Intellectual Arrogance and the Archbishop

Ruth Gledhill writes in The Times – not in her blog but in a proper newspaper article – about Archbishop Rowan Williams:

Although he is a holy and spiritual man, danger lies in the appearance of the kind of intellectual arrogance common to many of Britain’s liberal elite. It is an arrogance that affords no credibility or respect to the popular voice. And although this arrogance, with the assumed superiority of the Oxbridge rationalist, is not shared by his staff at Lambeth Palace, it is by some of those outside Lambeth from whom he regularly seeks counsel.

Neither the Archbishop nor his staff regard his speech as mistaken. They are merely concerned that it has been misunderstood. This characterises the otherworldliness that still pervades the inner sanctums of the Church of England.

I share with Dr Williams his Oxbridge rationalist background (as does Bishop NT Wright). I studied at Clare College, Cambridge a few years before Williams became Dean and Chaplain there. Jane Paul who later became Mrs Williams was a fellow student with me, and we worshipped together at the college chapel.

At Cambridge I saw this rationalism and intellectual arrogance at work, and to some extent I shared it. But then, called by God as I believe, I left the ivory towers and my plans for PhD studies to get a job in the real world of Essex, and to join a real church. Now, after 30 years and various travels, I am back in Essex and both living and worshipping on a former council estate used for housing single parent families and people with drug problems. And quite frankly I am much happier to be away from the world of intellectual arrogance and instead in touch with and listening to, although often not agreeing with, ordinary people in the real world.

Meanwhile, press coverage (summarised here; see also this BBC analysis) remains largely hostile to Williams. But the Church of England at its General Synod seems to have largely closed ranks around him, even giving him a standing ovation. Perhaps this is because the majority share Williams’ Oxbridge rationalism and are at least tinged with his intellectual arrogance. Only a small minority at the Synod, led by long-term critic Canon Chris Sugden of Anglican Mainstream (ironically also an Oxbridge rationalist) is publicly criticising him. So it looks as if Williams will survive this crisis unless he chooses to go himself. But the cost has been immense to the credibility of the Anglican church in this country, and even more so in places like Nigeria and Pakistan.

The most worrying thing is that Dr Williams doesn’t seem to care what ordinary people think or say. As Ruth Gledhill puts it,

Dr Williams holds such populist tendencies in disdain. … The difficulty [his chief adviser] and the Archbishop’s other advisers face is that Dr Williams does not believe he is in a hole, or that if he is, it is a false hole, one dug for him by the media.

0 thoughts on “Intellectual Arrogance and the Archbishop

  1. I can’t figure out myself why this has been received so badly, and I have to conclude as well that he’s been radically, and I do mean radically, misunderstood. What he’s proposing is done as a matter of course in the U.S. It’s nothing special. If two people want to contract privately with each other to conduct their business together under Shari’a law, then they can do so in the U.S. They can’t in the UK, and he’s proposing that that be changed. It seems like a no-brainer to me, but people are treating him as if he wants women to be forced to wear veils and such things.

    But then I haven’t read the speech. Maybe he really did do a terrible job explaining what he meant. But it would have to be absolutely terrible to be so unclear as to justify this radical a misunderstanding. I have a hard time believing that all of the fault is Williams’. A lot of people are just predisposed to hear things they can complain about.

  2. Jeremy: I believe he’s been radically misunderstood as well – and alot of people are just predisposed to hear what they can complain about. You can read his lecture via various blogs – but if you get a chance, take a look at Ben Myers ‘Faith and Theology’ and through him, Mike Higton (the world’s leading expert on Rowan Williams), on the blog ‘Kai Euthus’. Also Metacatholic and Connexions.

  3. But, Jeremy, here in the UK people CAN and do privately agree to conduct their business according to Sharia law (at least that’s how I understand things). So if Rowan is simply calling for that it is indeed a no-brainer, which is certainly not something I would expect from someone as brainy as him. He denies wanting to allow Sharia criminal penalties like flogging and amputation, or Sharia marriage law which so oppresses women. So what does he want, or consider inevitable? I don’t think the answer has ever been made clear (and I have read the lecture). But perhaps he is really thinking in terms of religious opt-outs from various legal requirements, which he considers desirable because they also help Christians. If so, I support him, but by bringing Sharia into the issue he has turned a ripple in a teacup into a major hurricane.

    Yes, I’m sure he has been misunderstood. But it is the responsibility of leaders like himself to explain themselves and present their cases to the media in ways which avoid this kind of misunderstanding. The basis of my call for his resignation, to repeat myself, is his ineptitude in handling the media and public opinion, based on his apparent belief that such things are unimportant.

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