Tuesday, 12 February 2008

The triumph of postmodernism: Facebook support for Archbishop

Surely this is the final triumph of the postmodern erosion of Western thought. You can now join a group on 'Facebook' titled, 'The Archbishop of Canterbury is a good man'.

By joining this group, you apparently affirm (without a hint of irony) that you believe:

1) The media has misinterpreted the spirit of what Dr Williams was talking about in his lecture
2) As an intellectual, and a spiritual leader, Dr Williams should feel free to express a carefully considered opinion.
3) That Dr Williams is one of the most gifted minds in Britain, and his views should be given careful consideration.

Point (1) presumes you have read, and are in a position to judge, everything 'the media' has said in the last four days and that all of it is wrong, whereas your own understanding of what Dr Williams said is right.

Point (2) is a truism.

Point (3) is moot (boot-licking, but moot) and vacuous. Anything anyone says should be given careful consideration at times, but just because they have a gifted mind doesn't mean they are right.

My own response would be that by joining the group you show that, however well disposed you might be towards Rowan Williams, you need to sign up to a class on, say, elementary philosophy.

We have now moved from the ad hominem argument - the kind of thing that says, "Well, if so-and-so has said that, then they must be wrong," - to the ad hominem defence - "If so and so is attacked, I must agree with them."

One person I very much doubt would be impressed by this is Dr Rowan Williams! He has asked us to think about some very serious issues. And after the initial confusion, and resulting furore at the end of last week - much of which Dr Williams admits was down to the way he expressed himself - a serious debate has emerged, not least in our media, where the debate is vastly better than the side-taking and personality-hyping going on in the Church.

Dr Williams is a good person. Of course he is. In my view he came up with a bad idea, is all.

Repeat after me: "It's nothing personal."

Revd John P Richardson
12 February 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. (Chelmsford)

    Well, John, it's probably a good thing that you told the bishop you hosted on Saturday morning "you need to sign up to a class on, say, elementary philosophy" only after the event! Yes, Pete Broadbent has joined the Facebook group you mentioned, along with over a thousand others whose names and (mostly) faces are publicly accessible, including Essex blogging vicars Paul Trathen and Sam Norton and quite a number of other clergy. I just hope no one is seriously offended! Actually a lot of the group members are students who might take your suggestion seriously.

    But surely to agree with point (1) you only have to agree that a significant part of the media "has misinterpreted the spirit of what Dr Williams was talking about", which is clear without the need to read everything.

    My response to an invitation to join was to ask if I can do so while still believing that Rowan should resign, and take a job where his gifted mind will be appreciated. I have had no reply.

  2. Thanks Peter. I knew about Pete Broadbent signing up, but I was trying to spare his blushes!

    On the 'philosophy' point (and this is not a dig at you personally!), you wrote, "to agree with point (1) you only have to agree that a significant part of the media 'has misinterpreted the spirit of what Dr Williams was talking about'".

    But no, the group info says what it says: "Joining the group affirms that you believe ... The media has ... etc."

    To gloss "the media" as "a significant part of the media" is to (a) ignore what was written, (b) to presume I know what was meant was not what was written, (c) to presume other people understand I have put my own, unexpressed, gloss on what was written, and (d) that to presume that my own gloss ("a significant part") is itself correct. Actually, my reading is that there is a lot of media comment which has understood the spirit, and the letter, of what the Archbishop wrote (and what does the site mean by "the spirit" anyway?)

    In other words, it may sound like a 'common sense' reading, but it is fraught with problems!

    One of the painful lessons I learned (through ruthless low marks) at University, was that you couldn't assume other people knew what you meant with what you wrote, even when they did!

  3. I think you are being a bit harsh, John. Language is usually a bit 'loose' and the spirit of the group is clearly to provide a counterbalance to the clamour calling for the Archbishop's head. "The media" evidently does not mean "all the media" (how could it?), as "the Church of England" does not mean every parishioner, vicar and bishop. I support the spirit of the group and have therefore signed up.

