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Rowan Williams Disappoints with the Dimbleby Lecture

Category Articles
Date December 27, 2002

How irrelevant the gospel message must seem to the world if the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks it is irrelevant to him.

by Geoff Thomas

It was an extraordinary opportunity presented to Dr Rowan Williams the newly-installed Archbishop of Canterbury. He was asked to choose a subject and give the prestigious Annual Dimbleby Lecture to the whole country on television six days before Christmas Day. It was the opportunity to speak in vivid contemporary language of the most important reality of all, of one who came into the world who was greater than the world itself. The text of his speech was released to the press before he gave it and printed almost in full in the Times. What he said was widely reported in the newspapers the following day.

But the Welshman rejected the chance to speak of the Saviour and chose to speak on sociology and economics, and the contemporary relation of people and government in a wearying and unpersuasive manner. There is simply not enough ‘stuff’ in divine revelation to speak with any authority on issues like this, whatever champions of the ‘world and life view’ and upholders of ‘common grace’ might claim. It was the choice of unbelief, and the rejection of the Incarnate One. O where is Jenny Geddes today? How we need you to throw a stool at the preacher. "You’re pouring a mess of humanism in my lug!" On the following Saturday Matthew Paris in the Times wrote a lead article questioning from a purely academic and human perspective the academic and human perspectives that Williams had spoken about. The perishing chattering classes are so very civilised.

Then the Home Secretary himself responded in a letter to the Times on Christmas Eve challenging Williams’ interpretation of the role of the state today:


"From the Home Secretary

"Sir, The Archbishop of Canterbury is generally acknowledged to be a theologian of considerable stature, but I fear that there were many contradictions in his thesis in the Dimbleby Lecture on December 20 (letters, December 21).

"He was right, for instance, to indicate that the modern State depends on legitimacy, but wrong to then criticise modern governments for, in the instance he gave of education, wanting to enhance parental choice and to emphasise the outcome by publishing results.

"The implied damage that this emphasis gives is belied by the transformation of the life chances of children in the very area that the Archbishop has ministered to over the last decade – an area not dissimilar to the one I represent, where children were so badly let down in the past that as many as 80 per cent of 11-year-olds couldn’t read or write, or add up adequately, by the time they reached secondary school. No wonder it was difficult to engage them in broader values!

"Perhaps more fundamentally, the Archbishop confused the proper relationship between a modern pluralistic state in a global economy with an analysis of the proper development, or rather redevelopment, of civil society, namely, self-reliant individuals who come together, through the family and broader community, to address their own needs and to be able to play a part in the wider political sphere.

"The assertion that modern governments "tell" people – a word he used several times or order is nonsense. Government may well and should create order and stability to allow progressive politics to flourish, not downwards from government, but upwards from civil society itself. In our history the areas of primary deprivation least able to develop a non-governmental response developed the greatest mutuality, the values of interdependence, which allowed them to survive. That is how the old "goose and burial clubs", the friendly societies and the early insurance system developed. Political history is always useful in drawing analogies, even in the modern era.

"There are those in very senior positions in political life who use the term "the market State". I don’t happen to be one of them, but I recognise the salience of the debate to be had around the role of the modern State. However, I question his quoting a fictional BBC television drama in relation to the alleged words of a political adviser to a backbench MP, as though fiction bore any resemblance to the truth. This is, to coin the word he uses, a "game" and a very dangerous one at that.

"Last year, in my own small publication Politics and Progress, I sought to address some of the issues that the Archbishop ventured into. I therefore strongly welcome the opening up of some of these. All of us who do so, however, should ensure that we address the world as it really is, not one created by cynical liberal dramatists for BBC fiction.

Yours faithfully,

DAVID BLUNKETT, Home Office, 50 Queen Anne’s Gate, SW1H 9AT. December 23.

So, Williams’ message created one letter to the Times. People were not amazed, saying to one another, "What manner of preaching is this! With what authority he speaks." If preachers make sweeping generalisations about ‘society’, ‘progressive politics’, etc this is the sort of response they can expect. While Christian politicians have to speak up on every issue on which taxpayers’ money is being spent – roads, the protection of North Sea cod, planning applications, etc – preachers should be more selective. They have grander and more important themes to bring to dying sinners.

On Sunday (22 December) in the ‘Sunday Telegraph’ John Preston the self-confessed atheist TV critic – the very man to catch with the Good News of the God-man – under the headline, "What Was He On About?" wrote the following assessment of the lecture:

"Dr Williams began by talking promisingly about "awkward questions" and about how we are living in a time when the basic assumptions about how the state works are shifting. There was a good deal of this, all to do with the nation state being superseded by the market state. By now a number of things were becoming plain, one of which being that the Archbishop, though not exactly a waffler, is far from being the world’s crispest and most coherent thinker.

"Periodically, the camera would cut to members of the audience – a number of familiar faces were there: Tony Benn, Lionel Blue, Douglas Hurd, all of them wearing grave expressions, and in the case of Greg Dyke, looking as if he was trying to perform that complicated manoeuvre of yawning while keeping his mouth shut. Meanwhile the Archbishop had moved into thematic open country – education, virtual reality, the state of the local economy in Newport, fuel prices, even "the homogenisation of the entertainment media" – these were all tossed into the mix without any clear idea emerging of what he was on about.

"Throughout this there was one notable absentee. So much so that in the moments when Dr Williams paused for breath, it was almost possible to hear an aggrieved voice from outside saying, "Hey! What about me?" And who did this voice belong to? Why, to God. It wasn’t until 30 minutes of a 40-minute lecture had gone by that God even got a mention. Despite being a keen atheist, I can’t help finding this odd; if you went to a lecture by a horticulturalist, say, and he didn’t talk about flowers until three quarters of the way through, you might reasonably feel a bit cheated.

"’High energy consumers,’ announced the Archbishop grimly, ‘will resist a reduction of their purchasing power.’ Well, maybe they will, but so what? Assuming Dr Williams does have some kind of relationship with God, I can only hope it’s a lot more harmonious than his relationship with the English language. Here he proved himself to be a most unholy terror. ‘Concretely, for instance, is not a proper word. Nor is ‘marketised’. As for the phrase, ‘relativising moment’, this is enough to earn anyone a lengthy spell on a ducking stool. I wonder what the Archbishop’s poetry is like? Kind of ‘concrety’, I guess.

"All the while the suspicion grew that far from engaging in prayer, or any of that old stuff that godly men used to go in for, Dr Williams has spent far too long in focus groups learning to speak like a vending machine. No wonder Tony Blair likes him so much. By the end, as well as making Douglas Hurd look as if he was about to pass out with boredom, he had managed to say both too much and not enough. What meat there was came swaddled in fluff and jargon, amounting to little more than a ragbag of abstractions devoid of thrust or resolution."

So that was a typical response of the world to Rowan Williams’ speech. The unbelieving liberal agenda which the Anglican Bishops have made their very own religion results in this tragedy. It is a betrayal of their responsibility to be teaching the nations all things whatsoever the Lord Jesus has commanded us. How fearful will be the judgment coming on such men. What a vital lost opportunity this lecture was. It bodes ill for the years that lie ahead. How irrelevant the gospel message must seem to the world if the Archbishop of Canterbury thinks it is irrelevant to him.


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