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Mark Fox: Chuck it, Baldry - stop knocking Rowan Williams

Screen shot 2011-06-23 at 16.08.06 In the current edition of the Church Times, Tony Baldry takes the Archbishop of Canterbury to task for his recent observations on government policy, made when he was guest editing the New Statesman.

Baldry expresses dislike for the way the criticisms were made, comparing the Archbishop to a heckler in Parliament Square, charges him with not understanding the problems the government faces and says Ministers "simply feel monumentally misunderstood by the Archbishop". He continues with the suggestion that he hopes Church of England bishops will take the opportunity of the summer recess to meet with their MPs and better acquaint themselves with government policy - surely MPs and bishops already make it a point to meet to discuss their respective "patches" He finishes with a none-too-subtle flourish about why the Church will need the support of Government MPs when it comes to the issues of House of Lords reform and the passing of the legislation for women bishops.

Absent from the article was any engagement with the concerns Archbishop Rowan raised. So what you might say? Archbishops of Canterbury traditionally attack governments. Backbenchers like to tell senior clerics to stick to preaching the gospel and keep their noses out of politics.
But Mr Baldry is the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the linkman between the House of Commons and the Church of England. He is also the only MP to sit in the General Synod – the churches ‘parliament’. This can’t be an easy role. Presumably it is one that requires tact, discretion and certain level of diplomatic skill.
Even in its current weakened state the Church of England has an important and legitimate role to play in the wider national public debate. On the same day as Archbishop Rowan’s article was published the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, also made a significant speech on government policy and the Big Society (which is worth reading).

On his recent visit the Pope made the point in his Westminster Hall address that the church should not be driven from the public square. Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said that people who suggested the church should stay out of politics were not reading the same gospel as the one he read. The Archbishop of Canterbury not only has a right to contribute to public debate but has a duty to do so.
There is something rather moving about Baldry’s suggestion that Ministers feel "monumentally misunderstood by the Archbishop" - as well as perhaps just a little pathetic. Most Ministers are pretty robust characters. On the whole, you don’t get to be a Minister unless you are quite a tough cookie. But if they do feel quite so misunderstood why don’t they pick up the telephone and invite themselves over to Lambeth Palace for a cup of tea and a chat? Why hasn’t Baldry been more effective in ensuring there is better mutual understanding?
It is certainly the case that Lambeth Palace has not in recent times been very adept at putting across the views of the Archbishop, or indeed of his predecessor. It continues to display all the hallmarks of amateurism that does so much damage to the Archbishop’s public ministry. It might well have been better, for example, to have placed an article in the Daily Telegraph - or even Conservative Home! It would have been better still if instead of a series of comment pieces and lectures, the Archbishop built a broader base both inside and outside of the church for his views. The reason why Archbishop Robert Runcie was so effective as a leader was that he carefully built coalitions and policy platforms. The Faith in the City report had a huge impact and left a lasting legacy for the better on public policy because it was the product of a broadly based and substantial piece of work.
In his response, the Prime Minister displayed his usual courtesy and diplomatic skill in strongly disagreeing with the Archbishop whilst strongly defending his right to say what he said. All too easily, the Archbishop’s comments passed into and out of the news cycle, barely leaving an impression. That is what should worry the church - that its voice is increasingly unable to make a lasting impact in the way Archbishop Runcie did with "Faith in the City" or Archbishop William Temple did with "Christianity and Social Order" - another example of a really substantial piece of work.

In the meantime, perhaps the Second Church Estates Commissioner should show a similar style and skill to that of the Prime Minister, make better use of his unique position in public life and try and bring the House of Bishops and the House of Commons into a better understanding of one another. That may or may not lead to an increase in sympathy for each other’s point of view, but it would certainly be a valuable contribution to our public life.


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