The Archbishop makes people think

By , 8 February 2008 8:37 pm

Well, the winter’s monsoon seems to have ended and we’ve finally had some dry weather. Yet it remains very mild and today as I drove back from College in sunlight, spring didn’t seem far away. Hurrah! Increasingly winters seem to pass us by in the UK. Oh yes, every so often a cold flurry will blast down out of what is left of the Arctic and rampage across Britain, depositing a few inches of snow, but within hours it’s all gone. Down here in the moist southwest of Great Britain we have had nothing remotely approaching snow all winter.

But enough of the weather: there were lots of things I was thinking of talking about this week but then yesterday the sort of the big story blew up that I cannot really resist commenting on. I’m not sure whether it has made it over to where some of you dwell, but it’s not the sort of purely local news that you good citizens of Tallahassee, Des Moines or even Brisbane can dismiss with a shrug of the shoulders. On the contrary, here we may just be a few steps ahead of the rest of the world.

Basically, in case you missed it, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said, in as many words, that he felt that some form of Sharia law in Britain was probably inevitable. The result has been an enormous row, and for the first time that anyone can remember, people are seriously asking for the resignation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Now as someone who has lived abroad in the more or less Muslim world of West Beirut for eight years I have some interest – and experience – in this matter. I have also, frankly, an interest in the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is not just that he is a Swansea man and a poet of some repute, (we Welsh writers need to stick together) it is because about seven years ago, before he was promoted to being head of the entire Anglican Church, I actually had quite a long chat with him. In his capacity as Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Wales he had been speaking at a Swansea Christian leaders meeting and at the meal that followed I found myself, quite inadvertently, sitting opposite him. We chatted about all sorts of things, the longer ending of Mark, Christianity and the environment, N. T. Wright and various other things. I remember asking him what he was reading at the moment. He then waxed lyrical about an obscure (and, I gathered, not just to me) Eastern European theologian from the Orthodox church. I came away with the impression of a man with a brilliant mind (he had held a distinguished post at Oxford) but one who was only questionably Anglican. I felt that, given half a chance, he’d quite happily have defected to the Orthodox.

Anyway, shortly afterwards, he got promoted to the big job. Several things have marked out his primacy, and both the sympathies with the Eastern Church and the intelligence I had been struck with have been a dominant feature. But as yesterday showed intelligence and wisdom are actually separate things and as innumerable commentators pointed out, he showed a great lack of wisdom in suggesting that some form of Sharia might be inevitable in the UK. One of the problems with Dr Williams is that he doesn’t do clear, concise sentences. His language is rich, wordy, multi-layered and nuanced. Even people with a high level of English have to reread his articles to be sure of what he is saying. Try this for an example: “The rule of law is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity as such, independent of membership in any specific human community or tradition, so that when specific communities or traditions are in danger of claiming finality for their own boundaries of practice and understanding, they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity – and that the only way of doing this is to acknowledge the category of ‘human dignity as such’ – a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations) could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a human group.” Welcome back!

Anyway he seems to have meant that Sharia was, in some way inevitable. There is a lot I could say about this. After all, we have a large, diverse and troubled Muslim community, and how Muslims relate to traditional UK values is unclear. It’s not of course helped by the fact that, notoriously, we British have no constitution and suffer from a mindset which could be summed up as ‘we’re sure it will work out somehow’. Anyway, as many people have rushed to comment, this opens up all manner of problems. For one, Sharia varies across differing Islamic communities and in some cases seems to be little more than a formalised way of preserving traditional culture. No one really seems to know exactly what it means and what are its limits. For another, if Islam is allowed exemptions from the law why should not Judaism, Rastafarianism (with its dedication to hashish) or even Chris-ianity – my own personal form of hedonistic religion – also be granted exemption?

Three points, I think can be made. The first is that quite simply, the Archbishop could have been much clearer. There are constant claims by his office that he is being misquoted, but given his style of language it’s hard not to misunderstand what is happening. Words and phrasing that would work very well in an Oxford common room are inappropriate for today’s world. It is clear the man needs the discipline of writing a blog every week.

Secondly, Archbishop seems to have the sort of rosy view of Islam and Sharia that is commonly found amongst academics who deal only with highly educated representatives of other faiths who are on their best behaviour. The reality on the ground is, as many have pointed out, very different. So for instance, for all the fine words about the rights of women under Islam, their lot is not a happy one. Equally, the fact is that the blasphemy laws within Sharia can clearly be used to take down any critic of the system. Islam is not really a religion in the sense that Christianity is. I recall an interesting conversation with a very bright, ex-Muslim-but-not-yet-Christian, who said to me “Chris, you know, I don’t see Islam as a religion.” “You’d better explain that,” I replied, nonplussed. The answer was memorable: “Chris, I see it as a social structure, a system of organising society. It is that much more than a religion.” It’s a fair point. In short, the Archbishop needs to paid more attention to the harsh reality rather than the benign dream. To make a literary point; maybe he should have read less philosophy and theology and more tales of genuine experience.

The third point is that he has, at least, raised the matter to the level where it must be discussed. Presumably by accident – he seems genuinely surprised at being either understood (or misunderstood) – he has made the point that multiculturalism does not work. After all, if we are going to let different communities go their own separate way then it is surely inevitable that the most legalistic of those religions will demand that its legalism is enforceable. That is probably a ray of silver in the cloud of the dispute.

