NS article prompts row between Government and Church

An article by the Archbishop of Canterbury in this week’s New Statesman magazine has put the Church of England at loggerheads with the Coalition Government prompting a statement today from Prime Minister David Cameron.

Dr Rowan Williams guest edited this week’s edition of the Statesman (which like Press Gazette is part of the Progressive Media group) and in a leader comment said that the Government’s changes in health and education had been met with a mixture of “bafflement and indignation” by the public, adding: ‘With remarkable speed, we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted.”

The article has been described as the biggest criticism by Britain’s top religious leader of the incumbent government in a generation.

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley told Press Gazette: “I’m delighted with the issue and the attention that it’s had. It reaffirms what I have long believed – that high quality magazine journalism is still capable of influencing national opinion and holding those in positions of power to account.”

Speaking at a press conference during his visit to Northern Ireland Cameron said: ‘I think the Archbishop of Canterbury is entirely free to express political views. I have never been one to say that the Church should fight shy of making political interventions.

“But what I would say is that I profoundly disagree with many of the views that he has expressed, particularly on issues like debt and welfare and education.”

The archbishop was particularly critical of Cameron’s flagship ‘Big Society’policy, writing: “The widespread suspicion that this has been done for opportunistic or money-saving reasons allows many to dismiss what there is of a programme for ‘big society’ initiatives; even the term has fast become painfully stale.

‘Government badly needs to hear just how much plain fear there is around questions such as these at present.

“It isn’t enough to respond with what sounds like a mixture of ‘This is the last government’s legacy’ and ‘We’d like to do more, but just wait until the economy recovers a bit’.”

Cameron said: “I don’t think it is good or right for people and our country if we just give up on paying down our debt and just pass that down to our children.

“I don’t see anything good or even moral in that approach. I don’t think it is good or right for us to pay people to stay on welfare, trapped in poverty, when we should be trying to get them a job.

“I do not think that is good or right for people or our country.

“And also when it comes to education, there is nothing good or right allowing people to stay trapped in schools that often are not giving them a good education, whereas the academy programme we are driving forward is raising standards and giving people a better future.”

He added: “I think the Big Society is an enormous opportunity not just for the Church of England but for all religious organisations and faith groups to try and make sure they do even more of the wonderful work they do to improve the condition of people in our society.”

Tory backbencher Roger Gale was more forthright in his criticism. He said: “For him, as an unelected member of the upper house and as an appointed and unelected primate, to criticise the Coalition Government as undemocratic and not elected to carry through its programme is unacceptable.

“Dr Williams clearly does not understand the democratic process. If he did, he would appreciate that elected members of the House of Commons are not mandated.

“We are sent to Westminster by our constituents to face and address the situation as we find it, to use our brains and to endeavour to act and to legislate in the best interests of those that we represent.”

Conservative MP Gary Streeter told the BBC: ‘I think the people are with us on this and the archbishop, sadly and unusually for him, has ill-judged his attack. I would just guess that most people would be slightly baffled by the archbishop’s comments.”

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