Dr Rowan Williams becomes the new Archbishop of Canterbury this week at an unusually challenging moment for the Church of England and, in different ways, for the country. Dr Williams has been a robustly liberal voice in the Church's debates over the ordination of women and the ongoing controversies about the role of gays and lesbians. It is to be hoped that his liberal voice is not constrained now that he speaks as Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church, in many ways mirroring the turmoil of the Conservative Party, will fail to attract new members if it retains outdated and illiberal values. Guiding the Church of England into the 21st century will be a demanding task in itself, but there is a much wider role for a new archbishop who is bold enough to take it.
For more than five years, the present Government has faced no credible political opposition. This is partly because the Conservatives have, for various reasons, chosen to be incredible. There is, though, another more important factor. For all the sound and fury at Westminster and beyond, there is a large degree of consensus between the two front benches on some of the big issues of the day. To take the most topical, Iain Duncan Smith is Mr Blair's most ardent ally in his support for President George Bush's planned war against Iraq. As far as the firefighters' strike is concerned, the Conservatives, although affecting outrage at the Government's handling of the dispute, are fully behind the stance taken by Mr Blair.
It is sometimes said that the only credible alternative voice in Britain is the media. This is only partially the case. The most popular tabloids tend to scream about the horrors of immigration, crime and Europe. Instead of providing a strong alternative leadership, this irrationally nervy Government responds by echoing these prejudices with an excessive level of populist initiatives on crime and asylum and by keeping quiet about Europe. At times, Mr Blair affects to be a leader with a profound moral vision. There is no doubt that his Christian beliefs inform his politics more than did most of his recent predecessors. But in the end, Mr Blair is a politician. Indeed, he is more of a politician than some of his predecessors, seeing election victories almost as an end in themselves, constantly worrying about the fleeting verdicts of the newspapers.
This is why Rowan Williams's appointment comes at a peculiarly challenging moment. The issues whirling around the country are grave, but there have been many times when that has been the case. What is unusual is the narrow range of voices audible, the limits to the national debate. The record of the new Archbishop suggests he is well placed to broaden this debate. Already he has raised questions about the possible war against Iraq. He should continue to do so in his more elevated role. The country needs more than a few MPs to speak for the many who have doubts about the wisdom of the war.
Dr Williams has also spoken out on the issue of inequality and the social tensions that arise from it. Although the Government has acted to address some of the iniquities of low pay with the minimum wage and tax credits, the gap between rich and poor has widened. Here again there is a political consensus; both New Labour and the Conservatives agree that Governments should do nothing to curb the excesses of top people's pay, even when the awards are given to inefficient and incompetent executives.
Again, Dr Williams can provide an alternative voice, even if he chooses to avoid precise political controversies over levels of taxation and regulation. To some extent the church fulfilled such a role in the early Eighties when it raised the plight of the poor living in the inner cities. Its report, Faith In the Cities, caused Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit to explode with fury. At least, in the Eighties there was already a raging political debate from the Bennite left, via the SDP to the Thatcherites. The church was merely another voice.
There is more of a vacuum now. From tomorrow, Dr Williams could become an important and distinctive voice in a troubled country where the range of views, tensions and conflicts are rarely echoed on the national political stage. His appointment could not be better timed.
By Independent Press