In light of the entry of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, into a major political ruckus today, and the response, I think it’s more than worthwhile asking this question. Some signs on my Twitter-stream were worrying to the extent that I got the distinct impression Williams was being pilloried for expressing an opinion at all. Even Mark Ferguson, editor over at LabourList seemed to reflect this prejeudice:
Then there’s a wider issue – do we really want to encourage religious leaders to become (party) politicised? It’s one thing to express concern about rising levels of poverty (for example), but altogether different to attack the democratic basis on which a government has been formed. Religious figures are important because they speak with the authority of the church. They don’t have a “personal capacity” in which to speak. This is a perhaps unfair, and almost unique, aspect of their calling, but it’s a matter of fact. People listen to Rowan Williams because they believe he speaks with the authority of the church – and the church shouldn’t be attacking a democratically elected government for the way it was formed.
Mark makes many mistakes in his article but the cardinal one is the assumption that Williams actively expressed support for Labour, which he didn’t. The second is the restriction of William’s right to a personal capacity and the third is not to judge his remarks on their merits. Imagine the outcry if somebody had said, for example, that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was wrong to challenge the legitimacy of apartheid government. Logically, that is where Mark’s position leads us – that he was wrong too because religious figures cannot challenge the intrinsic legitimacy of a government. Williams is right – this government has no mandate for what it is doing and Labour should say this more often.
This leads us to a broader question about what secularisation — it’s not the cleansing of people with religious faith from political discourse and indeed political life. If it was, then I would not support it because it would be inherently undemocratic. Rather than a secular state, you would be creating an oppressive atheist state much like the former Soviet Union.
There is a complete difference and separation between a secular and an atheist state. A secular state is one in which the state and state policy are religiously ‘blind’ because religious institutions have no formal legislative power. Therefore, it would be quite right in this context to strip Williams of his place in the House of Lords. In a secular state, all religious groups and those who have no faith would have equality.
We have to be careful we don’t cross the line when we advocate secular reforms and start effectively excluding groups from politics purely because of what they believe.