The power of self-criticism

Among the many instructive and edifying passages in the Book of Common Prayer is a section describing “The Consecrating of Bishops.” It is a stirring ritual, solemn, confident, uplifting. Of course, not just anybody is qualified to be a Bishop—entrusted with the care of souls and the care of those who care for souls—and so the candidate engages in a sort of antiphony to witness publicly his fitness for high pastoral office.

Are you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?

To which the candidate replies “I am ready, the Lord being my helper.”


And so on.

We thought of this and kindred passages from that august ceremony when contemplating the current travails of the Church of England and Dr. Rowan Williams, who was elected Archbishop of Canterbury in July 2002. Assiduous readers of The New Criterion may remember Dr. Williams in his previous capacity as Archbishop of Wales. Back in 2000, as John Gross reported in our pages for June of that year, Dr. Williams delivered a speech exalting the cartoon characters Homer and Marge Simpson as admirable exceptions to the entertainment industry’s usual unromantic treatment of the institution of marriage.

We mention Dr. Williams’s high opinion of the Simpsons in order to suggest the cultural and moral weather in which England’s chief primate travels. As the Church of England agonizes over—well, over everything: the issue of homosexual bishops, its relations with the Anglican communion in North America, its very future as anything more than a politically correct antiquarian curiosity—it is useful to have the image of Homer and Marge Simpson before us. It helps one “place” the current Archbishop of Canterbury.

Consider, for example, Dr. Williams’s recent admonition that America recognize that terrorists, too, can “have serious moral goals.” Not that he, Dr. Rowan Williams, advocates, condones, or otherwise give countenance to the actions of terrorists. Heavens, no! Dr. Williams is frank in admitting that he does not like what terrorists do. But even terrorists, Dr. Williams counsels, are people. And although they express themselves in ways we find, er, distasteful—Dr. Williams even allowed himself the daring word “wicked”—still, it is possible that, in their own way, terrorists are pursuing “an aim that is shared by those who would not dream of acting in the same way, an aim that is intelligible or desirable.” Got that? Terrorists may be misguided, poor chaps, but even terrorists, although they have an unfortunate propensity for incinerating thousands of innocent men, women, and children—despite all that, even terrorists dream of a better world.

The same, of course, could be said of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and other proponents of unorthodox routes to utopia. Each in his own way believed he was working to make the world a better place. If that happened to involve the extermination of the bourgeoisie, the Jews, or anyone who had glasses and could read—well, you cannot make an omelette without etc., etc.

Really, though, Dr. Williams is only incidentally interested in terrorists. The real focus of his censure, naturally, was that ominous bastion of evil, the United States. The problem—one problem—is that America has not been sufficiently sensitive in its response to al Qaeda. Many policy makers in America have failed to appreciate the “serious moral goals” of Mohammed Atta and his pals. (Come to that, many ordinary citizens have also failed on that score.) Not, again, that Dr. Williams approves of young men slitting the throats of airline pilots and steering airliners into densely populated buildings. No, no. Dr. Williams is against violence. Back before the war with Iraq even began, he warned that the conflict would be “immoral and illegal.” Similarly, Dr. Williams argues that in its indelicate response to al Qaeda, America “loses the power of self-criticism and becomes trapped in a self-referential morality.”

Eh what? “Self-criticism”? “Trapped in a self-referential morality”? As Dr. Williams might recall, the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “to everything there is a season.” A time for hand-wringing self-criticism, and a time for deliberate action: “a time to kill,” as the Good Book says, “and a time to heal.” When a gang of Islamist fanatics commandeer several airliners and proceed to murder 3000 people and destroy a couple billion dollars worth of real-estate, you don’t ring up your local group therapy leader.

If you’re smart, you don’t ring up the United Nations, either, though that is precisely what Dr. Williams wants us to do. (Talk about “erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word.”) Dr. Williams delivered his remarks at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, where, according to the London Daily Telegraph, which reported on the event, he said he wished to challenge the habit of using violence “as the tool of private interest or private redress.” We’ll sign on to that, good Reverend Doctor. But what about the use of violence as a legitimate means of public redress? Dr. Williams engages in some fancy definitional footwork here. “If,” he says, “a state or administration acts without due and visible attention to agreed international process, it acts in a way analogous to a private person. It purports to be the judge of its own interest.” Imagine that! A sovereign nation actually purporting to “judge of its own interest”! The alternative? Why, letting the United Nations judge for us. What a splendid idea that would be.

Dr. Williams allowed that there are “weaknesses” in international legal institutions that render them ineffective in dealing with many many international outrages. In fact, the weakness of international legal institutions is a blessing for anyone who cherishes his personal liberty and his country’s sovereignty, but Dr. Williams naturally calls for “reforms” at the UN and “a new panel of experts” to advise us about when military intervention might be appropriate.

As we write, the thug-state of Libya chairs the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, an irony—like so much about the United Nations—worthy of Evelyn Waugh’s bitter comedies. The idea that the United States or any law-abiding, freedom-loving state should allow an institution as thoroughly corrupt and discredited as the United Nations to determine its interests or actions is simply risible—or, rather, it would be risible if it were not so horribly close to what actually happens. It is a grimly absurd situation, one that Homer Simpson would doubtless savor. How that thought must please the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 3, on page 1
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