Sunday, March 22, 2009

Rowan Williams: Britain "uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion."

The Irish Times Reports:
Britain is not a secular country but is “uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion”, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said today.

The archbishop made the comments during a speech at Leicester Cathedral, entitled Faith in the Public Square .

Speaking to about 400 people from across Leicestershire, he said although British attendance at church may not compare to 200 years ago, the church offered something that could not be found elsewhere.

He dismissed ideas that Britain is “secular” or “religiously divided” were cliches and said: “I don’t believe we are living in a secular society and I don’t believe we are living in a deeply religiously divided society.

“I believe we are living in a country that is uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion and doesn’t quite know what to do with it and I believe we are living in a society which is religiously plural and confused and therefore not necessarily hostile.”

Dr Williams said church attendance may not be as high as it once was but although Britain may have become “secularised” it is not yet “secular”.

“We are haunted, we need somewhere to put certain bits of our humanity and there’s nowhere else except religious language and imagery,” he said.

“The piles of flowers that you see on the site of road accidents are the most potent symbols of a society haunted by religion and not clear on what to do about it.

“The church is still a place where people have got the emotions that won’t go anywhere else.”

The archbishop hosted a question-and-answer session after his short speech today.

He also said although Britain is now host to a “plurality” of religions and cultures, it is not necessary to deny the country’s Christian past.

He said: “It’s partly that which has turned us historically hospitable to people of other faiths and cultures.”

When answering whether the church is governed by political correctness in its attitude to other faiths, he criticised “paranoid bureaucrats” for approaching issues of religion with an “intense anxiety”.

“The ideal in a plural society is everyone has the respect to say what they want.

“A country in which we are all so nervous about offending each other that we do not say what we think is not a free society.”

He also said there was a place for finding a combination of religious law and the law of the land, referring to past comments about Sharia law that sparked controversy at the time.

The Archbishop today said: “I was not recommending the imposition of Sharia Law in the UK.

“I was saying that it’s a very complex, rather taxing question how the law of The land deals with religious law and comes within it. Can we envisage a society in which our fundamental liberties are guaranteed but that they can solve certain problems within their own law, subject to the law of the land?

“I think there still is a case that the law of the state ought to be finding what combination is possible without compromising fundamental liberties.”
Read it all here.


MadPriest said...

The ideal in a plural society is everyone has the respect to say what they want.

Except, of course, that you don't want to live in a plural society.

We do not have the freedom of speech that Americans enjoy.

Unknown said...

Hop that Pond and spend an hour or three watching BBC's news and "documentaries" as they either reflect or project an agenda far from what we could call "pluralistic" in any sane or proper sense. Islam is advocated in Christian-ese terms blasphemous to a Muslim's ears. Islam is treated as a kind, compassionate, and enlightened way of life, while Christianity, if mentioned at all, is "Religion," the root of all evil. In such a climate, the slightest nod to sharia would be cracking the front door to a full-on mob.

Anonymous said...

But Mad Priest, you aren't an advocate for free speech, you support exactly what you've got now. And there are those like you in the US seeking to destroy free speech here.

Unknown said...

I am interested in what you mean, MP. I am remembering "Speakers Corner" in London where people could say just about anything, except against the Queen (is that still true) which frankly, I thought was a limitation of free speech (but perhaps it would more akin to shouting "fire" in a theatre than it would be in America). I also recall that in England there is a lot stricter limits (or perhaps to look at it another way, that the interpretation is far broader) on what constitutes libel.

There have been things published regarding the royal family in America, for example (I'm thinking of FDR's files on Edward VIII that were published in the United States, but I am not sure they have been even now published in the UK). Is this what you mean?


Topper said...

"I believe we are living in a country that is uncomfortably haunted by the memory of religion and doesn’t quite know what to do with it ..."
(1) I think by "religion" he must mean Christianity. I suspect few Moslems would think of their faith as something they are "haunted by."
(2) It's a horrible metaphor that he is using anyway. Usually we talk of haunting due to ghosts, who are undead people won't go away. They are unpleasant things that we want to get rid of.
(3) What I think he is trying to express is, in fact true. There is a deep spiritual need placed in each person, and this will not be denied. It persists however much we try to secularize ourselves.
(4) As Christians, we believe this need can only be genuinely met by a living relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
(5) He apprehends and says this in such an obscure, negative and joyless way, that it lacks any evangelistic appeal.

MadPriest said...

I think it is more to do with our culture than our law. Matters such as race and left wing politics, for example, have become taboo subjects unless you strictly adhere to the line deemed acceptable by an alliance of liberal activists, commercial interests, the media and the government of the day (whoever they are).

When I visit people in their homes they will talk honestly about their worries about Islam. But they will no longer do so in public for fear of censure and ridicule (or even losing their jobs). And I am not talking about hate speech, just people saying they preferred living in a basically Christian land.

