Langton’s role in the creation of Magna Carta is just one of many examples where Archbishops of Canterbury have rightly intervened in politics and the nation was the better off for it.
In recent memory we have an instance of Robert Runcie’s determination to pray for Argentine as well as British dead after the Falklands War.
Winston Churchill declined to appoint George Bell, arguably the best qualified prelate of his generation to Canterbury because he criticised the bombing of Dresden towards the end of World War II.
In earlier eras archbishops and bishops paid with their lives for political opposition, among them William Laud and of course, most famous of all, Thomas Beckett. Some like William Sancroft (1678-90) were deposed for making a stand over a principle.
It’s a long time since it fitted reality to call the Church of England the Tory Party at prayer. Having rejected Bell, Winston Churchill chose William Temple whose politics were hardly comfortable for Conservative politicians and for most of the last five decades Archbishops of Canterbury have raised questions about the policies of the government of the day.
In the process, an understanding was hammered out that the church is not there to blindly endorse the political consensus. During the 1970s and 80s this was not necessarily taken for granted. When Runcie took his stand over Argentine dead there were Tory politicians who argued that the church should be confining itself to matters spiritual. The same happened over the Faith in the City report which Runcie championed.
There is, and always has been, a straightforward Christian answer that rebuts this view. The Christian faith insists that this is God’s world. There is no distinction between sacred and secular. Every sphere of life must live under the scrutiny of God’s judgment. Thus every Christian, and certainly every Christian leader, has a duty to express a view about the moral dimensions of political debate and the way the future is being shaped.
So when Archbishop Rowan Williams questioned whether the coalition government had a mandate for its economic and social policies, no politician was naïve enough to deny his right to say this. The truth is that in recent years few governments have stuck to the letter of manifesto commitments. Of greater concern is that government policies over spending, education and the NHS appear to be going forward hastily and without adequate consideration.
David Cameron may “profoundly disagree” with Archbishop Williams on many points but he will never for one moment suggest the Archbishop should stay silent. What is more, there will be many who will be glad that Dr Williams gave voice to their views and concerns.
John Martin is General Secretary of Fulcrum, the evangelical Anglican network