It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. Thomas a Becket’s reign as Archbishop of Canterbury lasted eight years before his brains were kicked all over the quire of his cathedral. William Laud was beheaded at Tower Hill. Thomas Cranmer burned at the stake in Oxford.
Rowan Williams is unlikely to come to such a sticky end, but his trial in the last few days by media has been every bit as humiliating and condemnatory as any courtroom appearance by his predecessors.
Like Sir Thomas More, Dr Williams is both a man of singular virtue and in large measure the architect of his own destruction. His comments on sharia law last week, suggesting its imposition had a place in British society, created a verbal firestorm which has caused genuine affront, brought both Anglicanism and Christianity to the point of ridicule, opened the floodgates of racism and handed a gift to the secularists.
‘What a burkha’, screamed The Sun’s front page over the comments. The BBC, after breaking the story on The World At One, invited comments on its website. It received more than 17,000, the vast majority hostile. Lambeth Palace’s switchboard was locked up with complaints. Not exactly a glittering PR triumph, then.
Yet it is, in away, unfair to blame the Archbishop for this. If there is a lamentable failure, it is surely on the part of the media advisers who surround him. I’m not suggesting that, like Pontius Pilate, they washed their hands of him, but it seems they were certainly caught wringing them.
Sadly, the mainstream British churches have never really learned how to deal with the media. I remember when, a decade ago, Bishop Roddy Wright left his Oban diocese to run off with a woman parishioner, the Roman Catholic church’s method of dealing with the press was to switch on an answering machine and leave it until the tape ran out.
Things may have got a little better since then, but not much. Most churches are terrified of the media and run a mile if they think they’re being asked to involve themselves in anything controversial or to feed comment into a story they can’t completely control. They’d rather issue vacuous press releases about fairtrade conferences or gifts of minibuses to Malawi than become involved in a debate which actually challenges society.
Dr Williams, to his credit, was at least prepared to stoke media controversy. In last week’s speech about the nature of Islam in the British legal system, he raised radical ideas in full expectation of hostility and public ridicule. In that, he mirrored both the actions of Jesus and the early church. The lesson of the gospels, particularly apposite during this season of Lent, is that if you mount a high profile challenge to established wisdom, you can fully expect to get your fingers burned.
The Archbishop knew this. His media advisors knew it too. They e-mailed the speech to other Anglican bishops hours before it was delivered, noting alongside the text: “This may be of some media interest.”
By then, though, the charcoal was well and truly out of the thurible. Williams had given his interview to The World at One, claiming that the introduction of elements of sharia law into Britain was unavoidable.
The Archbishop is a wise, brilliant and deeply committed man. He is a distinguished theologian, which means he is much more a natural academic than a gifted communicator.