Rowan and the rollicking rich

Dr Rowan Williams' Christmas sermon amounted to a rebuke to the most prosperous in society, according to BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott. Goodness. So what did the Archbishop of Canterbury actually say?

Let me quote: "How terrible it will be for you who are rich, because you have had your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry."

No, hang on, that's Jesus in Luke chapter 6.

How about: "The rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away... Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? ... Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you."

Nope, wrong again. Those are excerpts from the Epistle of James, chapters 1, 2 and 5. (Luther thought it was a bit strong, too, and dubbed it a 'straw letter'.)

Ah, yes. Here's the Archbishop's stirring rebuke: "Faced with the hardship that quite clearly lies ahead for so many in the wake of financial crisis and public spending cuts, how far are we able to sustain a living sense of loyalty to each other, a real willingness to bear the load together? How eager are we to find some spot where we feel safe from the pressures that are crippling and terrifying others? As has more than once been said, we can and will as a society bear hardship if we are confident that it is being fairly shared; and we shall have that confidence only if there are signs that everyone is committed to their neighbour, that no-one is just forgotten, that no interest group or pressure group is able to opt out. That confidence isn't in huge supply at the moment, given the massive crises of trust that have shaken us all in the last couple of years and the lasting sense that the most prosperous have yet to shoulder their load."

Hmmmnnn... Well meaning, kindly, but not quite cut from the same cloth as the prophetic biblical tradition, with its call for the poor to be set free (rather than asked to "pay their share", as if there was some equivalence involved), is it?

Indeed, Christian Today interpreted the Archbishop's words (uncritically, as always), as a "call on rich and poor alike to share in the hardships brought on by the financial crisis and cuts in public spending."

But the whole point, many would argue, is that the rich and poor are not alike, and that both the crisis and the cuts are not arbitrary happenstance, but products of unrestrained speculative wealth and its political interests.

Somehow, therefore, I do not think that those who are gorging themselves today while others fear the impact of job, wage and welfare spending cuts will exactly be quaking in their shoes at Dr Williams' sturdy challenge to their vested economic interests.

But then the function of the head of an Established church is not to rock the boat, but to steady it - huge chasms of power and wealth notwithstanding.

Back in the early 1970s, when a younger theologian called Rowan Williams was drafting what became the founding statement of the left-wing Anglican Catholic network known as the Jubilee Group, his fellow activists (hardly an accomodationist bunch!) regarded his rhetoric as far too radical.

These days, Dr Williams - an undeniably good, scholarly, prayerful and compassionate man - appears so desperate to hold his warring Church and Communion together that he seems to have lost the majority of the daring (intellectually, spiritually and politically) that made him such an inspired choice for the role in the first place.

Even so, I'm sure the Daily Mail will not be pleased...

The whole sermon is reproduced here: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/3105

A different perspective on riches and poverty is available in 'Common Wealth: Christians for economic and social justice': http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/CommonWealthStatement

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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