Williams the "red tory"

When Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury most of the liberal portions of the Anglican Communion were delighted. But, as we've heard repeatedly over the past couple of days, they were quickly disappointed. The problem Giles Fraser argues is not that Williams' changes his thinking, but that most people assumed he was liberal rather than a radical.

In a weekend essay by Fraser on Williams' ministry as Archbishop, Fraser explains it this way:

"When Williams arrived at Canterbury most people thought he was a theological liberal – gay friendly, in favour of women's ordination, something of a leftie. After all, he had been arrested on an anti-nuclear demo. But most people read him wrong – radical yes, liberal no. He was the spiritual equivalent, perhaps even the inspiration behind, to what Philip Blond later came to popularise as Red Toryism. He distrusted unfettered market forces, but also, and against the spirit of the age, the emphasis on individual freedom that went with it. His was a nostalgia for an old-fashioned ideal of community - perhaps even the sort of community of the South Wales village - where collective solidarity is always more important than individual choice and social diversity.

When guest editing the Today programme, he was asked to pick his favourite sound. He went for the chatter of the village post office. It was the sort of place where he's most at home – the world where people keep their back doors open and spend time together in the pub and church. His theology is the poetry of community. But it only works where people share a whole lot in common. Which is why Williams never really felt comfortable in so fast paced and diverse a place as London.

All this communitarianism crucially shaped his understanding of the church. He cared little for ecclesiastical flummery. He once teased me that I had gone native with the dressing up culture of St Paul's. "Red buttons, Giles. It always starts with red buttons." Indeed, he was making a point when he wore a black clerical shirt and not a bishop's purple one. To him, the church is a much more serious business. It is where the individual moral choices of its members have to be subsumed to the will of the whole."

In other words, it was Williams' commitment to community that won out over his commitment to the people outside the community. Make sense?

Comments (12)

When one disregards the moral implications of one's own actions and submits to the will of the majority, one abrogates what the Quakers call the Inner Light--the essence of the divine that is in all of us, and that calls us to do what is right, even when unpopular.

Eric Bonetti

Such a simplistic and idealistic communitarianism only works when one finds oneself already the privileged sort and condition. St. Paul's notion of community is far more complex than this and makes room for distinctiveness in community.

It is comparatively easy for us as Americans who lead towards individualism to slam Archbishop Rowan for his emphasis on the unity of the whole as opposed to individual rights. As much as we have the advantages that such an individualistic emphasis affords us when it comes to rights and liberties, we also have the accompanying challenge of less accountability for our actions.

So before we are quick to pluck the speck out of our brother's eye, we might well pause to look for lumber in our own.

Rights should always be balanced with responsibilities. While we may deride our English brothers and sisters for their emphasis on the latter, our emphasis on the former could use some work as well. A little more collective morality might well have prevented some of the more eggregious Wall Street abuses in recent years.

Red Toryism isn't a new concept in Canada, and certainly requires no quotation marks.

Hi Tom. You raise a good point about collective responsibility--an issue that is all too often ignored in our society.

In the case of Rowan, however, actions such as his alleged request that the BP withdraw from participation in the church's standing committee (http://is.gd/F618di), his actions (or lack thereof) concerning the appointment Jeffrey John (http://is.gd/YOGpQC), are deeply troubling.

In a nutshell, my concern about Williams is that he has too often sought to exclude those whose views differ from his own, or who differ from him as individuals, seemingly out of deference to the will of the many. And I will never accept that this paradigm justifies the mistreatment of minorities of any ilk.

As to the church in the UK, the results of the voting on the Covenant suggest Williams' approach is problematic on both sides of the pond.

I do suspect, however, that part of Williams' issue has been his failure to articulate his notion of the importance of the church as the body of Christ. Had he done a better job of speaking to this issue, Rowans' missteps would likely have been viewed in a more positive manner.

Eric Bonetti

Is this another way of saying that Williams is too catholic?

Today's issue of the Rupert Murdoch-owned "Sun" ("Populist, right wing" - Wiki) has the finest headline on the Rowan succession stakes to date - "Sun columnist favourite to be next Archbishop of Canterbury".


Tom, it is probably worth pointing out that the author of this particular piece quit his job at St. Paul's Cathedral in London rather than be complicit in the forceable removal of the Occupy protestors. He, at least, needs no reminders about the abuses of the global financial sector, having concentrated much of his ministry at St. Paul's on convening groups to discuss this issue at the St. Paul's Institute.

I think too, that one can't really speak of collective anything if the unity of the collective is achieved by excluding certain individuals. Rowan Williams pursued the unity of the collective by perpetuating the exclusion of LGBT Christians.

Malcolm, most of our audience is in the United States, and are unfamiliar with the phrase "red tory."

No, I will remain critical of Archbishop Williams because his notion of community and his ecclesiology requires that anyone unlike the majority subsume themselves and take whatever violence is meted out to them if we do not.

William's notion of community and ecclesiology cannot deal with evil in the community; and hence, cannot deal with situations like Jim Crow or Apartheid or even domestic violence.

There is another Archbishop whose theology can: Desmond Tutu.

@Christopher Evans "William's notion of community and ecclesiology cannot deal with evil in the community; and hence, cannot deal with situations like Jim Crow or Apartheid or even domestic violence."

Yes. As Jeffrey John was very recently pointing out, just a few decades ago it was the church that was out ahead of the government in terms of LGBT rights. Now it is the church that is behind, and folks like Rowan who very recently said the government isn't listening to the public when it comes to marriage equality although of course he didn't use the phrase marriage equality.

And as Bishop James Jones said only yesterday, you can't freeze things in place.

The forces against evil move about. Sometimes it is the church, sometimes it is government. In the US in the case of state-sanctioned Jim Crow sometimes it is the courts, sometimes it is federal government. And sometimes it can be the church. Justice delayed is justice denied. You can't wait for every defender of the status quo to come around.

Rights should always be balanced with responsibilities. While we may deride our English brothers and sisters for their emphasis on the latter, our emphasis on the former could use some work as well.

Tom--one of the reasons I came to the Episcopal Church and stayed was because I found that the parishes I encountered did an excellent job of balancing the need to address both corporate and individual sin. I've been a member of four Episcopal parishes in three different states since I joined up in 1996, and every one of them has tackled both sides of the equation. Do you think my experience is unusual?

This is an interesting distinction, the one between the Archbishop's radicality versus his presumed liberalism. It sounds in some ways very much like his student, John Milbank, where we can see the implications of many of Archbishop Williams' theological position taking on real-world shape. If you doubt this, note well that Phillip Blond, mentioned in the article, did his Ph.D. with John Milbank, who did his with Rowan Williams. Not a coincidence.

Add your comments

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

Advertising Space