I am, of course, English and, although more outspoken than the norm, I am still imbued with English reserve. It has taken me a long time to get my head around, and accept as valid, the American attitude to (almost) total, free speech. The American belief in free speech gives rise to some really scary stuff (the Phelps phenomenon being the obvious example), but it is a far simpler, and logically consistent, attitude than the English one. Above all, the English cultural attitude to free speech allows the agencies that rule us to be far more controlling of us. Remember, "1984" and it's idea of "Newspeak" was not referring to Russia (as many people think) but to our own situation here in England.

Anon. When I start encouraging my readership to email bishops in order to curtail an individuals right to free speech then you can call me out. Until that point I suggest you shove your predictably tedious words back up the orifice they came from.

RMBruton said...

No worry Rowan, we'll have those nasty ghosties exorcised in no time and you'll be able to sleep peacefully with no fear of things that go bump in the night.

Unknown said...

That is interesting, MP. I can remember in college I studied theatre in London in my junior year and while I was living in London there was a massive strike (something we just don't have in the United States) in support of what i think were called health care workers. The entire city shut down and Hyde Park was filled with strikers and speeches and carrying on. The theatres did not go dark, however, and I remember I was at a show that evening at the Royal Shakespeare Company. After the play, the actors gathered on stage and gave speeches in support of the health care workers and of course, in rather fierce terms as I recall, against the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

I remember being quite put-off by the political speeches in the theatre and didn't understand what the fuss was about in regards to socialized medicine. But I did admire the tenacity that the political left were so free to criticize the government so openly, though I wonder now if iin the end it was far more capitalistic since many of them were actually employed by the government, including the actors in the Royal Shakespeare Company, and were concerned about the loss of financing that would mean liberating them from their own dependency on the government for employment. While the RSC actors were marching about, other actors like Kenneth Branaugh went out and created their own theatrical companies that were liberated from the malaise that soon took hold of those companies (and perhaps there was counterparts in other enterprises, including health care - though the health care system in England still strikes me as strange, not that ours is better though people seem to like to get on planes and come over here to get stuff done).

Of course, to compare London at that time to London today is extremely dramatic. But is it really? I am surprised by what you say, MP - I have thought that the toleration for free speech (and it's extremes) were higher in England. We're supposed to be the country with the Puritan past - I have thought that England was far more tolerant of "eccentricities" than we are known for in America.

But wait, I do recall Rowan Williams making the case that even same sex blessings were okay as long as it was done quietly and without any throwing of rice or with service leaflets, but without fuss in the inner sanctum of a clergyman's office. For Americans to turn it into a big show was so unseemly and so inconvenient - it seems to be that it was not so much a matter of the freedom of speech as it was ill-manners.

You do mention the English reserve (which perhaps is another way of saying good manners). American manners (or lack of them) are notorious but at the same time, pushing against the limits of what is true and what is social convention has often been one of the great American pastimes. Perhaps it's the size of the country and the limitless potential we envision we have (which is a major problem I had with Rowan Williams recent economic speech - his "good manners" extended to his economic ideas that I supposed we could draw a parallel between his economic "good manners" and the clapdown on free speech in Great Britain).

Perhaps it is that "limitless potential" that is both our great strength and at times our great fault. The whole "Go West, Young Man!" expression of our life and livelihood extends all the way to Space itself, or in the gigabyte. And perhaps that shows itself in our near recklessness in how outspoken we can be - the British may think before they act but we act first and ask questions later. Some times it really is bad manners and sometimes it is brilliant.

But yes, there needs to be a place of being willing to take the risk, but also to suffer the consequences in such a risk. We can sore to the great heights and plunge into the depths of despair. I think, in the case of the United States, this is why we need what we call the Midwest. We need stability, we need some of that British reserve and sensibility. That is our Midwest. If we were just the two coasts we'd be doomed.


MadPriest said...

Both left and right were demonised by Mrs Thatcher as she she followed a sort of mutant Darwinism based on individualism and the money markets. There is no longer a conservative party (just a capitalist party) and there is no longer a labour party (just another capitalist party). Labour had to ditch the word "socialist" and adopt a toned down Thatcherism to get elected. They are now more akin to your Democratic party.

Mrs Thatcher did this by making certain words mean something other than what they originally meant in the same way McCarthy did with socialism in the US and the way that we do with words like liberal and traditionalist. Subsequent governments, church leaders, social policy activists etc. have run with this so we now have a whole load of areas in life we can't be honest about in public. People, from bus drivers to government ministers do lose their jobs for being non PC. Of course, the same is true in the US but in England we are not even allowed to be humourously non PC in the way that many of your comedians do.

