Friday, 16 March 2012

The pogonophobes claim another scalp

Yes, bearded Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has stepped down, and is to take up the Master's post at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't intrude on private grief, not being Christian, let alone a member of the Church of England. However, Rowan's an interesting guy, and symptomatic of the crisis of faith and more specifically of mainstream Anglicanism. Before that, of course, I knew of him through his very fine, sensitive work as a Welsh literary critic. That's why I've maintained an interest in him: he's a leftwing, cultured, Welsh-speaking intellectual who through some bizarre twist of fate found himself at the head of a church which distrusts intellectuals, left-wingers, and exists locked in a fatal embrace with government and the crown. Visit any Cathedral and you'll see monarchical symbols and the flags of various army regiments celebrating their heroic victories against - as Blackadder  put it - pygmies armed with sharpened fruit.

Christianity went wrong very early: when the church got into bed with the Roman Empire, and the C of E is no different - formed because a king wanted a new wife rather than for theological reasons (though those debates were bloodily raging), the C of E made its accommodation with power early on, and lost some of its raison d'être in the process. Torn between competing factions (conservatives, radicals, Low Church, High Church, homophobes and progressives, misogynists and feminists, Rowan Williams inherited a sect at war, and his 'why can't we all get along?' message was drowned out amidst the internecine bloodletting.

That's why he's interesting: he's a gentle intellectual amongst barbarians. Despite not sharing an iota of his beliefs, I respected his essential kindness and moderation: I felt his moral compass pointed in the right direction, even though he thought God was the lodestone and I think human decency is reason enough. He was a civilising influence on British society, and I suspect his retirement will be detrimental both to his church and the public sphere. The C of E will get some Tory-friendly git who will abandon Jesus's tedious social justice nonsense and concentrate on what's really important: bashing gays and grovelling to the queen. Just like the old days.

There's only one thing I object to about his retirement. He's off to a classic Establishment job, as head of a Cambridge college. It feels a bit predictable. With his interests and his radical politics (he referred to himself as a 'bearded lefty'), I'm a bit disappointed that he's taken his talents off to serve another privileged élite. If I remember correctly, Jesus ministered to the prostitutes, the sick and the outcast - not the sons and daughters of the gentry. Rowan's certainly earned a rest - but did it have to be so tediously English?

Still, if he needs some cash, he could put on a tour with his mates Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins. LIVE! BARE KNUCKLE TAG-TEAM DEBATING! HE'S GOT GOD ON HIS SIDE! THEY'VE GOT SCIENCE AND REASON! WHO'LL PREVAIL? ONLY ON RADIO 4 AND PAY PER VIEW!

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