Another and brighter gleam of silver is this. Atheists and their kind may not like Christianity, but it is now plainer than it ever was that to remove Christianity from Western society creates a vacuum. That vacuum is clearly unsustainable and there is one obvious major contender to fill its void. Today, my atheist friends were only too happy to agree that the Christian faith might perhaps have something in its favour. You could tell from the way they phrased things that they clearly felt that there were far worse possible systems to live under. Indeed, there are.

6 Responses to “The Archbishop makes people think”

  1. Terry says:


    It’s times like this that I wish I were better versed in some of the fundamentals of Islam. “Know thy adversary,” is not bad advice.

    But I agree with the danger of interpreting practical, real-world issues through the academic filter. My college experience was peppered with conversations with people who knew all the right arguments, but not how those ideas played out in the real world.

    I have a good friend who is a solid Christian, a counsellor who deals with people at their worst, has a good grasp of what real life looks like, and loves these people with the love of Jesus. And, when talking about fashion and design style, she has no qualms about saying, “Thank God for gay men – they’re the only men with any real sense of style.” Take that for what it’s worth. But I’m more than a little troubled by the easy acceptance (qualified though it may be) of something that is clearly an abomination to God, and a twisting of truth.

    It seems that the issue of Sharia in law is similar, and joins many other issues where the truth and purity of God’s Word is sacrificed on the altar of “tolerance”, or “judging not”.

    As they say, “There is nothing quite so intolerant as tolerance.” But that’s the inscription on the lid of another can of worms.

    Take care,


  2. Boaz says:


    I’ve run into a situation at least as bizzare here in the Seattle area. One of the local Episcopal priests made the front page of the Seattle Times by becoming muslim, and claiming to be muslim, while she still performed services. (As she is subject to the diocese of Rhode Island, the bishop there has prohibited her from performing any duties of the clergy or the deaconate for a year while she reflects on which she is.)

    I agree with your assessment of his words, though: he needs to be clearer in public communications. Clarity, concision, and precision are all required.

    Regarding whether or not other exceptions should be granted, I can see the argument now:
    Muslim: I want my own religious law.
    Christian: Then I should have mine.
    M: No, because you’re a blasphemer.
    C: Says who?
    M: Me.
    C: What authority?
    M: Mohammed.
    C: Well, you’ve listened to a spirit from Satan.
    M: Me?
    C: Yes.
    M: Says who?
    C: [Scripture reference: whatever spirit denies Christ isn’t from God]
    M: But we have the word of God, and you don’t.
    C: No, we do. We both claim the same things, so an outsider should treat our claims equally.
    M: Then I’ll just have to through a tantrum to get my way, and make sure you don’t.
    [proceed to riots throughout the country]
    Perhaps a childish cariacature, but I see that general trend in the logic.

    I have a number of other half-formed thoughts regarding the US branch of the Communion (though I am not a member) at the very least seeming to turn away from scriptural requirements for conduct of clergy, on sharia-friendly mutual funds and the like (although if a customer is willing to pay for it, is there a good commercial reason to deny such a thing?), on mulitculturalism embracing contradictory viewpoints as both being valid (and so instead becomes ‘whatever other cultures force on us’), and more.

    Having to head to work soon, though, so no real chance to put all of them in order at the moment.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Orthodox church has much apology to make in Western World: protocommunist massacres by Palamite Zealotes under Hesychast hyperventilatory halucinations, Cantacuzene taxation driving farmers to embrace Turks, Komyakoviac Obshchina giving birth to soviet communism as reactionary casuistry opposing Napoleon’s defeudalization, Cosmus Aitalius being patron originator of of modern genocide as seen by the massacre of Turks in Crete by Venizelos. And their hypnotic brainwashing incantations are designed to make theirf locks into terrorists. Is all masochistic because reject Original Sin.

  4. Chris says:


    Congratulations for using the longest words in the blog! I suspect Rowan can tell you what they all mean; I’m not sure I can. Anyway I hope any Orthodox readers dont take offense. I have a policy of not censoring the blogs unless it is absolutely necessary.


  5. Catherine Brislee says:

    Am I the only one who blames the media?

    What I see is the Archbishop saying something a bit confusing about respecting other people’s legal systems (yes, I admit I don’t follow it very well), and suddenly a bunch of very prejudiced people are being interviewed and the media is gleefully reporting every idiocy (one person actually said the AB had “done great damage to Christianity in this country”!)

    Talk about creating a drama! I have always believed that a free press is essential to a democracy, but oh how we suffer for it, with lies, distortions and completely unnecessary crises.

  6. Chris says:

    No, you are not alone. I think the media have played a major role; the Sun’s ‘Bash the Bishop’ campaign is pretty terrible. But as the Sun wins elections no one will reign them in.

    Mind you, the AB’s habit of using impenetrable Oxford common room language doesn’t help him win friends. I confess I am not a Rowan fan. I have around a dozen ex Muslim friends who are now Christians and who would face death under Sharia

    Anyway all this raises a further dilemma. Do we mask what we really want to say in case the media misrepresent us? Hmm.



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