rowan williams and “subversive” christianity

31 10 2011

The whole Christian tradition, all the way back to Paul (Romans 13) seems to pulsate in that tense place between obeying lawful authority as a way of getting on with serving Christ, and disobeying authority when the need to follow God’s prophetic call to justice gets strong enough – the limits are seen as different by various traditions, but the basic tension is there for everyone. It may come as some surprise then to see an Anglican Archbishop reported critically in the Telegraph last month for his involvement with Christian social justice groups as young man in the 1980s:


In my view, the Archbishop of Canterbury clearly has a role in public life beyond that of most Christian leaders, for centuries his predecessors have provided commentary on British political life, for good or ill. Even more interesting is what the article criticises Dr Williams for. He stands accused of being involved in setting up a ‘left-wing Christian group . . . identified as a “problem” neo-Marxist organisation’ by intelligence services. This group is none other than the now widely known Jubilee Group, co-founded by Ken Leech (speaker, SCM Conference 2011), which was a Christian activist/social justice group with its roots in the Anglo-Catholic movement. From that perspective, Williams, Leech and others provided a pointed critique of the injustices of the global market, the social effects of poverty in Britain and the continued use of weapons of mass destruction.


According to the Telegraph:


The group helped oversee a series of campaigns against the introduction of the poll tax, the violent trade union dispute over Rupert Murdoch’s decision to move his newspapers to Wapping and the US nuclear base at Greenham Common.


It’s this that seems to be brought into question. How can the Archbishop of Canterbury make public pronouncements on government policy like that in the recent New Statesman, ask the writers, when he has a proven track record in such groups? Do we have to accept the writers’ reasoning that Dr Williams’ relationship with the Christian left makes his contribution to the Christian view of politics suspect?


I think not. I suspect that behind this article there is the predominant myth of ‘private’, individual religion – the harmless kind which involves attending a few religious services and keeping quiet, perhaps? Historically, things have never been that way in this country or anywhere else: Christians have always found that their faith, for good or ill, has had a dramatic impact on what they feel called to do in public life. This runs across the whole body of traditions, from Quaker pacifists and philanthropists, to Liberation theologians, Anglo-Catholic slum priests to Salvationists, to name but a few. Will the Telegraph provide the same view about different kinds of ‘Christianity-inspired’ political movements, like the ‘Tea Party’, Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, or David Cameron’s vision of a church-run ‘big society’? Maybe not . . .


We cannot get away from the realisation that being a disciple of Jesus in our troubled times involves sometimes being seen as subversive, even when this involves personal cost, nor can we escape the enduring, sometimes harmful, influence of faith and theology on politics – political theology abhors a vacuum. As humble successors of the Jubilee Group and of the saints, martyrs and workers of the Christian tradition throughout the ages, we must witness afresh to the activity of the God of love in the whole of creation – the corollary of which is that we cannot artificially separate the service of the marginalised from the intense questioning of the social and economic arrangements which create that suffering and injustice. In my view, the ethos of such a radically open, aware and challenging tradition of Catholic Christianity such as inspired the Jubilee Group is grounds for considerable hope, and a catalyst for other social justice movements in and beyond the Church. As followers of the crucified and risen Lord who himself suffered the burden of humanity’s injustice and sin, we must constantly ask ourselves whether the faith we are living out today is consistent with God’s vision of justice, for individuals and for society: God who asks of the oppressor ‘What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?’ (Isaiah 3:15). A Christian leader who tries to follow that call, however flawed, has my trust.


Sam Gibson





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