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Williams the “red tory”

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?

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Scott MacDougall

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.

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Paige Baker

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?

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John B. Chilton

@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.

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Christopher Evans

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.

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Jim Naughton

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."

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