The Archbishop's Academentia

Alan Jacobs, in a fine post, suggests that Rowan Williams is afflicted with “verbal academentia." Frankly, I can't think of a better coinage to describe what’s wrong with the Archbishop’s approach to his office, both in the shari'a controversy and elsewhere.

Consider, for instance, this years-old public conversation with Philip Pullman, which was held shortly after the Archbishop praised and recommended an adaptation of His Dark Materials then playing at the National Theatre. It’s all very polite and erudite and engaging - all very academic, one might say - as the two men range across gnosticism, Original Sin, the role of fiction in education, the representation of religion in cinema, and what-have-you. You can see that Williams just lights up at the chance to be set down in the same room with Pullman, and set free to chat with him: What a fascinating fellow this atheist childrens' book writer is! What a fine chance to discuss the fascinating theological implications of his anti-theological work! Of course every child in England should read the book, and then sit down over tea and have a similarly fascinating discussion about the ever-so-complicated questions it summons up! etc.

Now of course there's a sense in which this style of engagement is preferable to, say, organizing a hamfisted boycott of Pullman's work, as some of the thicker tribunes of Christendom are wont to do. But at least boycotts get at an essential point that Williams' debating-society approach misses, which is that Pullman's arguments aren't just being thrown out for the sake of some ivory-tower bull session about theology - they're embedded in a work of propaganda that's designed to win the hearts and minds of his young readers away from anything resembling Christianity. This doesn't mean that Williams should have kicked over his chair, crossed the stage and hurled holy water in Pullman's eyes, but it would seem to require something more from him that the sort of cheerful, but of course dear boy spirit with which he approached the conversation, as though he and Pullman were fellow Christ's College students chatting about metaphysics over late-night glasses of port.

In the His Dark Materials debate and the shari'a affair alike, one has the sense that Williams doesn't quite understand how poorly his academic approach to controversial questions translates to the real world. Very few readers of Philip Pullman's novels are being inspired to a deeper engagement with Christian theology, as the Archbishop hopefully suggested they might be; similarly, the "parallel jurisdictions" emerging in Britain's Muslim communities bear little or no resemblance to the sort of high-minded framework he gestured at in his address. This doesn't mean that an academic approach, whether to atheism or Islam, is always and everywhere inappropriate; far from it. It's just inappropriate for Rowan Williams, given the office that he holds, and the duties - defending the faith, speaking out against injustice - that he's charged with.