Book Review: Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams

This was one of those books I picked up on the off-chance as I was browsing round a bookshop one lunchtime. I was aware of its existence a little while ago, when it seemed to cause a minor stir among some Anglicans but it seems to have little longer-lasting impact. The first thing to note about it, however, is that it’s not a book that Rowan actually set out to write. Instead, it’s a collection of transcripts of various sermons and lectures he gave between June 2002 and February 2012. Much of the vernacular used for a public address has been kept; in fact, I’m not certain how much editing was done to the transcripts at all, apart from the staff at Bloomsbury occasionally omitting spaces whenever they thought italics were most appropriate, something I hope they will correct in any subsequent print runs.

As the title suggests, the book is largely about how issues of faith and religion play out in public life. The lectures have been ordered by theme, rather than by the order in which they were first given, so as to try to give some kind of coherency to discussions on a quite wide variety of topics. The first two parts of the book, which are the longest and, I think it’s fair to say, the most intricate, are about secularism, multiculturalism, pluralism and the different ways these are perceived, coupled with Rowan’s own thoughts about which is the right path to walk down.

If anything though, these chapters could be skipped, as Rowan summarises it all very nicely in the Preface. The rest is more filling in the details. Crucial to this point of view is the distinction between what he refers to as “procedural secularism” and “programmatic secularism”. The former is a stance where no religious (or non-religious) position is given undue privilege in places of public life, such in government or media. The latter is (though Rowan, if I recall from those early chapters correctly, does not use the phrase) “aggressive secularism” – a term that is too often used, more often than not, incorrectly. It denotes the idea that religion ought to have no place in public life; it should be out of sight, out of mind. He does single out the French for having this view, something I have written a little about some time ago.

Rowan advocates procedural secularism whilst rejecting programmatic secularism, as well as those who advocate the latter under the guise of the former. Though he does not mention by name the National Secular Society, the inference is all too easy to draw.

After this opening, which I warn you gets a little turgid, the book moves onto the application of religious (though mainly christian) thinking into other areas of public life. i.e. after having advocated that christians be allowed a voice in a liberal democracy, here is what one influential christian has to say on matters of environmentalism, justice, finance and community.

What he has to say is well thought through, effortlessly sensible and immensely thought-provoking. That said, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Despite the back cover’s claim that he is “the finest theologian in Britain” (a title reader’s of Hannah’s Child may smirk at), there is very little theology here. This more ‘applied’ theology than ‘pure’ theology, to bring in a mathematical analogy. I suppose it is inevitable that the book would appeal to a christian secularist, such as myself, though I would be interested in reading the thoughts of an atheist secularist on the book.

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