An hour with the Archbishop

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It is not often that an Archbishop of Canterbury visits the Trade Union Congress. The Church of England is sometimes described as the Conservative Party at prayer – but its present head is sufficiently his own man to be respected across the political spectrum. Dr Rowan Williams delivered the first keynote address of the day at the TUC conference ‘Beyond Crisis’ on 16th November and his erudition seemed to have a calming effect on usually rumbustious trade union gatherings where guest speakers can be given a rough ride.


The TUC event’s themes were the impact on the UK economy of the financial crash and recession, and it provided an opportunity for discussion and debate drawing in the unions, policy analysts and political figures. Frances O’Grady, the TUC Deputy Secretary General, noted that the day was to be an economic debate ‘within a moral framework’.

Rowan Williams responded with an appreciation of the British labour movement’s commitment to human values. He spoke in some detail about the need for an economic policy which ‘did not dismantle the walls of the home’ – the word economics being rooted in the Greek for ‘house-keeping’. It was thus important not to lose sight of the fact that “economics is primarily about the decisions we make so as to create a habitat that we can actually live in. ”

Dr Williams noted that an economic climate ‘based on nothing but calculations of self-interest, sometimes fed by an amazingly distorted version of Darwinism, doesn’t build a habitat for human beings; at best it builds a sort of fortified boxroom for paranoiacs.’. We have looked into the abyss and found individualism terrifying.

Today we need a vision: ‘to decide what sort of change we want, we need a vigorous sense of what a human life well-lived looks like. We need to be able to say what kind of human beings we hope to be ourselves and to encourage our children to beî. Man should not become just ìa more complicated version of an ant in an ant hill’.

Normally exuding a detached and slightly bemused air, the Archbishop was palpably intense when it came to the family. He spoke of the ‘unconditionality of love and dependability, without fear of failure’ within the family setting, and how essential this was to nurture emotional security. The family was an ‘indispensable foundation’. He observed that ‘in the last couple of years alone, research has proliferated on the long-term damage done by the absence of emotional security in early childhood and the need for a child’s personal growth to be anchored in the presence of stable adult relationships.’ He cited the recently published Cambridge Review of Primary Education [Children, their world, their education] and the report ‘A Good Childhood’ [The Children’s Society]. He noted that love within the family was a reflection of the Creator’s love.

He stated that the presence of religious voices in the public space enabled an ‘opening up of the arena to different perspectives’ and ‘pushing back the barbarians’. He called for a recovery of our capacity for imagination and mutual sympathy. The former would allow us to think how the world might be different, while the latter enables us to recognise interdependencies – ‘thoughtful empathy is an important asset’.

Among the works cited by Dr Williams were ‘Prosperity Without Growth?’ by Tim Wilkinson, ‘CRISISnomics, Credit and Climate’ by Kenny Tang, ‘The Constant Economy: How to Create a Stable Society’ by Jackson and Zac Goldsmith.

[A full text of Dr Williams’s speech is accessible at]