The wisest fool in Christendom

According to Jeremy Paxman on the BBC programme Newsnight last night (Friday) (click “Watch Now” on this page, but probably only until Monday), King James I was called “the wisest fool in Christendom”,

because he never said a foolish thing or did a wise one.

But Paxman suggested that Archbishop Rowan Williams has inherited this mantle.

I was privileged to meet this morning (Saturday), for the first time, one of Paxman’s guests, John Richardson, who blogs at The Ugley Vicar and Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream. We met only hours after Paxman interviewed Richardson, at the meeting where I also heard Bishop Pete Broadbent speak. Richardson drew my attention to another wonderful quote from Paxman on the programme:

How do you solve a problem like sharia?

You need to get the pronunciation right for this: rhyme with “Maria”.

The Archbishop’s comments on sharia law have apparently generated easily the biggest response the BBC has had to any story – 17,000 comments in 24 hours, the great majority critical of Williams. Yes, there has been a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of bigotry, but also a lot of concern about the principle that Williams is conceding to Muslims a place in our society which not even Christians can properly claim. He is not just rejecting the secular understanding of society, he is also not upholding the Anglican one.

The most worrying aspect of this story is its effect not here in the UK but in places like Nigeria and Pakistan where Christians are already under threat from sharia law. In an interview with the BBC (listen here?, a transcription here) Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Jos, Nigeria, said:

Our people here are in shock that an Anglican Archbishop is calling for Sharia Law. If the Christians are the ones asking for Sharia Law, now that will be used against us who are saying that we do not think Sharia law will help the cause of freedom and the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ in Northern Nigeria. …

… once you ask for the first step of Sharia law you are going to get to the last of it. By 1960 when Nigeria got Independence, it began as penal code. Once it came to this generation they upgraded it to full blown Sharia. So it is only a matter of time when you begin from somewhere that you get to the real thing.

Actually I don’t think Williams had any credibility in Nigeria before this controversy, but he has lost any shred of it that might have remained, and along with it any remaining chance of persuading the Nigerian bishops to attend the Lambeth Conference. But I expect he has forgotten this issue by now.

There have been great theological thinkers before on the Chair of St Augusine. I think immediately of Anselm and Cranmer, and more recently of William Temple. As a theologian Rowan Williams may deserve to be listed with these. But as an archbishop upsetting the state authorities by taking up matters of religious law, with disastrous results for himself, he is perhaps to be compared more with Thomas Becket. I hope no one is considering another murder in the Cathedral, but people are asking “Who will rid us of this troublesome priest?” Of course only Williams himself is able to take this step.

As Paxman pointed out, he is the author of his own misfortune.

Meanwhile Michael Daley of the very unofficial Lambeth Conference blog has gone one step further than I have. I, like several General Synod members, have called on Archbishop Williams to resign. Michael has actually predicted that he will resign, even that he is deliberately planning his departure:

Dr. Williams has, in essence, lost it. He has lost the will to carry on being the Archbishop of a church divided along the lines of two opposing and mutually exclusive theologies that are threatening to erupt into a full schism. He is a thinker (and that’s fine and necessary), but he is not a healer. I would suggest he is tired and has lost interest in trying to keep two warring factions together. He has, rather, moved on to loftier and more interesting things. Enter Sharia.

…In his mind, perhaps, he will win a victory in terms of bringing a measure of peace to the United Kingdom, but he also knows it comes at great cost. That cost is his effectiveness as an instrument of unity in the Anglican Communion. In short, we think he’s leaving it. The Archbishop is on his way out, he knows it, he may want it, but he wants to say ‘I made a difference’ at the end of it all and fulfill his liberal ideals before resigning around the time of the Lambeth Conference.

I wonder. This scenario seems to make sense of his recent actions in a way that no other explanation I have seen does, short of Williams having “gone bonkers”. I don’t know if Williams was actually planning in advance to resign. But I am sure that he is now at least considering it. But, as I already responded to Michael, if he is going to resign, he needs to do so now, and not “around the time of the Lambeth Conference”, so that someone else can get a shot at picking up the pieces. Also, whereas Michael suggests Wright of Durham as a replacement, I wrote:

As for a replacement, much as I like Wright, I don’t think we want another eminent theologian. If not Nazir-Ali, I would propose Sentamu, who is at least a man of decisive action.

10 thoughts on “The wisest fool in Christendom

  1. Peter:

    This is a very thoughtful article. Thanks for posting it. One thing I neglected to ask you is why you don’t think we want another eminent scholar?

    Sentamu seems an intriguing choice, to me. Though Nazir-Ali would top my list, I would not have thought him very – palatable, shall we say – to some of the CofE sensibilities. Though perhaps I am underestimating the influence of Evanglicals in Great Britain.

    Pax Christi,

  2. Peter,

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I was planning to write a post on this issue because some people here want to know what I believe about this issue.

    Even some Baptists here in Chicago are asking me why the Anglican Church is advocating Sharia law. Although he may not be advocating Sharia law, in the minds of some people, Williams’s words seem to favor Sharia law.

    I think it is unfortunate that Williams is saying that Sharia law is inevitable. To many people, Williams is saying that England will become a Islamic country soon.

    I agree with you: although I am not an Anglican, Williams should resign for the sake of the church.

    Claude Mariottini

  3. That was the most ignorant statement that could have come from the mouth of a leader of a church. He has not only made the Anglican Church look like traitors to religious freedom and Christianity. He has also spoken way beyond his authority as the Archbishop of Cant’y. I would like to see him resign but I highly doubt that would happen.

  4. Michael, Claude and Kevin, thanks for your comments.

    I should explain why I wrote “I don’t think we want another eminent theologian.” My point is not that having an eminent theologian is bad. It is rather that what we need is someone who is a decisive leader, skilled in what it takes to lead an international organisation in the public eye, which includes knowing how to handle the media. This is what Williams lacks.

    I’m not sure about Wright, but his comments which I reported recently, which led him to be accused of a “spirit of cultural superiority”, suggest that he is also somewhat lacking in this area.

    Of course if we can find a leader who has the necessary leadership skills and is also an eminent theologian, so much the better. But I don’t see theological eminence as a primary qualification for the job.

  5. With great sadness I have to say that Williams will probably go when he has managed to do the greatest harm possible.
    As I said in a previous comment I consider Williams to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
    If his theology was as eminent as people seem to think then he wouldn’t be the disaster that he has turned out to be.
    Where he has ended up has been an obvious destination for a long time and these calls for his resignation should have been voiced sooner.

  6. With all due respect Peter I think you will find that he is more than a little ‘out of line’ with his theology as well.

  7. Glenn, I am certainly not defending Rowan’s theology. But I think that most people who teach theological error do so out of ignorance and confusion rather than with the deliberate intent of harming the church.

  8. I’m not sure what the worry here is. He’s proposing that people can choose to contract together to follow a set of rules that the society at large doesn’t follow and that the UK government should allow this the way the US government has for years. I’m no fan of much of what Williams has done, but I don’t see why this is supposed to be evidence of any further slippage. It’s a pretty reasonable proposal.

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