Rowan Williams is right, says Conservative MP

By staff writers
June 9, 2011

While Prime Minister David Cameron attempts to rebut criticisms of his policies by the Archbishop of Canterbury, a Tory colleague has said the Church of England's most senior cleric is is right on one of his major claims in an article in this week's New Statesman magazine.

Mark Field MP told Channel Four TV news this evening (9 June 2011) that Dr Williams was correct to say that not very much from the key policies currently being implemented by the government was put before the voters as such in the 6 May 2010 General Election.

Mr Field and his Conservative colleagues have distanced themselves from the Archbishop on specific issues, but the member of parliament for the Cities of London and Westminster suggested that Dr Williams' critique of public fear and bafflement over 'reforms' to welfare, the health service and education could continue to be directed at the embattled coalition by the opposition.

Speaking from Belfast on a visit to Stormont, Mr Cameron defended the right of the Archbishop to comment on the political and moral issues of the day, but said that he disagreed with "almost everything" he wrote.

Dr Williams criticised "punitive" approaches to poor, vulnerable and jobless people, and said that many felt that claims about deficit-reduction and the 'Big Society' (a "painfully stale" slogan) were being used as a mask for huge cuts - which critics point out hit the poorest hardest.

The Conservative Party PR machine was going at "full tilt" today, parliamentary correspondents said, trying to "head off the Archbishop at the pass."

But his words seemed to be striking a chord with many in the public, and certainly with large numbers of voluntary and community groups - who are being expected to pick up the pieces from large scale cuts in public spending and welfare, while simultaneously having their resources withdrawn as a result of cuts in local government.

Analysts say that Dr Williams' assertion that the massive NHS changes were not put to the voters, and that 'free school' and academy education policies were pushed through Parliament in the summer of 2010 "with a haste usually reserved for emergency anti-terrorism laws" are clearly factually true.

Speaking to the BBC today, Jonathan Bartley, co-director of Christian think-tank Ekklesia, compared Dr Williams's latest comments to the Church of England's interventions in the mid 1980s - a period characterised by what some described as "open acrimony" between Church and government.

From 1980 to 1991 then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Robert Runcie frequently found himself pitched in opposition to the Thatcher government, as the official political opposition struggled to make an impact.

Under his leadership, the Church of England published its influential report on urban deprivation, entitled Faith in the City. It was seen as a severe rebuke to the government, but also a call to the church to commit itself on the side of those pushed to the margins of society.

Mr Bartley said protecting and working with the poor and vulnerable is a key part of the Church's role, pointing out that the current Church of England leadership has faced criticism from some quarters for not speaking out against coalition policies sooner.

"It's refreshing to have [Rowan Williams] speaking out and voicing the concerns of people in the country," he said. "On the other hand, it shouldn't be so surprising that a church leader speaks out."

Dr Williams is not one to be rushed into rash comments and would have spent time to reflect before committing his thoughts to print, says Jonathan Bartley. "He doesn't shoot from the hip... He would have taken a considered view."

Ekklesia also points out that there is a challenge to the Established Church in these matters too.

"On the ground, Anglicans and other Christian communities are deeply involved in working alongside vulnerable people, and have been for many years," said Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow. "Dr Williams is voicing their concerns about the government's stance, policies and cuts."

"But nationally the Church of England is part of the Establishment, has massive resources tied up in the economic system it criticises, and maintains unelected representatives in an unelected second chamber while challenging elected politicians," he adds.

"The integrity of what Dr Williams is saying about the impact of government policies on ordinary people and the poorest would be strengthened enormously by root-and-branch reform of the Church's relationship to the state and its investment policies, moving from privilege to participation through a much clearer identification with those at the bottom of society," says Barrow.

* 'Archbishop of Canterbury strongly criticises government policies' -

* BBC: 'A tradition of Church v state' -

* The full article by Dr Williams can be read here:

* 'Common Wealth: Christians for economic and social justice' -

* 'Betraying disabled people and welfare' -


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.