When the full lecture was published on the official website of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the title was “Freedom and Slavery.”
Archbishop Rowan is often described as a “liberal” — in fact he describes himself as such. But in this age when the terms liberal and conservative are used in numerous, mutually inconsistent ways, that label alone tells us little. Two short passages from the Times extract of his lecture should make it clear that, as an outspoken opponent of both individualism and relativism, he's the sort of liberal who often upsets other self-described liberals.
Wilberforce and his circle believed that if a sinful system existed and its sinfulness implicated them as well as others, they were under an obligation to end it. There is no simple gulf between personal and public morality; and Christian morality is not about “keeping yourself unspotted from the world” in any sense that implies withdrawing or ignoring public wrongs.
But if the state enacts or perpetuates in the corporate life of the nation what is directly contrary to the Christian understanding of God’s purpose, then Christian activism in respect of changing the law is justified, primarily when the state is responsible for — so to speak — compromising the morality of all its citizens.
This is at the heart of what Wilberforce was concerned about. He is not campaigning for the state to impose a personal morality, and would probably have agreed that such a policy would take away the essential aspect of personal liberty in choices about one’s own life. But he is campaigning for a moral state — that is, for a state that does not compromise its citizens, and that recognises wider considerations than those of immediate profit and security.
This makes sense, though, only if it is possible to convince those who run things in the public sphere that there are human values and ethical norms to which an entire society is answerable. In our relativist climate, this is very difficult. What tends to happen is that nothing much is left as a substantive moral basis for public life except a poorly defined principle of tolerance or avoidance of mutual harm. The idea that you can give substance to a common social ethic, something to which society as a whole can be held accountable, is unfashionable and unwelcome. Even from the point of view of many who have no religious commitment, there is a recognition that this is a thin diet.
I believe that it is possible for a state to have a moral basis without thereby becoming confessional or theocratic. It involves a state being ready to recognise its own history; to say that its horizons and assumptions are indeed grounded in a set of particular beliefs, and to embody in its political practice ways of allowing those foundational commitments to be heard in public debate.
The establishment of the Church of England, as it has evolved in the past century or so, has turned out to be such a mechanism — a rather awkward one. But if the church were to be disestablished, the question would still be there in an acute form: how does the state properly expose itself to argument about its collective moral status?
One important point came through more clearly in the full lecture than in the Times extract: Criticism of slavery and the slave trade in the 18th century came only from Christians who were motivated by their religion; the theoretical egalitarianism of Enlightenment rationalism, for instance, was never translated into opposition to slavery.
Towards the end of his speech, Archbishop Rowan raised the issue of reparations for slavery, and, in the academic way he is known for, he hashed through various aspects of the issue without coming to a clear conclusion, bringing the speech to a rather weak and muddled ending. I can only hope it will not obscure his overarching theme of restoring moral vision to the vocation of politics.