The reason I worry about this as a parish priest is because I know what people really think about such matters as immigration. And I know a heavy PC lid has been put on this kettle. There is a chance that the pressure in the pot may just get too much and then it will be horrible. I think it much better to allow people to speak about anything that worries or concerns them than to shame them into silence. Contrary to what anon. said above I have never called for anybody to be silenced. To do so would be hammering the nail into my own coffin.

When I started out I didn't intend to be big in America, but I'm glad I am as it is a much more dynamic and free forum than the English blogging scene.

Unknown said...

I do agree with what you are saying, especially about PC Language (where in one of the greatest ironies of them all there have been clamping down on free speech at Berkley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement). Even now there are calls to curtail free expression on the radio, for example, by bringing back a new version of the "Fairness Doctrine" - an Orwellian term if there ever was one.

One reason Anons are welcome here is that I do enjoy reading their comments - most of the time - and am often challenged by them, as well as those who post their names or their more creative names, like yours! Doubt is not a bad thing, even Oswald Chambers said that, saying that doubt means we're thinking. I may have convictions, obviously I do, but I do have doubts on how they should be most effectively and most winsomely applied. I quote it often, but it is a reigning principle around here, as Paul said, "It is for freedom Christ came to set us free." Freedom though is costly and it is bought with a price, on the battlefield or most especially on the cross.

I do see what you mean on the American practice of freedom of speech and thinking of Americans speaking so freely even at Lambeth. The campaign that the American Episcopalians conducted in Canterbury for Gene Robinson was absolutely in the American tradition, It was classic street politics. It used shame as a tool to attempt to convict the leadership of the Anglican Communion in their exclusion of the Bishop of New Hampshire. Their team were dedicated and consistent. But did it achieve the results they desired?

I am inclined to think not, at least for that group of people - though the media enjoyed it until the Archbishop of the Sudan spoke out and the tide seemed to turn against them and they began to disappear into the woodwork (and the outing of extracurricular activities of one of the major spokesman was not a help either). In my opinion, there "Americaness" outweighed their effectiveness in getting their message across. In fact, I felt oddly protective of them because I felt like turning had less to do with their ideological beliefs as the fact that they were American. I still believe that.

The response of the Archbishop of Canterbury, however, is as you said. The Americans showed their bad manners, they did not act appropriate for the station in which these bishops are expected to operate. Sometimes I think our accents are bad manners, it would be best to just be quiet for our very accents denote rebellion, a constant reminder that we rejected the monarchy and the British way of life and therefore we are by our very existence are radical. We are the personification of bad manners. We are defiantly common.

The thing is, by and large, Americans (whatever side of the aisle we are on - again, this transcends politics) don't care. No really. We find the trappings of good manners as being insincere. We don't even know the rules and we can't even play them because we can't hide the fact, no matter what, that we are American. Our very existence is the result of bad manners.

I say this half in jest, but do I really? I can remember on many, many occasions when I've been in England or Scotland being stopped on the street and asked directions by visitors, often British themselves (must be the red hair). When I might attempt to pull out my map and help them I would be greeted often by the look of surprise (sometimes masking horror no doubt, with their good manners) that of all the people they picked out to ask directions, they picked an American. I remember getting off a train in Inverness, Scotland and stopped by English tourists outside the station for directions and when I pulled out my map and began to show them where to go, they stepped back and said, "Oh God! You're an American!"

Part of me was chagrined, but part of me was, like "Well, yeah!" and thinking "and that you're not speaking German has something to do with that."

That's got to be in play as well. Seriously, though, I do think we may be at a crossroads right now. How bad is this current crisis? Is it just a typical downturn and we'll rebound soon and the economy will shift and we'll carry on as we have in the past after other major downturns? It's hard to say right now. In so many ways, we're still recovering from 9-11, a pivotal moment in American history. For the first time ever, we were attacked on our own soil, in the continental United States. We all watched it happen. We found out that we do play by some rules after all and those rules were destroyed that day. We're still recovering. It seems that these days we are acting as though there is no tomorrow.

We may have a few things to learn from the Mother Country - and humility may be one of them.

And that humility, MP, is what you've shown us here today.


Of course, your saving virtue, as we all know, is your love for cats. That covers a multitude of sins, for if one wants to learn humility, one must have a cat.

MadPriest said...

Thanks, BB. But it's less humility and more following that great English tradition as practiced in our House Of Commons. You hurl the nastiest of insults at each other across the chamber all day and then afterwards you retire to the members bar together and act as if nothing untoward was said. Life is contextual. I mean, consider how many people in an average size church congregation would differ with you on any number of profound issues. I you discussed them every time you met there would soon be nobody in your church. In stead, when you do meet you discuss matters on which you have things in common. Then you go back to the fray in whatever forum you choose to do you fighting.

I have never fought on your blog because the Kaeton woman warned me very early on that I would probably lose. And MadPriest's mother didn't raise no fool.