SPEAKING at the University of Huddersfield, former Archbishop of Canterbury the Rt Revd Dr Rowan Williams has argued that religion and theology – capable of exploring complex issues of morality – have a crucial role to play in preventing democracies descending into populist states where might-is-right and there is no protection for minorities.
The occasion was the annual Harold Wilson Lecture, commemorating the Huddersfield-born Premier. Dr Williams attracted a record audience for his talk titled Christianity and democracy: does theology have anything to say to our political crises?.
Theology might seem an abstract discipline, said the ex-Archbishop, but when properly understood as “the exploration of human dignity in the presence of the Creator” it became a matter of real political significance, because it could muster resistance to the idea that power settles arguments.
“The theological perspective is that the state is limited by the innate dignity of the citizen. Without that, democracy is lost. It becomes only an argument about power,” said Dr Williams.
The role of theologically-informed religious communities in democratic society was to pester secular Government and to nourish debate, he continued.
If the state is not to slip again and again to some form of populist absolutism – a toxic exaltation of the will of the people – then it has an investment in articulate, competent religious communities
He opened his lecture with an analysis of recent political developments that had been described as the result of “populism”.
“Those whose voices have not been heard for a long time have voted in ways that express their resentments, their anxieties and their hopes,” said Dr Williams. This was sometimes described “the will of the people” – but this was “a very slippery term indeed”.
In addition to being a religious leader, Dr Williams – who has a seat in the House of Lords and is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge – is also a noted writer and intellectual. His wide-ranging Harold Wilson Lecture drew on the works of Plato and medieval theologians as he traced the origins of democratic ideas, and he described the shifting reputation of democracy, from being seen as a form of mob rule to a system that is now widely regarded as a “default setting” for society.
The term “liberal democracy” was often used, said Dr Williams, but preferred the term “argumentative democracy”.
“I think that is what we really want. The will of the majority may be lawful and may decide what we can permit or sanction. But what it doesn’t do is close down argument,” said Dr Williams, who analysed what he described as the “awkward distinction between what is lawful and what is right”.
A defensible, justifiable democratic system needed open discussion and argument and the possibility of minds changing. “And that’s why we need the possibility of governments changing,” said Dr Williams.
The distinction between populism and democracy revolved around the balance between the rule of law and the rights of minorities.
“A democratic system as such will not tell you ‘this is right’. So it is important that there are society communities where moral arguments are conducted vigorously and articulately. Those could include religious communities,” said Dr Williams.
“Moral issues must always be debated. Power alone doesn’t settle them.”
The 2017 Harold Wilson Lecture took place before an audience of 400 in the University of Huddersfield’s Oastler Building, and Dr Williams was introduced by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, Professor Bob Cryan.
Present in the audience were the late Lord Wilson’s son, Professor Robin Wilson and his wife Joy. Professor Cryan greeted them and he sent his best wishes – to be followed by a bouquet of flowers – to the former Prime Minister’s widow, Lady Wilson, now aged 101.
At the start of his lecture, Dr Williams said that to people of his generation, “the ‘Prime Minister’ still means Harold Wilson at the back of our minds”. He had presided over a remarkable period of transition and had the most intellectually-gifted Cabinet.
The Harold Wilson Lecture is jointly organised by the University of Huddersfield in tandem with the town’s Episcopal Area, and after the lecture the Bishop of Huddersfield, the Rt Revd Jonathan Gibbs, thanked Dr Williams and invited questions from the audience. They covered a wide range of religious, philosophical and political topics.