Rowan Williams (or ‘Archbish’ as he’s called in our house) has suggested this morning that his job is too big for one person. John Bingham and Benedict Brogan report in the Telegraph today that “Dr Williams said a new role should be created to oversee the day to day running of the global Anglican communion, leaving future Archbishops of Canterbury free to focus on spiritual leadership and leading the Church of England.”
During the interview, Williams expressed regret over some decisions made during his tenure. But, he laments “I know that I’ve, at various points, disappointed both Conservatives and Liberals. Most of them are quite willing to say so, quite loudly. That’s just been a background to almost everything, a pretty steady ‘mood music’.”
Judging by the comments below the article, and conversations with friends, there does seem to be a vague consensus that Dr William’s tenure as Archbish has not been the most successful one. Certainly he has presided over a drop in church attendance in the order of around 20,000 people a year (a trend that began before his appointment, but that his appointment did nothing to halt).
Williams was chosen because his liberal views, particularly on homosexuality and women Bishops, were expected by the academic elite who favoured him to unite a church that had begun to split on these issues. Yet conversely, I would argue that in seeking to reconcile modern liberalism with the sort of humility taught by the Bible, Williams is seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable. Far from political leanings offering a solution to the problems of the church, I suspect that the answer for the church is to become strictly apolitical.
This is a trend we see right down at parish level. Although our own excellent vicar offers intelligent, engaging sermons on church teachings every Sunday, I have noticed a slight liberal bias creep in every now and then (capitalism is ‘bad’, that sort of thing). But as this is a tic shared by the British population in general and therefore something that we revolutionary righters have to cope with on an almost daily basis, I usually grin and bear it. Generally speaking, however, he delivers what a good sermon, indeed any good lesson, should deliver: he uses the bible to ask theological and philosophical questions allows us to reach our own conclusions.
So far so good in our little corner of Sussex. Then, last weekend, we were treated to a guest speaker. The sermon was on the story of the Jews collecting manna from Heaven, a story that appeals thanks to it’s clear messages on trusting in God to provide (something that’s much easier to preach than to live!) and in being satisfied with enough, rather than seeking to hoard excess. The latter I think makes for a particularly interesting sermon in today’s society as people from across the political spectrum question how we as a society can find more satisfaction in what we have, a question that I don’t in any way think incompatible with free market capitalism, despite what some on the left might say.
Yet the speaker took the subject as a cue to exhort us to ‘buy Fair Trade coffee’. I can’t quite remember how she got there. This is problematic in a number of ways. Firstly, there are very sound reasons not to buy Fair Trade coffee. Andrew Chambers writing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free pages gives a very good explanation of the problems with Fair Trade in his article ‘Not So Fair Trade‘, but to summarise: Fair Trade goods are sold at an inflated price, flooding and distorting the market. This serves two negative purposes: firstly, it locks farmers into a market that would otherwise be unsustainable when they might do better (financially) to grow a crop that has a genuine market value, and secondly, it is to the detriment of non-Fair Trade farmers, who are faced with receiving a markedly lower price for their crop than they would otherwise have achieved. As Fair Trade farmers are predominantly Mexican whilst the African coffee growing nations have very few Fair Trade farmers, by buying Fair Trade coffee you are giving your business to relatively wealthier farmers in an emerging economy rather that to those in third world economies. There are also problems with the Fair Trade organisation as it upholds the rural idyll view of farming, yet by discouraging it’s farmers from investing in new technologies or employing more people, it actively works to ensure that they remain in poverty.
Setting apart the problems with Fair Trade coffee specifically, the subtext of the sermon was also therefore suspect. By giving specific, simplistic solutions to what is a vast philosophical question (‘how much is enough?’), the speaker was essentially suggesting that certain actions – like buying Fair Trade coffee – will make you a better Christian and therefore I suppose give you a pass into Heaven. These are not the sort of assertions that the Anglican church ought to be making, not least because of the moral quicksand surrounding the idea of dictating people’s actions. Pragmatically speaking, it also serves to sour the church in the minds of those who may be undecided on joining, or remaining in the church, as by suggesting that certain politically motivated actions are sanctioned by the church as being ‘good’, it creates a divide with those who might disagree for equally legitimate reasons. It also doesn’t help with the church’s image amongst those unfamiliar with the teachings of Christ that God is dictatorial.
Following the talk, I discovered that the speaker, Lucy Winkett, is the author of a book entitled “Our Sound is our Wound” (sounds like fun), which was Dr William’s Lent Book – a fact I momentarily found astounding before realising that I really shouldn’t. She’s also, surprise surprise, a regular contributor to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. In short, her liberal credentials, like Dr Williams’s, are excellent.
The next Archbish has yet to be named, although Sentamu and Chartres seem to be front runners. Chartres of course appealed to the Occupy protestors to leave St Pauls – the self same protestors who were asking ‘what would Jesus do?’. I imagine they think the answer is ‘renounce Capitalism’. But Jesus was a teacher. Like all good teachers, I suspect he’d have given us some information and allowed us to figure it out ourselves. Indeed, that’s exactly what He has done. The Church would do well to follow that example.