It’s time to name the gods: some reflections on some reactions to Rowan Williams’ recent lecture

There are a number of really disturbing features about the reaction to Rowan Williams’ recent lecture, Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective. I want to highlight just three:

1. Thus far, by far the loudest responses have come from those who have not even read the lecture. For a clarification of what Rowan did and did not propose see this post on What did the Archbishop actually say?

2. The element of fear (encouraged by fear politics and a lazy and irresponsible and basically unaccountable media) that exists in the community gut; a fear bred and fed from mistrust and ignorance.

3. Most disturbing, however, has been the coming to the surface of some idols – ‘Christian’ and otherwise – that exist in Britain (and in other places too). As I’ve been listening, and reading responses, to the lecture itself – and to many précised distortions of it! – what is becoming most obvious to me is that here we have a battle of cultus’, cultus’ that must be defended at all costs, whether true to the gospel or not. Nothing more informs a community – religious or otherwise – than its allegiance to its particular cultus. In his On Being The Church Of Jesus Christ In Tumultuous Times (reviewed here) Jones makes the timely observation that ‘one symptom of the disarray in the church today is that most of its actual members are more decisively formed and informed by their national identity than by their identity as disciples of Jesus Christ’ (p. xxi). He proceeds to note that all politics are simply the practices, conversations and processes of forming and sustaining particular communities. The question here for Christians therefore is, ‘What politic will inform our life together and our life-in-relation to others?’ This at least means – alongside a host of other questions – asking the question, ‘What does it mean to love our neighbour as ourselves?’

Agree with him or not, Archbishop Williams’ public comments here – as always – are informed by deep and engaging thought with the gospel itself, and with the implications for the Church and her witness in mind. Here, Williams is an exemplary leader. That the volume has been turned down – and that not least by many Church leaders – on the Truth to which Williams seeks to bear witness is, to my mind, a cause of greater concern than anything that he said, or did not say, in this recent lecture. If we’re going to have a public debate on these things – as we ought – let’s make sure we are absolutely clear on what the issues really are, and are not. Anything less is a destructive and painful waste of everyone’s time. Of course, the issues will be different for members who align themselves with different cultus’. That is unavoidable … but it’s time (and it always is) to name the gods.

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