Both are British (one English, the other Welsh). Both went to Oxford. Both have parents who decided to name them Rowan. And both have achieved worldwide fame. But in pretty much every other way that matters, they couldn't be more different from each other.
As Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams is the primus inter pares at the head of a worldwide religious community, the Anglican Communion. But he is also senior primate of the Church of England, an institution whose other leading figure, carrying the title Supreme Governor of the Church of England, is Queen Elizabeth II (one of whose other subsidiary titles, dating back to Henry VIII, is of course “Defender of the Faith”). By virtue of this role in what is not only a spiritual but a civic institution, Williams is a cornerstone of the British establishment. Which is to say that, in addition to being a shepherd responsible to fellow Anglicans around the globe, he is also a holder of a public office and of a public trust, responsible to the British Crown and to every citizen of the United Kingdom.
If Rowan Williams is that most solemn of things, the Queen's bishop, Rowan Atkinson is somewhere at the opposite end of the seriousness spectrum. Famous for his characters Blackadder and Mr. Bean, Atkinson is not just a comic actor but one who almost invariably plays the fool. Often, interestingly, these fools are clerics, such as the nervous vicar who, officiating at a marriage ceremony in Four Weddings and a Funeral, inadvertently says “Holy Goat” instead of “Holy Ghost.”
I said above that – names, fame, nationality, and Oxonian backgrounds aside – our two Rowans “couldn't be more different.” That's not quite correct. Both, as it happens, have also made public pronouncements in recent years on certain highly controversial issues. Only a few weeks after 9/11 – eager, apparently, to show his dhimmitude and prevent a jihadist attack on British soil, Home Secretary David Blunkett proposed a law that would criminalize religious hate speech. The almost universal response to this ignominious move was a deafening silence – the most notable exception being a letter dated October 15, 2001, and published in the Times of London on October 17. It was by Atkinson. He wrote, in part:
I hope that I am not the only person in the creative arts who feels great disquiet about the proposals outlined by the Home Secretary in the Commons today, to introduce legislation to outlaw what has been described as 'incitement to religious hatred' ...Having spent a substantial part of my career parodying religious figures from my own Christian background, I am aghast at the notion that it could, in effect, be made illegal to imply ridicule of a religion or to lampoon religious figures....For telling a good and incisive religious joke, you should be praised. For telling a bad one, you should be ridiculed and reviled. The idea that you could be prosecuted for the telling of either is quite fantastic.
Alas, it appeared as if Atkinson might actually be “the only person in the creative arts” in Britain who didn't like what Blunkett was up to. Certainly none of his fellow British celebrities rushed in to second his motion in an equally high-profile manner. In the wake of Blunkett's proposal, Atkinson was conspicuous by his seemingly solitary opposition.
Although Blunkett's bill ended up passing – in a somewhat milder version, thanks to the efforts of the House of Lords, and no thanks whatsoever to the dhimmi wimps in the House of Commons – the cringing and groveling didn't go far enough for the other Rowan, who in January 2008, in a pompous, pretentious six-thousand-word lecture entitled “Religious Hatred and Religious Offence,” called for severer punishments for writers and artists who slander religion, his argument being (and I quote here not from the intolerably tortuous text itself but from a more straightforward, and apparently official, summary) that these givers of offense ignore “the hurt that their actions may cause,” that they refuse “to see people's belief choices from any other perspective but their own,” and that permitting such speech “deprives society of the ability to have a sense of the value of humanity, beyond the most basic idea of human dignity.”
How curious that Rowan the clown, the professional jester, could have such a clear understanding of fundamental English values, while Rowan the priest – who is nothing less than an official, certified public symbol of those values – could get it all so wrong.
But, as some readers will recall, that was just the beginning. A week after his call for a stricter law against giving religious offense, Williams delivered yet another six-thousand-word piece of oratory. This time his subject was sharia law, which, he urged, should be allowed a greater role in British jurisprudence. As I have written elsewhere, the speech was “a masterly...exercise in euphemism and circumlocution” in which Williams sought over and over to convey the idea that sharia isn't as bad as it's cracked up to be, all the while wriggling and slithering around the incontrovertible facts of the matter in a way reminiscent of the most slick, slimy, and slippery of used-car salesman. Williams's disquisition was a full-out disgrace: an expression of an obscene readiness to forfeit British liberty – and to sacrifice the truth itself – in the name of sham “tolerance” and bogus “respect” for Islam.
Williams, who has been Archbishop of Canterbury since 2003, is expected to step down in December. For some of us, his departure from Lambeth Palace can't come too soon – though it is probably too much to hope that his successor (who has yet to be chosen) will be much better. Meanwhile, Atkinson continues to wage his lonely, heroic struggle against the cynical and cowardly campaign to erode British freedom. Last week, in reaction to what would appear to be a fresh wave of hate-speech arrests (the offenders include a teenager holding an anti-Scientology placard and members of a gay-rights group who protested the Muslim organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, “which was calling for the killing of gays, Jews and unchaste women”), Atkinson launched a drive for the repeal of Section 5 of the Public Order Law, under which these arrests were made. (This is, note well, not the same law he was challenging back in 2001: as in some other supposedly free European countries, it's hard to keep straight all the laws in Britain that place limits on freedom of expression.) Atkinson said that the Public Order Law, which forbids “insults,” was having a “chilling effect on free expression and free protest,” and was part of what he described as a “new intolerance,” a “creeping culture of censoriousness.” It is high time, he suggested, to “rewind the culture of censoriousness” and stop appeasing what he called the “outrage industry – self-appointed arbiters of the public good encouraging media-stoked outrage to which the police feel under terrible pressure to react.”
It was cheering to see that Atkinson is still in there fighting – and cheering, too, to see that, in this latest battle, he actually has allies – ranging from the Christian Alliance to the National Secular Society, and including sixty-odd members of Parliament. It would appear, however – unless I've missed something – that he is, yet again, “the only person in the creative arts” in the U.K., at least the only one with any degree of clout, who is willing to step up and associate his name with the now apparently controversial cause of individual liberty. Certainly the list of supporters at the website of his campaign, Reform Section 5, includes no famous British writer, artist, or performer of any kind – no Stephen Fry or Dame Judy Dench, no Daniel Day-Lewis or Hilary Mantel, no Martin Amis or Emma Thompson. Have they not yet been asked to participate, or have they politely declined?
Meanwhile, there was no immediate word on whether the other Rowan had anything to say about this new crusade by his wiser and braver namesake. But then, it can take a while to scribble out six thousand words – especially when you're doing the Devil's work, all the while trying, with every masterfully mendacious sentence, to appear to be on the side of the angels.
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