Saturday, February 09, 2008

Rowan Williams and Free Speech

Gracchi criticises the right, and me in particular, for calling for Rowan Williams to resign. He makes two key arguments: First, that the Archbishop has raised, and regularly raises, interesting issues and we should appreciate that. Second, that we are failing to stand up for free speech and what he has said does not relate to his job. I'll deal with these in turn.

Even though he's wrong in this case he raises interesting issues

1. I'm not sure he does. Laws against offending the religious were already being proposed by Government before he supported them. Islamists have been demanding a greater role for Sharia within Muslim communities for some time. I don't honestly think that either of those issues were raised or really advanced theoretically by Williams.

2. His role makes him poorly placed to raise issues. If Gracchi himself, for example, had said what Williams said the debate could have been far more relaxed and open. When someone at the head of an established Church says something their words have real power. That means that what follows can't be an entirely dispassionate debate - too much is at stake. Douglas Murray highlighted one of the consequences of the Archbishop speaking out on this issue:

"I've just been speaking with a Muslim friend who has always opposed sharia law. 'Where does it leave me', he asks, 'when the Archbishop of Canterbury is calling for sharia?'"

Do you think anyone would be asking the same questions if you or I had called for Sharia? Of course not. This whole mess has demonstrated why the Archbishop of Canterbury's place is not to raise issues. His place in our national discourse is not as pioneer or radical - that's for those in more junior roles.

He deserves his free speech - this wasn't relevant to his job

1. This is absolutely relevant to his job. Do you think there would have been anything like the same furore if some university professor had come out with this? He is the head of the UK's established church and a senior member of the English establishment. That means that if he says something like this and there isn't an absolute stink that has a powerful normalising effect on what is and should be a very radical proposition.

2. He is letting down his Church. The Anglican Church has seen, according to Fraser Nelson, attendances fall by 20 per cent in the last eight years. If you or I say something that is radically out of tune with the majority of Anglicans there is little consequence. He should either quit as Archbishop and say what he wants or keep his mouth shut to avoid continuing to convince ordinary Anglicans that their Church's leadership believes in nothing they do, or nothing at all.

3. As a senior member of the establishment his signalling that they will appease radical demands for Sharia has a directly harmful effect on community cohesion. Extremists will be emboldened by this sign of weakness. This is probably the greatest harm that Williams' statements have had. He has a responsibility to show some backbone and conspicuously failed.

4. Positions of responsibility to do limit our free speech. A random blogger should be quite free to say "Putin's a twat" loudly a proudly. If Gordon Brown did that there would be consequences and he would be failing to do his job. Even more minor jobs like mine do place some limits on what I can freely say without consequences. Speech, for an Archbishop of Canterbury, is not and should not be free. Anyone with that kind of seniority should consider what they say carefully and use their words wisely as their position gives those words power.


Gracchi is judging Williams by criteria that would be appropriate for a university professor. That might be the job Williams is best suited for, he is completely failing to handle the job of Archbishop of Canterbury and should resign. I'm not the only one who sees it in exactly this way:

Col Edward Armitstead, a Synod member from the diocese of Bath and Wells, was among those calling for Dr Williams to step down: "I don't think he is the man for the job."

He said: "One wants to be charitable, but I sense that he would be far happier in a university where he can kick around these sorts of ideas."


Anonymous said...

I have the flu so my article was quite bad but I'll come back to this issue when I feel better.

Anonymous said...

A vital aspect worthy appropriate exploration concerns if a provision could be made allowing flexibility and accomodation for Muslims according to a selected and qualified set of family laws.

Holding a meaningful discussion
say on BBC risks becoming a self-defeating exercise if an irrelevent set of questions is raised and non-qualified people like a tabloid's former editor and an ardent if not fire-brand champion of neo-conservatism are given front seats to shed "light" on the discussion. Are such elements invited for cool-minded reasoning or hot-headed
sound bites?

It will be interesting to know if any academic forum or any academic journals ever invited Douglas Murray to contribute to any exchange on comparative family law. How many places has Douglas Murray travelled and stayed in say the Far East where many ethnic groups live side by side and have recourse to legal provisions that simplify family law settlements.

One wonder if Mr. Murray is
sincere in promoting social cohesion or undermining it by expressing his evident passion to reduce any exchange of reason to a shouting match in my dictionary it is social collusion what he's seeking.

Shuggy said...

This is absolutely relevant to his job. Do you think there would have been anything like the same furore if some university professor had come out with this?

I've enjoyed very much what you've written about this and I think you're absolutely right. Everyone keeps going on about how clever he is but not even being able to understand what his job consists of strikes me as being a significant shortcoming, so say no more than that.

Shuggy said...

so say no more than that.

Sorry - to say no more than that.

James Higham said...

Completely agree and have made the point over there, on my blog and elsewhere.

He was not fulfilling his brief.

Dave Cole said...

Given that he received two standing ovations from the Synod, one before his defence of his remarks and one after, do you intend to fire the Church of England?

Matthew Sinclair said...

No need. The ordinary worshippers will do the job. Attendances down 20 per cent in eight years.