  4. Sound, spiritually mature observations.

    God's peace from across the pond,


  5. Fair enough, John. But if you insist on your alternative reading, that "The media" must mean "everything 'the media' has said in the last four days" (even with the implicit restriction "on this subject"), you are making the statement "The media has misinterpreted ..." into a contradiction of the "All Cretans are liars" variety. For this is a statement which appeared in the media. Of course Epimenides' epigram quoted by Paul is intended as a generalisation, and as such is valid and not a contradiction. But if we know well enough to interpret a sentence like this with "All" in a way which makes sense rather than an inherently contradictory way, then how much more should we interpret in this way a similar statement without "All".

  6. "Jonathan" and "Andy T". First PLEASE abide by the comments policy - I've published your comments, but it is right and reasonable that people don't send anonymous letters to newspapers, and don't post anonymous comments in the blogosphere. So please give names and locations.

    Secondly, Jonathan, that 'language should be allowed to be a bit loose' thing is surely at odds with a site that sets out to support Rowan Williams for his intellectual rigour. It is also, in this specific case, untrue. "The media" has not misrepresented Rowan. A good deal of "the media" has understood him very well - see the huge number of links on Thinking Anglicans, Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream, etc - but responded to him largely negatively. I would point to Martin O'Neill's analysis as a very good case in point. By signing up to a misstatement of the facts, supporters of this Facebook site suggest to me they haven't understood or engaged with what is now an ongoing debate.

    There was a lot of media misreading on Friday and Saturday, but by the Archbishop's own admission this was partly down to him. Since then, I think the media grasp of the issues has improved immensely, but it is still coming down against the Archbishop's viewpoint.

    Thirdly, signing up for "I love Rowan" websites is stifling debate in the Church, where to criticize what the Archbishop said is being taken as a criticism of the Archbishop. This is the triumph of postmodernism. Ironically, the Church is excluding itself from debate precisely by its personalizing of the issue.

    To those who 'support Rowan', however, I would say, "Exactly which bits of Shari'ah law (for example, with regard to the family) do you want to see integrated into our social and legal processes?"

    Andy, thanks for the greetings, but what does the T stand for?

  7. Hi Peter, and thanks for your reply. Please see mine to "Jonathan" in particular. The reason for my objection is that "the media" has palpably and demonstrably not misread Rowan, and has increasingly been better in its response to what he has been saying than has the Church in general and his 'supporters' in particular.

    If the site had said, "There has been some media misrepresentation of the Archbishop" that would have been true. It is the introduction of sweeping generalization into what is supposed to be a support for rigorous debate that I think needs highlighting. That and the rather silly implication behind the whole exercise that because Rowan Williams is a 'good bloke' he shouldn't have been criticized as he was. Good blokes sometimes do bad things.

  8. John, you contradict yourself. You wrote "There was a lot of media misreading on Friday and Saturday" and then ""the media" has palpably and demonstrably not misread Rowan". Can we agree that on Friday and Saturday large parts of the media DID misread Rowan, and then on Monday and Tuesday most of them read him more correctly? If so, the statement "The media has misinterpreted the spirit of what Dr Williams was talking about in his lecture" (note the past tense) is formally correct as a generalisation, if incomplete because it fails to note that in general the media later interpreted this correctly. Furthermore, since the statement was quoted by Dave Walker on Sunday evening and so written before Monday and Tuesday's papers were available, it was surely correct and complete as a generalisation at the time it was written.

    But I agree with your final point. I am quite happy to say that Rowan is a "good bloke", but he did a bad thing, not for the first time, and it takes more than being a "good bloke" to be a competent leader of a church.

  9. Hi Peter. You wrote, "Can we agree that on Friday and Saturday large parts of the media DID misread Rowan, and then on Monday and Tuesday most of them read him more correctly?"

