spend several hours each year performing such tasks as serving primary school lunches, or cleaning bathrooms in care homes.
As he prepares for Passion Sunday, the climax of the Christian year, the Archbishop has made it clear that even if the church he leads is a smaller, more marginal force than it once was, he is determined to uphold its right to remain at the centre of the national debate.
In some ways, it is a bold strategy. The church could have reacted to the prolonged decline in its fortunes by opting to behave as inoffensively as possible in the hope that if no one noticed it still existed, it could hold on to the vestigial privileges of "establishment".
To the church's credit, it has not done this. Dr Williams and his fellow bishops often stand up for the poor and the marginalised more trenchantly than do politicians. The church is criticised for being out of touch – rightly, when one considers its archaic views on homosexuality, among other subjects. But when Dr Williams condemned bankers' bonuses as "immoral" earlier this year, he probably articulated public feeling much more directly than most political leaders appeared willing to do.
It is unfortunate for the church that such interest as remains in it often focuses on Barchester-style clerical scraps. The church deserves better. Britain is no longer a Christian country but it is still a country in which there are many Christians. We should welcome church leaders' contributions to the national debate – especially when they are as radical and imaginative as Dr Williams's.Reuse content