One of the things that has emerged from the debacle is that there is a very strong body of opinion in this country which holds that you can’t be truly Muslim and truly British. This isn’t just the belief of the Islamist nutters, though they make it their central claim. It also animates an astonishing number of people writing in or to the media who would describe themselves as Christians. It is as if three quarters of the country had risen to sing “Land of hope and glory” at the Last Night of the Proms.
It is at moments like that that we need an established church, precisely because it dampens zeal down. The undemocratic privileges of the Church of England are much better for everyone than democratically won privilege would be. Bishops in the Lords are infinitely preferable to priests who tell people how to vote.
If, say, the Economist got its way and the Church of England were disestablished, and replaced by the American model of a confusion of sects all competing for votes, what could stop them responding to the popular demand for a condemnation of Islam? What could give them anything of the Church of England’s woolly, incoherent but essential belief that it has a duty to everyone in this country, no matter what their beliefs are. Can any sane person want a hundred English Paisleys competing against each other for the nationalist Christian congregations, and their money, and at last their votes? Because that is the spectre that rose from the debacle caused by Williams’ speech and interview.
It’s silly to pretend that Williams should have made the speech just because it could have made a number of reasonable and important points. Of course he shouldn’t. There are some things that no Archbishop of Canterbury can say if he wants to maintain respect for his office or the institution that he heads. This particular Archbishop seems to think it beneath his dignity to say anything plain and short and he cannot tell the difference between a sentence that is deathless and one that was stillborn.