Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Archbishop, Religion and the Public Sphere

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the official head of the world-wide Anglican Communion, has provided some thoughts in an interview given yesterday to the Daily Telegraph. The interview provides some gems, not least the one concerning "faith initiatives" tending to treat followers of Christianity and other religions as "oddballs" who, for some incomprehensible reason, are viewed generally as being "a problem". During the course of the interview itself, however, the Archbishop is reported as stating some things that might well lead one to view both himself and the Communion he heads as being, indeed, problematic.

Questioned concerning the recent initiative in Uganda to pass a bill that would have led to death penalties being enforced for homosexuals in some instances the Archbishop, who has been very vocal about the decisions of the American Episcopal Church to promote homosexual people to the level of bishop, was noticeably more reticent about this bill that threatens to end a number of homosexual lives. Mentioning that the Archbishop of Uganda, Henry Orombi, has "not taken a position on the bill", Archbishop Williams does not follow up this observation with the kind of rounded condemnation of Orombi that he was not afraid to make of Gene Robinson. Could it be that Archbishop Williams is less bothered by the passage of this bill than by the promotion of equal rights for gay people?

Not only is Archbishop Williams, in this bizarre failure to make the key issue one of homosexuals being viciously attacked by the Ugandan government, out of step with general opinion in the UK, but he is also apparently surprised by the nature of the Roman Catholic Church. When questioned about the recent attempt of the Pope to run off with members of the Anglican Communion who are unable to accept such heresies as gay and women bishops, Archbishop Williams mentions surprise about the way he was wasn't consulted and laments that: "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the whole doesn't go in for much consultation".

As is made clear by the Vatican itself, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is what, in less polite times, was known as the Inquisition so, no, it would follow that such a body isn't really a consultative one, more, shall we say, directorial in its view of the world. In its constitution (article 51, sub-section 1) it makes quite clear that it sees its competence to include examination of "books and writings" in order (article 51, sub-section 2) to "reprove" those thought to contravene Church doctrine. It is, in other words, as it always was, the censorial arm of the Church, the one that spreads universal love by means of as harsh repressive apparatus as it is able to build in any given country.

The existence of such bodies as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and of such duplicitous people as the Archbishop of Canterbury are doubtless the reason why governments (and not just in the UK) have a tendency in the contemporary world to relate to certain manifestations of "faith" as indicative of an "oddball" mentality. Not only is this so but the formation of states that are in their general outlook, if not always in their constitutions, secular in character, is indicative of an acceptance that there are problems with viewing government and public policy as open to being shaped by the orientations of those of "faith".

It is often pointed out that there are contrary tendencies in most religions and that religious leaders are capable of mobilising the resources of their traditions in any number of ways. This is certainly true and it is beyond doubt that the Reverend Martin Luther King and such contemporary luminaries as Bishop Desmond Tutu, derive authority when opposing oppression (which Bishop Tutu extended, unlike Archbishop Williams, to opposing oppression of homosexuals) from their status as people of faith. On this basis it is then argued that there are good reasons to fear "privatization of faith". However, in response it has to be said that the general basis of intervention of religious leaders in politics has not been and is not likely to become, encouraging. The notion that there should need to be an appeal to doctrines that are said to rest upon historical revelations in order to condemn oppression is one that hardly merits examination and, noticeably, those religious leaders who do engage in such condemnation necessarily have to offer secular rationales for doing so, rationales that include accounts of the common good.

All debates that involve reasoned accounts of policy in the public sphere should be welcomed but there is no specifically privileged role that religious leaders have in such discussion and certainly no grounds for listening to them when they claim that oppressive laws are required because mandated by some obscure reference of ancient provenance in their sacred texts. Public discussion of policy in a contemporary society should not be grounded on texts that were produced in societies of quite a different sort to ours and whose moralities often do not bear critical examination.

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