It is always dangerous for a senior churchman to stray into political matters, just as it is risky for politicians to stray into religion. (Thus the firm advice from Alastair Campbell to Tony Blair that he shouldn’t ‘do God’.)
And the criticism of the coalition by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has already prompted a backlash from senior cabinet ministers. Dr Williams has signalled his displeasure with the cuts programme before but this intervention (most notably November) in the New Statesman, is the most passionate and extensive – arguing that “nobody voted for” the coalition’s policies. He also dismissed the Big Society idea as “painfully stale“. It is the most outspoken attack on the government by the church since Robert Runcie criticised Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s.
Liam Fox, defence secretary retaliated by saying”the government has legitimacy because it has a majority in the House of Commons”, which is of course true (even if the coalition agreement is a mish-mash of two manifestos). Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, said he wished Dr Rowan Williams had shown more “balance”. Vince Cable said the argument did not carry much “weight” while backbencher Gary Streeter said the archbishop was “ill-judged” and “over the top”.
Mr Duncan Smith also rejected the idea that he believed in the concept of a deserving or undeserving poor*: “With respect to the Archbishop of Canterbury I have never ever spoken about the deserving or undeserving poor. I don’t believe in that concept. All I say is that the system itself has created an undeserving group, that’s what it has created.”
This morning David Cameron’s spokesman said that the comments from the head of the Anglican church were a “welcome contribution” to the debate: although he went on to repeat why the coalition is cutting the welfare bill.
“We strongly believe that the public understand the need to make reforms in the various areas he’s talking about: health, education and welfare…They understand that we inherited a situation where we had significant economic problems, a record defict and problems in education, a system where only 40 out of 80,000 children eligible for free school meals make it to Oxbridge, a system where five million people were trapped on out of work benefits despite our ballooning welfare bill.”
Cameron himself is what you might call mild C of E, having once joked that his faith comes and goes like the “reception of Magic FM in the Chilterns”. One Tory MP deadpanned to me this morning that Williams was an unwelcome irritant, quoting Henry II on Thomas Becket: “Who will rid me of this troublesome** priest?”
Another government insider pointed out gently that “his newfound love of democratic mandates doesn’t stretch to his views on reform of the House of Lords“. The number of bishops in the upper chamber is being reduced from 26 to 12, contrary to the wishes of many in the Church of England.
* Is it now forbidden to suggest that some low-income people deserve more state help than others? Isn’t that self-evident?
** My colleague Ben Fenton helpfully points out that the original word was “turbulent” rather than “troublesome”. (“Henry II said, according to the chronicler Grim, said “what traitors and dullards have I nurtured in my court, that they should suffer their lord to be so treated by a low-born priest?“.)