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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Britain's Bishops at War: Head of Catholics Leads Furious Backlash after Archbishop of Canterbury's Attack on Coalition

By James Chapman and Steve Doughty

The Archbishop of Canterbury is embroiled in an extraordinary war with David Cameron and rival Church leaders after a bitter attack on the Government.

In the most brazen political intervention by a head of the Church of England for more than two decades, Dr Rowan Williams questioned the democratic legitimacy of the Coalition.

He claimed 'no one voted' for flagship policies on welfare, health and education, which he said were causing 'anxiety and anger'.

The remarks prompted a furious backlash from the Prime Minister and the leader of England's Roman Catholics, Archbishop Vincent Nichols. Dr Williams's attack came in a leading article for the Left-wing New Statesman magazine which he had been invited to guest-edit.

Dr Rowan Williams, left, sparked a furious backlash from the Prime Minister and head of the Catholic Church in Britain, Archbishop Vincent Nichols
He dismissed Mr Cameron's Big Society initiative as 'painfully stale' and condemned 'punitive' action against 'alleged abuses' in the benefits system.

The Archbishop also accused ministers of encouraging a 'quiet resurgence of the seductive language of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor'.

It is the most controversial intervention in politics by the Church of England since Robert Runcie and Margaret Thatcher clashed in 1985 over the Church's Faith In The City report on poverty.

Yesterday the leader of England's Roman Catholics rejected Dr Williams's suggestion that the Prime Minister's plans to encourage volunteering and charity work were a cover for cuts and spoke out in favour of the 'genuine moral agenda' driving the Coalition's reforms.
The attack on the Coalition was the most controversial intervention in politics by the Church of England in more than 25 years, echoing the bitter enmity between Robert Runcie and Margaret Thatcher.

Mrs Thatcher felt she had been misled into appointing Runcie as Archbishop of Canterbury and her dislike became fury in 1982 when he called for prayers for relatives of the Argentinian as well as the British dead at the memorial service following the Falklands War.

But it was the Church's report on poverty, Faith In The City, in 1985 that led to a full breakdown of relations between Church and Government.

It claimed that one in every four people had to live below an acceptable standard, questioned 'whether there is any serious political will' to help the poor, and called for higher benefits and public expenditure.

One of Mrs Thatcher's senior ministers, believed to be Norman Tebbit, called it 'pure Marxist theology'.

Yesterday Lord Tebbit was more relaxed when he discussed Rowan Williams's New Statesman article, telling Radio 4's Today programme that it was part of the Archbishop's job to make political comments.

But he took Dr Williams to task for failing to accept a distinction between 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor.

'When I was a child, when the Archbishop was a child, I don't think either of us knew of families in which nobody had ever worked and in which nobody intended to work,' Lord Tebbit said. 'I think that is something new in our society. I don't think anybody knew of families in which there were several siblings all by different fathers.'

Archbishop Nichols praised Mr Cameron for putting marriage and family stability at the centre of policy-making, and he supported his Big Society vision.

His comments appeared to herald a holy war between the liberal-dominated Church of England, increasingly under the sway of clerics who regard state spending as sacrosanct and cuts as immoral, and a Roman Catholic church that backs Mr Cameron's belief in self-help and the traditional family.

A string of Tory and Lib Dem Cabinet ministers also defended the Government against Dr Williams's remarks.

Mr Cameron said he 'profoundly disagreed' with Dr Williams, while Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said the primate had been 'unbalanced and unfair'.

The Prime Minister said there was nothing 'good or moral' about leaving debts for the next generation to repay, trapping people on welfare or giving children sub-standard education.

Mr Cameron, in Belfast to address the Northern Ireland Assembly, said: 'I've never been one to say that the Church has to fight shy of making political interventions, but what I would say is that I profoundly disagree with many of the views that he's expressed, particularly on issues like debt and on welfare and education.

'I am absolutely convinced that our policies are about actually giving people greater responsibility and greater chances in their life and I will defend those very vigorously.'

Senior Church colleagues are also understood to be questioning the wisdom of their leader's remarks.

Lord Carey, Dr Williams's predecessor, pointedly backed the Coalition's education policy, saying academies and free schools would 'bring more freedom to religious schools to instil their ethos and their values'.

In the New Statesman article, Dr Williams said the Government was facing 'bafflement and indignation' over its health and education plans.

'With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.

'At the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context,' he claimed, adding 'The anxiety and anger have to do with the feeling that not enough has been exposed to proper public argument.'

Dr Williams described Mr Cameron's Big Society initiative – which he praised earlier this year – as being viewed with 'widespread suspicion' and said the term had become 'painfully stale'.

He also challenged Labour to produce a 'big idea' and warned it not simply to 'collude' in public fear.

But Mr Duncan Smith, a devout Catholic, said the Archbishop was simply wrong to suggest any minister had resurrected the Victorian concept of the 'deserving poor'.

'If a Churchman can't endorse the idea of community and the voluntary sector, doing what is necessary to help people out of their difficulties, then I wonder who will?' he said.

And Defence Secretary Liam Fox said: 'The Government has legitimacy because it has a majority in the House of Commons.'

Tory MP Roger Gale said: 'For him, as an unelected member of the upper house ... to criticise the Coalition as undemocratic is unacceptable.'

But Labour education spokesman Andy Burnham said: 'Across the country, people who are seeing this Government pursuing divisive policies without a mandate will share the Archbishop's concerns.'

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