    I agree, some parts of the media may well have misread some of what Rowan Williams meant (though some of this, as he acknowledges, was down to the way he expressed himself), and that the media critique improved dramatically over the weekend. (I think it was getting quite savvy by Sunday, incidentally.)

    I agree, it would have been more precise for me also to say, "at least some parts of the media had palpably not misread, etc." So now we are agreed. You might like, incidentally, to look at the article in the Telegraph, "Dr Rowan Williams's words were understood", which questions the whole idea of 'media misunderstanding'.

    We are now left with the situation, however, where the debate in the Church is in danger of being stifled by the personalising of the dispute, and is trailing behind the debate in "the media" as a result.

    If I say, "Williams was wrong," does that mean that people who think Williams is a good man must necessarily disagree with me? Equally, does thinking Rowan Williams is a good man mean I must agree with his thesis on Shari'ah?

    I think you and I both agree it shouldn't.

  10. Ruminating on this, as I have been doing, I am increasingly of the view, expressed by Melania Phillips this morning, but also much earlier by liberal blogger Adrian (Pluralist) Worsfield, that Rowan Williams's words on the radio and in his lecture did imply what "the media" took them too - namely an effective, formally sanctioned, 'parallel' jurisdiction of Shari'ah courts within our social and legal system.

    This would render even my suggestion that some of the media misread Rowan Williams too much of a concession.

    The test would be this - for Rowan and the Facebook supporters - what do you propose in practice (which we don't have already)?

  11. (Oxford)

    What a relief to find your post and to discover that I haven't gone completely mad! The move to an ad hominem defence of RW has been baffling, and sadly it seems to be those outside the Anglican community who are now making all the running with the important questions arising from his comments. I watched Ruth Gledhill's videolog from Synod with astonishment as senior figures queued up to pretend this was all a storm in a teacup.

    Of course Rowan is a good man, and an impressive scholar in his own field, which makes it all the more of a shame to find him (and many other Anglicans) trying to throw sand over his tracks. The Facebook group seems to be one more means of achieving this, which is why I have declined to join.

  12. This isn't really a defence of RW, but an attack on some of the politicians comments...

    politicians from all 3 main parties came out very quickly to say why RW was wrong. But surely some of these are the very people who advocated paying benifits to multiple wives IF they were married in a country that allows it.

    Sounds very much like a parrallel system which accomodates Shira to me.

    That doesn't make what RW said either wise or right. It just makes some of this critics hypocritical.

    Darren Moore

  13. I’ve never used Facebook (I spend too much time on the internet as it is!), so someone will have to do this for me: start a group called “Richard Turnbull is a good man”. To join you have to affirm that you believe the following:
    1. The media coverage of Wycliffe Hall has been one-sided, and misrepresented what Dr Turnbull has been trying to do their.
    2. As an intellectual and spiritual leader, who is actually capable of expressing himself in comprehensible English, Dr Turnbull should be free to express his opinion and run his college without the interference of the Guardian or former principals.
    3. Dr Turnbull has a gifted mind, 7 more years of parish experience than Alister McGrath, 8 years more than Rowan Williams, and 11 years more than NT Wright, and his views should be given careful consideration.

    Of course, someone might object that the above ad hominem points are entirely irrelevant to the issue of whether or not Elaine Storkey was “bullied” or treated unfairly. But then the points on the “Rowan Williams is a good man” page are entirely irrelevant to whether or not what Williams said was right, wrong, or plain barmy. And isn’t it interesting that all the liberals and open evangelicals who joined in with the press feeding frenzy on Turnbull, are now complaining that the same press has misrepresented and mistreated Williams? Do I smell the faint whiff of hypocrisy?

    Stephen Walton, Marbury, Cheshire

  14. Stephen: please don't assume that all those from the liberal or open evangelical wing of the Church are joining in the orgy of sycophancy which has erupted. Like a number of others I know, I inhabit the more liberal Catholic wing of the Church, and am deeply disappointed by both Rowan's argument and his handling of the sharia saga.

