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Friday, 10 June 2011

The Archbishop and Democracy

The Editorial by Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the “New Statesman” has certainly created a stir. He wrote that he hoped to start a lively debate about the future – from right and left. The statement that has attracted most attention is that which denied the mandate of the Coalition Government for its major NHS and education reforms and overshadows a more considered plea for a debate about the nature of democracy.

Unitarians were at the forefront of campaigns to open up the systems of government to the people. “Civil and Religious liberty for all the world over” remains our underpinning principle in social affairs reflected in the values of “freedom, reason and tolerance”. We had to struggle for many years to achieve these rights for ourselves; we know that many others still lack them.

Regretfully, people have had to give their lives for freedom and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are inspirational. Yet, as in post-communist Eastern Europe, technical processes of democracy need to be supported by a functioning civil society respecting individual freedom and community values.

Rowan Williams acknowledges that some political thinkers are looking at theological traditions that can lead to paternalism. He points to a theological position on sustainable communities, based on the idea of St Paul, of the mutual creation of capacity; “building the ability of the other person or group to become, in turn, a giver of life and responsibility”. He argues that democracy should ideally be religious in its roots but not exclusive or confessional and measure its policies against Paul’s standard. He sees the state as a “community of communities”.

There are obvious dangers in this approach. Williams rejects a “Balkanised” focus on the local; surely this is a risk as communities have traditionally been seen as geographically local. The rights of individuals to pursue their own interests can often be undermined by appeals for community solidarity. We see this is in the religious sphere in some countries where changing religion is unacceptable and even prohibited. The complexities of identity in modern societies – of origin, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and location – provides a rich menu from which people draw.

Finally, I am struck by the irony of the complaint that the Government lacks a mandate coming from an unelected member of one of the Houses of Parliament, who sits there by nature of his religious office. The General Assembly has no stated policy on House of Lords Reform and the future role of the Bishops in the Church of England, however, surely going back to first principles would result in a conflict with democratic principles and their ultimate removal. Few nations have representatives of religious bodies in their legislature seeing it as reflecting pre-modern ideas of Christendom and indeed the confessional state Dr Williams rejects. Such a change would of course liberate the Archbishop to speak the truth as he sees it.

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