Rowan Williams is to be respected for his scholarship, spirituality and churchmanship. His theological erudition is unquestionable. He gives every indication of being a man of deep prayer. His commitment to the church is clear from his willingness to subordinate his own opinions for what he sees as the greater good of keeping the Anglican communion intact, an almost impossible task.
What Dr Williams is not is an economist or financial expert.
He would not have been my choice for archbishop, but then he is more in accord with the spirit of today’s Anglicanism than I suspect most of us would wish to be. Nevertheless, Dr Williams is entirely suited for the position to which his church has raised him. What he is not suited, equipped or educated for is to pronounce on taxation regulations.
In his recent article in the Financial Times Dr Williams has called for an adjustment in the UK tax regulations. Whether or not a tax on all financial transactions would be beneficial or not is immaterial. Dr Williams’ views on fiscal regulation are of no more validity and should carry no more weight than that of the man on the Clapham omnibus. It is not an archbishop’s task to usurp the calling of the people of God.
There are no black holes in human experience in which God is not interested or to which the church has nothing to say. This does not mean that the ecclesiastical institution is required to pronounce upon any and every aspect of social theory and political policy.
The church has fallen into the prevailing statist delusion of imagining that the institution constitutes reality. The ecclesiastical institution, or denominational structure, is not the church neither is it the only authentic voice of the church. The purpose of the ecclesiastical institution is to serve and preserve the church, to give spiritual guidance and support to God’s people. The purpose of the organic, living church, the whole people of God, is to be the salt which preserves against corruption and the light which points the way ahead for the world.
When we consider the remarkable achievements of God’s people it is evident that advances in mission, social action and political development have so often been at the instigation of individuals and groups within the body of Christ taking action outwith the structures of the institutional church. Where would the witness of the body of Christ be without the activity of those slightingly referred to as the para-church?
In a previous generation in the UK we had the Clapham Sect, in the USA the abolitionist movement; both changed nations, both followed the demands of the gospel without the imprimatur of the institution. OMF, SUM, OM the initials go on. So often mission, particularly pioneering mission, has been undertaken and accomplished outwith and against the wishes of the institution. Mueller, Barnardo, Hudson Taylor, they and so many others got on with the job to hand without getting ecclesiastical sanction.
Methodists should remember that if the Wesleys and Whitefield had listened to the ecclesiastical authorities their denomination would not exist.
Today the Billy Graham Evangelistic Organisation, Navigators, IVF, Campus Crusade for Christ, YWAM, Street Pastors these are all para-church organisations doing the work of the people of God without denominational oversight.
Individual Christians, following their calling in politics such as Frank Field, Ian Duncan Smith, Alister Burt and many others have achieved more in practical terms than the well meaning amateur politicians who inhabit bishoprics and Presbytery committees.
The ecclesiastical institution has a foundational task; serving the living and active people of God and spiritually equipping them to undertake their practical task. It is not the task of the institution to usurp the function of the people of God.
In our present economic crisis we don’t need to hear bishops or conveners pontificating on fiscal regulation. We need to hear them point us to the living Word who undergirds all existence and points us beyond the FT Index. We also need to hear from Christian politicians, economists, bankers and investment analysts, Christians who have a contribution to make based upon their faith and expertise. Let the cobbler stick to his last.