In June 2011, a little over a year after the present UK government came to power, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, guest-edited an edition of the New Statesman, regarded as a sort of house-journal of the British political left. (I assume that being "guest-editor" is really an invitation to write the editorial, and does not involve detailed editorial decisions about what other material, and in what form, is included the publication in question. In any case, it was Dr Williams's editorial here that hit the headlines.) Re-reading it now, it hardly seems worthy of the fuss it caused, but it is worth reflecting, with the benefit of hindsight, why it did.
Getting inside the head of the Coalition may not be an attractive proposition to some; but it is always useful to understand the motivation of those who govern us, even if we find them unsympathetic. A year in, the Coalition thought, genuinely and without irony, that they were doing a reasonable job under unprecedentedly difficult circumstances. These included (fairly obviously) the dire economic situation - for the genesis of which, as they still feel a need to remind us, they were in no way responsible - but also the fact that they were obliged to undertake the Herculean task of restoring and rebalancing the British economy as a coalition of two political parties which had been - and au fond clearly still are - mutually inimical. (I continue to believe this aspect has been seriously and persistently underestimated in judgements about the Coalition's competence, but that is perhaps the subject of another blogpost.)
In addition, and more particularly, they thought that they were open to the contribution of the Churches and other religious groups in a way that the previous government had not been. This was not, I believe, based on a hope that the Church would step in to provide social services whose state funding they were preparing to cut (although they wouldn't say no to that - who would?) but rather that Blair's and Brown's instinctive suspicion of religious interests had led them to miss a trick in terms of what existing community resources could be drawn on in the task of what might be called "social healing". Already, very positive noises were coming out of the new government about the role of the "faith sector" and many in the Church were encouraged and slightly surprised by the doors that were being opened to them (for example, that of Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles). No doubt some Conservative ministers continued to view the Church as just another brick in the wall that is the liberal establishment, but there seemed to be goodwill on both sides and the prospect of collaboration was real. The government did not think the Church had reason to attack it.
As attacks go, it was probably the most devastating of the many to which the Coalition has been subject, partly because it did not come from Labour or any other obvious political source, partly because it was utterly unexpected - and partly because they felt it was completely undeserved. They were knocked back by it; hurt, even. Writing in the Church Times a week after Dr Williams's article, Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner (the Conservative MP who answers for the Church in the House of Commons) said he was "dismayed" by the NS editorial, and that ministers simply felt "monumentally misunderstood" by the Archbishop whom they felt had not grasped the scale of the financial difficulties the government faced. "I am disappointed" he continued, "that less than a year into this Parliament - a Parliament almost certainly of a five-year term - the perception of many MPs sitting on the Coalition benches is that the Church of England is shouting at us from the other side of the street". If you prick us, do we not bleed?
Now, there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then, and such an attack would no doubt not now occasion the same sense of dismay and disappointment on the part of the government. But that is the point. The Archbishop's broadside sank the new and modestly promising barque of Church-government co-operation below the water line, and it has since lain where it had before, full fathom five. The trust which had begun to be built was gone in a day; and the Coalition now expects the Church to attack it as a matter of course.
This state of affairs seemed to be confirmed by the letter which appeared in last Sunday's press signed by 43 bishops, and backed by both Archbishops, opposing the government's plan to cap benefit rises at 1% a year (report here). Given recent history, the government will not have been surprised to have contempt and condemnation poured upon it from the high ground which the Church claims to occupy. Iain Duncan Smith and other ministers will no doubt have donned their protective clothing and braced themselves for the usual deluge of liberal-left moralising.
But then something surprising happened. Something different. Something rather wonderful. Yesterday, as the inevitable row following the letter rumbled on, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, published this blogpost. I could hardly believe it. It is worth reproducing this from the final paragraph:
"This is not a great, grand political gesture, but a reasoned questioning of something that a lot of people are concerned about. It is not me saying the government is evil (I am much less cynical than many about politicians of all sides), but that I don't agree on this particular bit of a programme which in general is incredibly brave."
When I read that, I did a little dance. Not saying the government is evil? Not being cynical about politicians? Speaking warmly of the Work and Pensions Secretary? Praising his courage? You can see where this is going, can't you? He may feel he and his colleagues can come out of their bunkers and actually talk to you. And where will that lead us?
I profoundly hope this signals a new start in relations between the government and the Church. We are grown-up people. We can disagree without rebuking, denouncing and generally rubbishing each other. We no not need to shout from the other side of the street. We can do it. Please say it's true.