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The former Archbishop of Canterbury talks about the EU, Trump and poisoned Politics

Dr Rowan Williams, The Archbishop of Canterbury, during his lecture to Theos in the Westminster Central Hall. - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Ima

Amid all the noise of Brexit one public institution has remained curiously quiet – the Church of England

In the early 1990s David Hare wrote a trilogy of plays about the state of the nation’s institutions. His play about Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party, The Absence of War, now seems remote from the Corbyn takeover; while his drama about the judiciary, Murmuring Judges, does not reflect the pressures of a decade of austerity on the legal aid system or the vilification of law lords as the enemy of the people.

However, the first play in the trilogy, about the Church of England, Racing Demon, still retains a sense of the dilemmas facing the British state’s organised religion. Hare’s play described an institution divided by doctrine, struggling to come to terms with its mission in modern Britain and exert meaningful influence. Its leadership is at odds with the government as well as its own ageing base, caught between resigned pragmatism and what one character calls, ‘the illusion of action’.

One many who has been at the very centre of those dilemmas and remains preoccupied with them is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Two years after the referendum and six years since he left Lambeth Palace, he remains in introspective mood about the state of our polarised nation and worried about the anger in a ‘short-termist and blinkered’ public conversation that surrounds Brexit, with ‘losers who are angry because they lost and winners who are angry because what they wanted cannot be delivered’.

The issue, for him, is not settled. When we met he tells me that he would ‘like the Church to articulate a more positive narrative’ about Britain and Europe. For example, he says, there is ‘an essential history of the passage of refugees from the continent to the Church, that is key to its intellectual formation’. He notes that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was also the Ex. Officio Minister of the French Reformed Church in Canterbury, a legacy of the Huguenot refugees.

But history aside, is the Church of England in any more of a position to influence national opinion today than it was when Hare’s Racing Demon was first staged? Certainly, in the 28 years since, British society has changed and the religious and belief – if not necessarily religion itself – are making something of a comeback. Not just as a response to uncertain times but as the cause of that uncertainty.

Brexit itself seems to be a problem of the religious – from the blind faith of Brexiteers to the cultism of Lexit, to the theology of the far right that seeks to exclude Islam from the UK. Donald Trump is also in part the result of a religious mania. Brexit ought to be something that any serious theologian has something to say about; and Williams is by any measure a serious theologian.

He tells me that the Christian Church is a ‘quintessential European organisation’. When we speak about the Christian West, we really mean an idea of Christianity, which grew out of the history of Europe. The European Union itself has its origins in the politics of Christian democratic parties in Germany and France. It is not insignificant that the EU was founded by the Treaty of Rome, a noteworthy site for Europe’s Christian heritage.

Williams tells me the ‘European narrative is a distillation of Jewish and Christian ideals, which people now take for granted’. An idea such as sovereignty, for example, has its origins in Judeo-Christian history and is a thoroughly European concept. ‘The Magna Carta,’ says Williams, ‘is the result of 13th century French philosophy that imagined putting limits on royal absolutism’.

The Church of England was once thought of as the Conservative Party at prayer. But, at least for its senior personnel, such a description hardly seems apt now. The present Archbishop of Canterbury, the former oil industry executive Justin Welby, has found himself in political hot water after criticising austerity for ‘crushing the weak’ and warning about divisions since the Brexit referendum.

Williams – now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge – set a similarly nonconformist tone. In the 1980s, he took part in demonstrations by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament at US air bases and as Archbishop of Canterbury he supported the Robin Hood tax campaign, seeking a levy on banking transactions. He also opposed the Iraq war in 2002, earning the resentment of the Labour government; and he drew fire from David Cameron when he accused the Coalition government of committing Britain to ‘radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted’.

When it came to the Brexit vote, the Church of England kept quiet, doing little more than issuing a prayer calling on the almighty to help voters make the right decision. It wasn’t good enough for some. Conservative MP Peter Bone described the prayer as ‘outrageous’ and a clear steer to vote for EU membership. ‘I would have thought that God was rather neutral on this issue,’ he said.

As it turns out, analysis by the National Centre for Social Research found 60% of those who identified as Anglican or Church of England voted to leave the EU. This is in contrast to majorities for Remain for Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and Judaism. Those who identified as Muslim voted by a margin of 70% to 30% to remain. Those who said they had no religion, a group with a younger age profile, backed Remain by 60%.

When I ask Williams about Donald Trump, the former Archbishop puts his head in his hands, and says, ‘I don’t know where to begin’. But he responds by saying, that he knows through personal experience that no one stays in office forever. He tells me, ‘it has been a bad few years for the rule of law and democracy. I grew up taking it for granted but now we have to fight for it’.

However, he finds optimism in taking the long view, suggesting that we need to look to the checks and balances in any constitution. The law will save us from the devil, as Thomas More suggests in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. The Mueller investigation is a sign of a functioning constitution not a failing one.

As we might expect, Rowan Williams takes a philosophical view of the state of the world. That is not the same thing as accepting what is going on. He tells me that if this division and uncertainty is to continue, then we need to ‘make sure we have plenty of food for the journey’. By that he means we need ideas and conversation, for example by ‘supporting serious reflexive journalism and giving it a wider diffusion’.

Perhaps, the Church of England as a state religion is too constricted by attempting to manage the diversity of opinions on Brexit both inside and outside its membership. But its former archbishop is keen that his own thinking is ‘not a form of hibernation but is part of something trying to get in the door of public argument’.

David Hare’s play Racing Demon takes its name from a card game, a type of solitaire, or patience, for two players. As Brexit unravels, the race is on to place all our cards on the table. Individuals like Williams will be required to speak out, and to take their public bodies with them, whether they be churches or universities.

Rowan Williams was speaking to promote the HowtheLightGetsIn festival at Kenwood House, London, on September 22-23

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