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Archbishop Rowan Williams on Start the Week

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 20:55, Sunday, 11 April 2010

Rowan Williams

For a gentle, kindly, mild-mannered man, the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to be often at the centre of a great deal of controversy. Part of the problem is of course that he is transparently honest and finds it very difficult not to give straight answers.

He is an academic rather than a diplomat, committed to the pursuit of truth rather than disguising it for political or institutional advantage. Above all he is serious, and so when Start the Week"s Andrew Marr asked him about the impact of clerical abuse on the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland he gave a serious, thoughtful, answer.

The result was unwelcome news headlines, and offence taken by some of the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, this before the programme itself was actually broadcast. The Archbishop apologised for any offence given but should it have been the BBC News department issuing the apology for misquoting Dr Williams and taking his remarks out of context?

That is the view of many Feedback listeners after they had heard the actual programme, which was broadcast two days after those news headlines. See what you think when I put those concerns to the Deputy Head of the BBC Newsroom, Craig Oliver:

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Tell us what you thought of the programme in a comment here on the blog.

By the way, you won"t be able to hear Feedback on fridays at 1330 during the election campaign, as The World at One is being extended by half an hour. However the programme will still be broadcast at 2000 on sunday evenings. Please join us then, or subscribe to the podcast or listen again on the Radio 4 web site.

Above all, please keep writing, phoning and emailing us, not least about the BBC's election coverage.

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on BBC Radio 4


  • Comment number 1.

    "He is an academic ... , committed to the pursuit of truth ..."
    Considering his job, I cannot take this comment at all seriously. He cannot be both of those things AND head of a church, because if he was at all academic and truthful he'd have to admit it's all rubbish.
    I guess I just can't understand why children get chastised for blaming accidents or malicious behaviour on their imaginary friends, while grown men can command the respect of millions for doing the same thing.

  • Comment number 2.

    JustHere4Coffee, please don't be so unscientific as to consider the possibility of a higher being the same as that of an "imaginary friend". Granted, the evidence is more indirect than that of most laboratory experiments, but plenty of scientific, historical and archeological disciplines have to use indirect clues to piece together a bigger picture that takes into account all the strands of evidence. This requires intellectual rigour which people such as the Archbishop possess in spades.

  • Comment number 3.

    Whilst I agree with the comment by JustHere4Coffee (5:53pm on 12 Apr 2010) (and reject the vacuousness of Chritina Biggs' reply), I still think that Rowan Williams deserves to be accurately reported. In the interview on Feedback, Craig Oliver came across to me as slightly contemptuous of the truth. There were a number of distortions in his responses to Roger Bolton's questions, some of which Bolton picked him up on.

    In recent years, misreporting in the Times has increased and is sometimes blatant and without repentance, yet the paper still seems to be treated as a credible source by some others. Was this a factor in the BBC's misreporting of what Rowan Williams said, despite the fact that the BBC had access to the original recording? I would have thought it unlikely until I heard Oliver's account. Did the influence of the initial falsehood, combined with the BBC's obligation to respond to a news story that involved the BBC (when the actual truth was less of a news story), result in the BBC Newsroom not noticing the vast difference in meaning between "lost" and "loosing"? I was shocked by Oliver's complacency about this.

    The BBC has a good reputation for news reporting. Personally, I dislike its attempts to seek a balance between sense and lunacy (or, in the case of some religious items, to present only the lunatic response), and I am very suspicious about certain important news items that the BBC have failed to cover. But I would be sad to see it loose its integrity.

  • Comment number 4.

    Behind that kindly face there is a shrewd political operator who excels in his ability to manipulate the minds of gullible millions. No significant misreporting of his mischievous remarks occurred, and when a minor mistake was made in one bulletin it was quickly corrected.

  • Comment number 5.

    How do you think that Rowan Williams is manipulating the minds of gullible millions?

  • Comment number 6.

    JustHere4Coffee, I think I missed the archbishop's last interview but I will remember for a long time, hearing the arch bishop say the success of the church is not dependant on proving the existence of God. Which can be simplified but essentially to me is a start in the church being inclusive of even the Atheist, i.e. the secular Christian should not be excluded from the church. And the bible where it comments about God could be interpreted metaphorically.

  • Comment number 7.

    In this frantic debate, might I be allowed to attempt to answer the question posed by kleines c at 12:02pm on 14 Apr 2010?

    The "gullible millions" are mainly children who are susceptible to religious indoctrination. On hearing many seniors independently and repeatedly state as a fact that the Christian God exists and must be worshipped, while at the same time being shielded from facts that contradict this, what is a young child to conclude? The process of "manipulating the minds" includes some subtle techniques and some not so subtle (such as compulsory collective worship in schools). Children who are taken in do not always recover, and the seriousness of the consequences is under-appreciated.

    Rowan Williams often comes across as kindly, gentle, and intelligent, but one has to accept that either his logic is flawed or, worse, that he is knowingly peddling flawed logic. It is not so much his preaching, more his part in the enforcement of religious indoctrination, that makes him guilty of manipulating minds.

    Another guilty party, whether or not deliberately so, is the BBC. A child listening to Radio 4 may frequently hear references to God as if there were no question of non-existence. Respect for religious people does not necessarily mean respect for their ideas. If an expressed view seems obviously wrong, then to challenge that view is not to disrespect the person expressing that view, nor to disrespect any listeners holding the same view. To suppress such challenges is to perform a public disservice.

    Mild challenges were presented on Start The Week on Easter Monday. Perhaps Williams' claim to have now learned that honesty and truthfulness are the only way we can survive in any institution will end the presentation of fiction as fact in CofE schools. It is a shame that he was not challenged to give an honest and truthful promise that it will.

  • Comment number 8.

    Thank you for posting such a full answer to my question, TreenonPoet. Curiously, I first heard Rowan Williams, not on 'Start The Week', but at the BBC Proms a couple of years ago, all be it on Radio 3 rather than Radio 4.


    He was discussing the conflicting ideas about spiritual regeneration and existentialism as embodied in the characters of his literary hero, the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Here is a full transcript online, if anyone is interested:


    In this sense, I was one of newlach's gullible millions, exposed directly to the considerable charm and 'manipulation' of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the BBC Proms. For the record, he got a standing ovation from Radio 3 listeners, although Radio 4 listeners might have been a little more sceptical in such circumstances. Of course, Fyodor Dostoevsky rated logic far lower than belief. He famously wrote that even if were to be proved that Christ were outside the truth, an idea which Philip Pullman explores in his new book 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ', he would still stay with Christ.


    Anyway, Rowan Williams concluded by saying that it is not so much that good and evil have to co-exist:

    " ... it's more that there is never going to be a final version of the truth in my mind – although the truth is there, because there's always something more I can say. And so the devil ironically here (from Book XI of 'The Brothers Karamazov', where the atheist Ivan Karamazov, the third brother, the intellectual, is visited by the devil in a dream) is defending the possibility of history going on; of humans going on asking and answering."

    It seems to me, TreenonPoet, that we have to interrogate one another, asking ourselves whether we can conceive that humanity is only itself when it is a sign of what is other, and following on from that, in Rowan's own words:

    " ... what is the cost of continuing to affirm such a humanity in a world that will constantly appear to deny it?"

    Well, the cost for the BBC, to answer Roger Bolton's 'Feedback' blog directly, might be a failure to explore the human condition. This is why Rowan Williams was right to risk manipulating the minds of Radio 4's gullible (10) millions; this is why Mark Damazer was wrong to exclude atheists from 'Thought for the Day'.


    As a note to Mark, I do not think that it is yet too late for you to think again.



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