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‘Every voice is worth listening to’ – Faith in Democracy lecture by Bishop Rowan Williams

“It is crucial for a democracy to be liberated from the idea that majority votes end arguments.” So said former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams, who delivered the latest in the Featherstonhaugh Lecture Series in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute on Wednesday, February 18.

Canon Dr Maurice Elliott, Director of CITI, the Archbishop Michael Jackson and Lord Rowan Williams.
Canon Dr Maurice Elliott, Director of CITI, the Archbishop Michael Jackson and Lord Rowan Williams.

Bishop Williams invited his audience, which exceeded the capacity of CITI’s Hartin Room, to consider ‘Faith in Democracy’ and asked if global politics is currently exhibiting deep confusion about the nature of democracy and the moral case for it. He also explored Christian theology and practice on the subject.

Setting out the stall for democracy, Bishop Williams said it was not quite as straightforward as may be imagined. We need to question why it should work and understand what it is as well as what it is not. He suggested democracy is often defined by what it is not – it is not autocracy, oligarchy or dictatorship. Democracy raises the question of what is lawful in human society and what kind of system has a proper claim on our loyalty and obedience. It also asks what it is that we can recognise that represents our voice and our interests. “Democracy may be a mess but it’s our mess. It may have strange ideas but it reflects our ideas,” he stated.

The Bishop pointed out that democracy does not happen automatically when other systems disappear, citing Iraq and Libya as examples. He said that the advance of democracy went hand in hand with certain advances in secularism but did not agree that democracy is secular. “The fundamental of democracy is that it represents who we are, what we want and what we care about. But there is a risk of populism. Is something made right by the majority vote?’ he asked.

The paradox of democracy, he contended, is that it believes that every human agent is worth listening to. But if every human agent is worth listening to, then that includes minorities as well as the majority. “Democracy is a system in which every voice has a claim to be heard. But that can be a challenge. The voices that have not prevailed are still worth listening to… We go on arguing and that is a sign that democracy is working because the minority voice is still being taken seriously,” he said. “The majority decision may be lawful but it is still up for debate… It is crucial for a democracy to be liberated from the idea that majority votes end arguments.” He added that freedom of speech must be safeguarded (with certain limits) if democracy is to be a means of change in society.

However, he said public debate does not mean that we allow our neighbour to shout for a while before taking our own turn to shout. We must recognise that the person who opposes us in an argument has goals which we can recognise as intelligible. That recognition stops us descending into polarisation, he said. We must work out why our opponents seek good by means which we see as bad, he explained. Opponents are increasingly being seen as enemies, Bishop Williams suggested, which is a threat to democracy as it feeds the idea that we need a once and for all victory.

Bishop Williams said that when we talk about democracy and faith, we are to a certain extent talking about faith in democracy: the belief in human dignity; the belief that every perspective has a right to be tended to; the belief that every voice has the right to be heard; the belief that the state cannot delegitimise a minority. “To believe in democracy is to believe that democracy is good because human beings are fallible. That builds in the possibility of change… Democracy spreads the load of fallibility and limitations. In a mature democracy we have both a strong and robust commitment to the dignity and voices of all perspectives and an equally strong commitment to the partiality of our own perceptions,” he explained.

The Bishop said that the theology the Christian Church offers to democracy is the body of Christ which is a metaphor for society itself when it is flourishing – there is a sense of interdependence, continuing engagement, listening and the labour of recognition. Considering what might constitute moral politics, he outlined a number of principles including awareness of where our convictions come from, empathy, strategy and understanding the relationship between the means and the ends, patience and courage and self–respect. “All of these are virtues which sustain an ethical democracy, a democracy in which it is possible to have faith,” he contended. “We have work to do as exercising these virtues are the means to seismic change. When you have a society that is passive and consumerist, expecting this change to take place elsewhere, then you will have a society that makes peculiar decisions.”

The Christian Churches have a significant role in modelling democracy, Bishop Williams said. “Because of what we believe, the way in which we behave with one another will be part of creating a democratic culture,” he said. “When politics collapses into personality cults, there is a need for communities of faith to show why faith in democracy is a good idea and democracies need communities of faith to remind the state and society that ethical questions are not to be determined by plebiscite.”

Report and photography by Lynn Glanville, Dublin & Glendalough Communications Officer