Friday, 15 February 2008

Yes Rowan’s a jolly good fellow, but who backs his ideas?

Earlier on this blog I was rather scathingabout the founding of a Facebook group titled, “The Archbishop of Canterbury is a good man.” Signing up to this group means you think not only that the Archbishop is a good man, but that he has been badly handled by the press over his speech on Shari’ah law.

Actually, as Clive James observed on Question Time during the week, he was rather badly handled by the tabloids, but the broadsheets by and large gave careful consideration to his remarks, and mostly came down against him. One of my questions about the Facebook group was its blanket assertion that ‘the media’ “has misinterpreted the spirit of what Dr Williams was talking about in his lecture”, which failed to take this distinction into account.

Be that as it may, the real problem with the Facebook group is its confusion of personality with proposition. I would happily agree that Dr Williams is a good man — though as a Christian I wouldn’t want to overstate the case. (He is also a sinner in need of salvation, on a level playing field in that regard with the rest of us. If he is ‘saintly’ it is by the grace of God alone, as I’m sure he would be the first to affirm.) No, the real problem is that Rowan Williams put forward a number of proposals — clearly designed to promote further thought, but proposals none the less — which are in every sense questionable.

Agreed, he did not call for the introduction of Shari’ah law into the UK in the sense that might popularly be (mis)understood (though he himself takes some responsibility for the misunderstanding). But he did speak about “plural” and “supplementary jurisdictions”, which would, as it were, allow Muslims to opt in, or out, of decisions based on Shari’ah law. Quoting from the Jewish legal theorist Ayelet Shacharit, he said in his speech that “it might be possible to think in terms of ... a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters” (italics added).

What this might mean in practice, he did not specify, but he did say that if more “rights and scruples rooted in religious identity” were to be built into our legal system, then for Muslims “we should need a much enhanced and quite sophisticated version” of the Islamic Shari’ah Council, which already exists and which, he acknowledges, is “much in demand for rulings on marital questions in the UK.”

You can read here about the workings of the Council to which I presume the Archbishop was referring (its website acknowledges there is more than one such body.) It may be noted that the considerations and requirements of the Council are already thorough and detailed. However, as the website notes, The Council conducts Islamic divorces only: it does not conduct cases as part of the legal or judicial systems.” In its operations and outcomes it would seem to be very similar to the Roman Catholic process of seeking an annulment. However, it is this, or at least this kind of, body which Dr Williams suggests would need to be much enhanced” to give his ideas effect.

So although in a speech to the General Synod three days later, the Archbishop denied talking about “parallel jurisdictions”, my own feeling is that his comments failed the British Standard Duck Test: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck — it’s probably a duck.” That is to say, the Archbishop did advance the suggestion that a greater formal integration than already exists should be established between bodies which give rulings based on Shari’ah and the legal structures of our society. In short, an enhanced place would be found for the operation of Shari'ah law.

The ‘elephant in the living room’, however, as far as I and many others could see, is that Shari’ah involves many concepts, and the practical rulings flowing from them, which are anathema to many within our society and to Anglican bishops in particular. Thus the Archbishop referred to “retrograde or repressive elements” within the Muslim community, some of which find support in “a strict application of sharia”. Hence the most he could formally allow would be a ‘Shari’ah Lite’, based on the most ‘liberal’ interpretations of Shari’ah, compatible with Western sensibilities.

Even this, though, requires a practical expression. And it is here that support for the Archbishop suddenly seems to fade away, for I can find little sign of anyone in the Christian community willing to pick up the ball and run with it in the direction the Archbishop was kicking.

And this is deeply disturbing. In society as a whole, the Archbishop’s remarks sparked a furore. He has distanced himself from that, denying that he spoke about ‘parallel jurisdictions’, but he has not clarified how he would like to see his proposals taken forward on the critical issue of what ‘jurisdiction’ might mean in the way he referred to is as being ‘supplementary’ to the existing system. The debate in society, then, is going forward, largely based on the impressions people have about what the Archbishop said.

In the Church of England, however, debate has been stifled because it has been polarised on the wrong issue. The question of whether what Rowan Williams proposed was sensible, workable, or even theologically sound (a question he himself admits needs to be posed), has given way to pro-Rowan partisanship, in the face of a perceived anti-Rowan caucus: what Melanie Phillips writing in the Spectator called “the backlash against the backlash”.

Unfortunately, as the same writer rather cuttingly put it, the result, demonstrated by the General Synod’s standing ovation for Dr Williams, gives the impression that the organs of the Church have “the intellectual rigour of a sponge”: never mind the concepts; what a man!

In all this, I am sure that Dr Williams is the last to want adulation from people hanging uncritically on his words. Though none of us is free of pride, he doubtless didn’t want his audience at the original lecture to come away thinking, “What a wonderful person,” but, “What a great idea.”

Unfortunately for him, critical comment outside the Church has largely said it is not a great idea. Unfortunately for the Church, critical comment from within has become almost impossible.

Revd John P Richardson
15 February 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. From this side of the Atlantic, I am not surprised by the standing ovation for the AOC. This is characteristic of the problems with leadership in the "Anglican Communion." Here in the U.S. we have seen praise for our Presiding Bishop inspite of her foibles. This means the whole "command structure" is in need of overhaul.

  2. Perhaps the most amazing thing that ++ Williams has done is to create more or less unity among Liberals, Anglo-Catholics and Conservatives in all disagreeing with what he said.

    How many Archbishops can claim that I wonder? Is this a secret strategy of Rowan's to bind the communion together that he's not telling us about?

    He's blinking clever if it is...

    Chris Bishop


  3. One thing we should beware of: as part of the "backlash against the backlash", Dr Williams supporters are spinning what happened in synod on Monday. A "standing ovation" is probably not an accurate description. If I've understood things correctly, members of synod customarily stand up when the president enters, out of courtesy and respect for his office. It doesn't necessarilly indicate support for him or what he's said. Some at least clapped as well. But this isn't really a standing ovation.

    Stephen Walton, Marbury, Cheshire