On Christian hypocrisy (I)

Rowan Williams on the corrupt church, and the self-critical church.



Rowan Williams on the corrupt church, and the self-critical church.


There’s abundant material in the history of the church – and the present reality of the church – for critics to make hay with. The church has frequently been a powerful and ruthless political player. Leaders of the church, in various ways, have used the sacred aura of their office to put themselves beyond criticism. Even in something like the child abuse scandals in churches in recent years, part of that is of course an attitude to authority – priestly authority – which means that what priests do doesn’t get challenged. And that’s something which we in the churches have to look at with complete honesty and say, yes, we walked into that and it was terrible.

And of course, part of what doesn’t get seen then is how in the original impulse of the gospel, the early Christian communities, there’s a constant emphasis on self-questioning. When Jesus says, “Look around you. The world is full of people who love to walk around in long robes having titles attached to them,” he says, “Don’t do that.” Every corrupt practice in the church has to be drawn back to those sayings and stories in the Gospels, that there’s a deep self-critical principle.

And I think that applies also with those areas where Christianity has been systematically oppressive of certain classes of people. Christianity’s record with women is less than brilliant. Most religions, the same, frankly, but in Christianity it’s sometimes been reinforced by what the New Testament seems to say about the order of authority in a marriage or whatever. And yet, there again, we have those stories of Jesus treating women on a completely equal footing with men. We have even St Paul, who has a bad name here, saying, “Well, men and women belong to each other. There is not a one-way traffic here.”

There’s the whole vexed question of the church and LGBT people – the way in which the non-standard forms of human desire are treated with repulsion or again with violence, exclusionary violence, and we’re still, as we all know, we’re still struggling with how exactly we get beyond that.

And yet, when all is said and done, the loudest criticisms have often come from within the community of faith, not just from outside. And even those outside criticising very often criticise the church for not being what it claims to be. In other words, they know that within the church there’s some kind of principle, some edgy self-critical urgency which doesn’t just let the church sit down with its evils but makes it go on questioning.