"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

For the Archbishop('s critics)

Well, some of them anyway. Meant to leave this one alone but after reading dsquared's comments casually slinging the accusation of racism at Butterflies and Wheels - a blog that criticises all religion and all manners of superstition without fear or favour - I feel the need to pick it up again. Because he's not alone in apparently believing that the only possible motivation for criticising stupid comments made by the unelected head of an institution that discriminates against gays and women and which controls around a third of the schools in England is 'Islamaphobia' and/or hostility to 'intellectuals'. I really must demur. Here's two or three of the criticisms of the critics, which I intend to criticise.

1) What about Ben Dith courts?

There may be reasons to think that what the Archbishop was proposing is not comparable - but my objection to this line is a little different: why is it being assumed that critics of the Archbishop support the status quo? Personally I was unaware that Ben Dith courts existed and I can't say my knowledge of them has grown much in the last few days but if they legally institutionalise religious patriarchy, I think they should go too.

But this point goes to the heart of the matter, in my view. The fact that there is an established church at all means anomalies must by definition exist in the treatment of religions. Rowan Williams is of the view that this should be evened out by extending the privileges enjoyed by the Anglican church to other religious groups. This appears to be the view of others as well. Some of us disagree and think the solution would be a removal of the Church of England's privileges and a clearer separation of religion from the state. If you think the only reason one can have for taking such a view is 'Islamophobia' then quite frankly you're something of an asshole.

2) Critics of the Archbishop are anti-intellectual.

I'm sure Rowan Williams is both but I really must insist on drawing a distinction between an intellectual and an academic. Williams is certainly the latter. Now, I quite like academics. Some of my friends are academics. My own father was an academic. And I rather liked some of the academics who taught me at university. I especially appreciate those academics who have the ability to speak without all the 'unclarity'. Sometimes, though, I fear these are in a minority. Certain disciplines are worse than others. Sociologists are widely, and rightly, derided for their marginal propensity to talk shite. But from my own experience I would suggest educationalists often outmatch even sociologists with their impressive ability to talk jargon-laden bullshit than signifies very little. And theologians. I did some theology at university and I can assure you, few people can compete with theologians for the sheer obscurity of their dense and often near-mystical language. This is, in case anyone hadn't noticed, the background that Williams comes from and the idea that it is 'anti-intellectual' to point out the opaque nature of his speech is absurd. As Matthew Sinclair, who has been excellent on this subject, put it: "[W]e need to stop seeing dense language as a signal for intellect and deep thinking." Exactly so. Anyway, it wasn't the speech people were responding to it but his own summary of it on Radio 4 - which brings me to the final point.

3) Rowan Williams is being witch-hunted and is the victim of the 24hr media.

Ooh, read the speech, read the speech - you can't criticise the Archbishop on the basis of what he said on the radio. Thus saith the Archbishop's defenders. And why the hell not? Look: either his comments on the radio were a fair summary of what he said, in which case people are perfectly entitled to respond to his comments as they stood - or they were not, which means that the Archbishop is himself incapable of explaining what he meant in plain English. If this is so, he hardly has any grounds for complaining that others have misunderstood him.

I have to say, as someone with an interest in history, I can't help being struck by how light and momentary are the conditions that constitute a 'witch-hunt' these days. If the Church of England was disestablished, he'd be at perfect liberty to float potty ideas because these would be a matter only for his rapidly-diminishing congregation. But since disestablishment isn't going to happen any time soon, what he says is a matter for everyone. Conservatives are perfectly entitled to criticise the head of a conservative establishment for failing to be, well, conservative. And those of us who do not favour the retention of this conservative institution should be allowed to record our embarrassment that someone who is routinely described as 'thoughtful' and 'intellectual' does not appear to be able to understand what his job consists of. And we should also be allowed to record our objection to the idea that the solution to the anomalies in the way in which religions are treated in this country is to extend the privileges of the Church of England to all other 'faith groups'. For this is bound to favour groups rather than individuals, men rather than women, and the sacred over the secular. And if that isn't reactionary, I don't know what is.

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