Telling it like it is? Standpoint, Michael Nazir Ali and Rowan Williams
By Charles Raven, SPREAD
A year after ‘Breaking Faith with Britain’, written for the launch of ‘ Standpoint’ magazine (www.standpointmag.co.uk) Bishop Michael Nazir Ali again sets out the case for a return to Judaeo-Christian values in another powerful critique for the July/August issue, noting that both the financial crisis, which has intensified over the past twelve months, and the recent Westminster expenses scandal, so hugely destructive of public confidence in Parliament, are further evidence of a nation seriously adrift from its historic values.
However, the Bishop’s illuminating line of reasoning may be overshadowed by controversy because the article, entitled ‘Only God Can Save Us From Ourselves’ is splashed on the magazine cover as ‘Michael Nazir-Ali: Why Rowan Williams is wrong’ supported by a somewhat doctored quotation, claiming ‘Rowan Williams and others…treat with contempt or actively oppose any attempts to uphold a normative view of the family’. This is misleading, but as I will show, the editorial instinct is nonetheless on to something.
A careful reading of the article shows that Standpoint has been unable to resist the temptation to stretch for a headline. Michael Nazir Ali recognises that those who want to subvert our national institutions do so primarily by dissolving the core institution, that of the family, by promoting relationships which are entered into and maintained on an entirely voluntary basis, without social sanction or coercion. He then observes that ‘Criticism by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and others of those who regard heterosexual marriage as “absolute, exclusive and ideal” is based on such views of “pure relationships” which are about mutual desire and fulfilment’. The reference to ‘contempt’ appears in a subsequent paragraph and if Michael Nazir-Ali has any individual in mind as someone who would have ‘contempt’ for the traditional family, his mention of British sociologist Anthony Giddens seems to present a more plausible candidate than the Archbishop.
Nonetheless, the Bishop is right to highlight the role of Rowan Williams in this process of dissolution. Williams’ 1989 lecture ’The Body’s Grace’ has been hugely influential and, buttressed by other writings, notably ‘Is there a Christian sexual ethic?’ in ‘Open to Judgement’, provided theological respectability for the gay lesbian movement. The thrust of his thinking is that what really matters is the quality of the relationship within which sexual acts occur, not the nature of the sexual acts themselves. In this way gender is relativised and the ground is cut from underneath those who want to stand publicly for the preservation of Christian marriage and family life.
Others have taken their cue from Rowan Williams and are willing to speak more controversially, such as the newly appointed Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dr Giles Fraser, who, in response to proposals to force churches to employ workers in same sex relationships under the terms of its Equality Bill, warned recently ‘We must not allow homophobia to disguise itself as any sort of legitimate religious belief – it isn’t! Homophobia is a sin and its eradication from churches, mosques and synagogues is one of the most urgent challenges for people of faith in the 21st century." And with this pronouncement, Fraser inflates the term ’homophobia’ to include not only the historic teaching of his own Church and Communion, but that of Islam and Judaism too!
Such statements only begin to get traction in the public mind when its collective memory has become dim and this leads us to Michael Nazir Ali’s second cause of social breakdown, ‘an all-pervasive historical amnesia’ which cuts people off from their cultural roots and reduces the tested framework of an historically Christian society into just one option among others.
In this situation people are easily persuaded by what the Bishop calls ‘procedural secularism’ the assumption that there it is possible for a consensus to develop through open debate. However, this is illusory, because in any society there are predominant cultural worldviews which will shape the debate. The Church therefore has to recover its prophetic role and be ‘in the business of forming consciences and “telling it like it is.”’
Although Rowan Williams is not mentioned at this point, I could not help but think of the discredited Windsor Covenant process which itself well illustrates a form of ‘procedural secularism’ within the Church, an attempt to reach consensus by debate when actually what is needed is prophetic leadership. The Archbishop has been unable to give truly prophetic leadership within the Anglican Communion as it has slid into increasing chaos and confusion – and so GAFCON is moving to fill the gap – and he has been equally unable to provide it within the nation – and so this gap too has had to be filled by others, not least by Bishop Nazir Ali himself.
‘Where Williams is wrong’ (to refer back to Standpoint’s title) is not just on his views on sexuality; these are symptomatic of a whole theology which has lost touch with Scripture as authoritative revelation and instead looks for a consensus which is collapsing into pragmatism and naked church politics.
Michael Nazir Ali’s article coud be said to speak of a people becoming homeless – the rising generation emerging in the British Isles could be characterised as the ‘homeless’; many grow up in homes which due to family breakdown are not places where they feel truly ‘at home’ and in society as a whole they are cut off from their inheritance so that the very history which should enable them to feel ‘at home’ is either denied or appears as something distant, even alien. Hence the paradox that it takes those with the experience of cultural distance, such as Bishop Michael, to remind us of what home really is.
There has been a great sense of ‘coming home’ across the Atlantic this week as the ACNA has come to birth. The launch of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans next month here in the British Isles, whatever the precise structural outcome, similarly offers an opportunity for Anglicans to ‘come home’. And this home is not just a place of sanctuary. Like any strong family it will look outward. We have a gospel to proclaim, for men and women to come back to the Father’s house and for a fragmenting society to rediscover all that it is life giving in its privileged history.
30th June 2009