Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why the Catholic Church stands to gain from Rowan Williams' outburst

Nichols: the Coalition's favourite archbishop? (Photo: AP)
Nichols: the Coalition's favourite archbishop? (Photo: AP)

(The Telegraph) There’s a brilliant headline in one of the tabloids today suggesting that the archbishops are “at war”. If you actually look at the comment from Archbishop Vincent Nichols relating to Rowan Williams’ article, however, it’s not particularly bellicose.

“I was struck by a poll at our conference on April 6 when those present were asked if the Big Society was a cover for cuts,” he said. “The overwhelming majority said no.”

Hardly a sign that they’re at war, yet there appears to be some strategic manoeuvring going on in the way that the Catholic archbishop appears to be aligning himself with the Conservatives, which could be perceived as a tactical battle for political favour. Although Rowan Williams and the Church of England did clash with the previous administration, Nichols was by far the most forceful voice then.

He clashed with Labour over moves to introduce a quota at faith schools, its controversial Embryo Bill which supported the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos, and pro-gay laws, which led to the closure of a number of Catholic adoption agencies.

He was appointed Archbishop of Westminster with a reputation for being a bruising combatant, but so far he has pulled his punches. In fact, when I interviewed him last year he was enthusiastic about the new Government, describing it as having a “fresh attitude of respect towards faith groups”.

When I spoke to him more recently he appeared to say the Big Society was failing, but his aides were quick to reassure David Cameron’s advisers that this was not the case. Cynics might suggest his reticence to attack the Coalition is hardly surprising given the substantial cost of the papal visit. It would hardly to do to bite the hand that feeds you, after all, and the Government are picking up a pretty hefty bill.

But I think there is more to it: Nichols still views the Coalition as more sympathetic to faith groups, and I think he is right.

From the leaked Foreign Office memo ridiculing the Pope to a raft of measures that undermined the freedoms and beliefs of Catholics, the last Government can be seen as hostile to Christianity in many ways. In contrast, David Cameron praised Pope Benedict XVI for “challenging the whole country to sit up and think” 5 and Baroness Warsi, the Conservative party chairman, addressed a private meeting of Anglican bishops, telling them the Coalition “does God”.

They have made clear that this is a Government that values the contribution religion has to make to public life. Despite being surrounded by Catholic bishops who would be more likely to echo Rowan’s attack, the Archbishop of Westminster is playing a canny game.

While the Government is hardly likely to seek out the counsel of Dr Williams in the near future, Nichols appears to have their ear. In distancing himself from the antagonistic line taken by the spiritual head of the Church of England, he is casting the Catholic Church in an increasingly established light.

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