Rowan Williams and Sharia law: the debate continues

Astonishingly, Archbishop Rowan Williams’ comments on Sharia law are still the top story on the BBC news website after more than 24 hours. It is very rare that any story, let alone a religious one, keeps that top spot for so long. In the latest article there, the Archbishop

is said to be overwhelmed by the “hostility of the response” after his call for parts of Sharia law to be recognised in the UK.

Yesterday I repeated, but did not answer, Ruth Gledhill’s question: has the Archbishop gone bonkers? John Richardson in one place gives a short but straight answer:

No, but I’m not sure about his advisors.

On his own blog, Richardson writes at much more length an explanation of his position, which is well summarised in his post title: Dr Williams and Sharia: wrong suggestion, right concern. There is indeed a real problem which Williams recognises, the gradual secularisation of British law. And there is nothing objectionable in people freely agreeing to settle their personal differences through informal religious courts. But the Archbishop’s suggestion that religious laws should be incorporated into the law of the land is neither practical nor helpful. And as for the way in which Williams has presented his ideas, it can only be described as a major public relations disaster.

Ruth Gledhill has found support for Williams’ position from only one direction: the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir!

Bishop Alan’s comments are sensible: we should avoid hysteria on this issue. Doug Chaplin is right that

The Internet seems to produce a rush to judgement.

Indeed many people rushed to comment without reading the full text of Williams’ lecture. I had not read it when I posted before. Isn’t rushed comment the very nature of blogging? But 24 hours of reflection, reading the text, and reading many others’ comments, have not changed my mind on the main issue: the Archbishop, though not bonkers, is wrong in much but not all of the substance of what he says; and, more importantly, he is foolish for saying it.

I do accept that the lecture was in fact more nuanced than the media reports. Indeed in it Williams attempted to answer in advance many of the objections that have been made. But this kind of shallow reporting is the nature of journalism, and the Archbishop and his press officers should have realised that.

It is interesting that in the lecture Williams uses of Muslims language which is also regularly used of Christians. For example, he said

the Muslim, even in a predominantly Muslim state, has something of a dual identity, as citizen and as believer within the community of the faithful.

I have wondered before if what Williams says about Islam is in fact coded language for what he would like to say about Christianity, but dare not for fear of the reaction. Previously I wondered this concerning some remarks about fundamentalism. In the present case his caution seems to have backfired. But he could well have thought that he would get into trouble for arguing for legal privileges for Christians; on the other hand, if with his encouragement legal privileges were given to Muslims, they would have to also be given to Christians. In fact this underlying agenda is clear from the lecture, for at the start Williams says

the issues that arise around what level of public or legal recognition, if any, might be allowed to the legal provisions of a religious group, are not peculiar to Islam.

In fact it seems to me that Williams is arguing for replacing the establishment of the Church of England, with its few remaining legal privileges, by some kind of establishment of multiple religions, in which each can claim some legal privileges for its own adherents. I can see why this is better than the current one-sided establishment.

But I can also see a number of serious objections, which have not been properly answered. The proposed system is necessarily unfair to the non-religious, and to adherents of minority and new religions and fringe groups which have not been granted the same privileges. To the extent that it requires individuals to commit themselves formally to one particular religion in order to claim its privileges, it compromises the fundamental human right to choose and change one’s religion – as is seen in practice in some majority Muslim countries in which Christians have to be formally registered, and converts to Christianity are denied registration. Indeed Williams’ proposals bring within the framework of state law matters of religion which, I believe, should be fundamentally separate from the state; many others worldwide, both religious and non-religious, believe this, and it is enshrined in the constitutions of very many countries. And, most importantly, the proposals undermines the equality of all people before the law.

I would argue that the only way to correct the unfairness of the establishment of the Church of England (of which I am a lay member) is to disestablish it and embrace the principle of separation of religion from the state.

Williams is a top class theologian, although I disagree with him on many issues. But it takes more than a good mind to lead an international church. It also requires a keen sense of what it is appropriate to say when, in a situation where an often hostile press is listening to and prepared to twist every word you say. Williams doesn’t have this sense, not even the sense to keep quiet. It would be better for all if he returned to teaching theology or leading a rural diocese, and left high profile international leadership to others.

So, I agree with the anonymous senior churchman’s call for Williams to resign. Yes, I have said this before over another issue, but this issue greatly strengthens the case. He is not fit for the job he is trying to do and should let someone else do it.

0 thoughts on “Rowan Williams and Sharia law: the debate continues

  1. Peter, as an American, I do not understand the full nature of the disestablisment debate you are in the middle of.

    If he were saying controversial things that are rooted in the gospel, would you have as much objection to him?

    I take it that you are not upset that he is stirring up trouble, but rather that he is stirring it up on the wrong topics.

    From a distance, this reminds me a bit of the trouble Pope Benedict got in when he made some comments about Islam. As I recall, he also was stunned by the angry response.

  2. Thanks, John. Yes, you are right, the problem is that he is stirring up controversy on the wrong topics, ones which bring him and the church into disrepute and do not serve the cause of Christ. If he were saying controversial things that are rooted in the gospel, I would be very pleased, but he doesn’t often do that!

  3. The C of E should have disestablished long, long ago. It says much that independent Churches, like those that come under the umbrella of Newfrontiers, are growing, full of vitality and commitment to Word and Spirit.
    When was the last time C of E planted Churches in the UK? This country is crying out for strong spiritual input and leadership and you poor guys have to put up with Rowan Williams.

  4. Glenn, I agree with your first sentence and your last. But in fact the C of E is planting quite a number of churches in the UK. A close friend of mine is being interviewed this weekend for a job doing this for the Church Army, having already played a major role in a previous church plant. And many C of E congregations including my own are “are growing, full of vitality and commitment to Word and Spirit.” Unfortunately in the national figures this patchy growth is cancelled out by the gradual withering away of congregations many of which more or less died decades ago. The situation is not wonderful, but it is not as bad as you suggest.

  5. Pingback: Archbishop Rowan's New Statesman media triumph? - Gentle Wisdom

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