    I think you are right to feel aggreived at the way this fiasco is being used by some to bash conservative evangelicals, but I do wonder whether bringing Wycliffe Hall into this controversy is only to further politicise a matter which is already suffering from having become too politicised.

  15. Good point Steve.

    Of course it seems people apply different levels of perdanticness to different people.

    While on the subject, did you meen under pt 1, there, rather than their?

    Darren Moore

  16. "Their" in point 1 should of course be "there". Prolonged internet use has also made me illiterate.

    Stephen Walton, marbury, Cheshire

  17. John, my brother, I just wonder: why is commenting on this Facebook site in this way a good use of time and energy for the Kingdom?

    Here are some people who, wisely or unwisely (or perhaps a mixture of both), are seeking to show some generous-spirited kindness and support to a church leader who, for whatever reasons, has got himself in a tight spot.

    We may agree or disagree, but why is it important to knock them down? Why is it important even to have any opinion on this?

    Is the Facebook site a primary issue of the gospel?

    Does it advance the Kingdom of Jesus to speak about these people in this way?

    Do such comments help those who are unsympathetic to biblical Christianity to warm to it?

    And does your comment that "Point (1) presumes you have read, and are in a position to judge, everything 'the media' has said in the last four days and that all of it is wrong, whereas your own understanding of what Dr Williams said is right" apply to all of us or just those who have signed up on this Facebook page?

    "If we would but observe 'unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials,charity in all things' our affairs would certainly be in the best possible situation." (Peter Meiderlin, 17th C Lutheran theologian).

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  19. David, if people want to run a "For he's a jolly good fellow" website for Rowan Williams, fine. If they want to present it as somehow 'supporting' him over the Shari'ah affair, that is another matter.

    David Walker's Cartoon Blog, where I first came across the group, has this: "The Facebook group entitled ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury is a good man‘ is up to about 1250 members at the time of writing - not bad for a couple of days."

    "Not bad for what?" is a reasonable question. What the Facebook site represents is a shift in Church engagement from ideas to personalities.

    And yes, this is a gospel matter. There is a great gospel tradition of the transformation of the intellect, represented within, though not confined to, the Reformation and the Lutheran and Calvinist traditions of robust engagement with culture.

    The Facebook group is, ironically, a contradiction of what it purports to support - a man who asked us to engage with ideas - being ad hominem in its entirety.

    The very attitude behind it explains why it is almost exclusively 'the media' which has engaged with Rowan Williams's suggested line of thinking - not entirely (though largely) negatively - whereas the large sections of the Church have defended the man without much analysis of his ideas.

    It is a great shame, as he raised some very serious issues, albeit, in my view, with some almost entirely wrong suggestions.

  20. PS, I was surprised (and relieved) to see this posted on the Wardman Wire blog, basically supporting what I'd said about the "For Rowan's a jolly good fellow" Facebook group. Surprised, because I'd previously taken issue with the same blog's analysis of the BBC coverage. Relieved because, Wogan-like, I do sometimes wonder, "It is me?"

  21. John Omani:
    you're quite right, and I'm sorry, it was wrong of me to imply that all liberals were joining in the "orgy of sycophancy" (I wish I'd thought of that phrase!). And thankyou for the tone in which the criticism was given- it made a refrshing change. I realise that there are many liberals who have behaved honourably, and must be deeply embarrassed by this sort of manipulation. As for "politicising" this whole mess, well... I think it's politicised already. What I was trying to do was be satirical (not very successfully) and expose the inconsistency of some of the people involved. Also, given that state of the Church of England, I don't think the various controversies can be separated entirely.


  22. Further on this, I have sent a message to James Townsend, the founder of the Facebook group, to try to find out what he thinks about the Archbishop's suggestions. No reply yet, but if I get one, I'll mention it here.