Poor Archbishop Williams
Last week, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the English Church gave an academic lecture in an academic setting entitled “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective.”Hours later, a row had erupted. His comments led the BBC radio top-of-the-hour news stories for days, headed the BBC website, and made front-page news in the Friday tabloid press. As usually happens with these things, Williams’ comments were exaggerated and taken out of context. For those with the time, the full text of his lecture is here. It’s a tough read, but certainly a highly educated and thoughtful reflection on the relationship between religious and civil law. Unfortunately, he focused the talk first on Islam and Sharia law and second on Christian theology rather than the other way around.
As I read it, Williams stopped short of advocating for Sharia law in Britain, instead sizing up the current religious makeup of Britain to be leading towards adoption of Sharia law in Muslim communities. He said this adoption was “unavoidable” and from that perspective, figured those in the Church should have some thoughtful debate regarding the move.
Several prominent church figures have called for his resignation, politicians are distancing themselves from his comments, and Williams now finds himself in a fight to keep his current office and retrieve much respect usually afforded to it.
Here’s my brief talking points on the furor.
Should the archbishop even be speaking on such matters when the Anglican Communion is in such a precarious state as it is? Surely, if Archbishop Williams had known the uproar his comments would make, it would have been prudent to focus on other less inflammatory issues. As often happens with these big news items, though, Williams was the victim of a slow news weekend. If Brittany Spears had had another breakdown, or Scotland done well in the rugby, or if there had been big storms or flooding, four days later the average Brit would not have known Williams said a thing.
“Sharia law?” Isn’t that law extremely severe, inhumane, and sexist?
Admittedly, I didn’t understand this point very well before this week. In his lecture Williams argues, as certainly is the case, that Sharia law is broad-based and difficult to define, but is decidedly not what the average news-reader usually associates with it. Sharia is basically the moral code of Muslims. So if Sharia law was adopted in some areas of Britain that “may include aspects of marital law, the regulation of financial transactions and authorized structures of mediation and conflict resolution” (from Williams lecture).
For example, as is already the case, Jewish communities in Britain settle family disputes in a Jewish court. Perhaps Sharia law may develop in Britain to allow for easy financial transactions not involving interest.
Why such a big reaction?
I don’t say this lightly, but while in Britain I’ve experienced over and over again prejudiced and offensive views towards Muslims. Britain is much more religiously intolerant than I had ever expected. I often hear lovely people making remarks about Islam or Muslims that are completely untrue, highly inflammatory, and flat-out racist. That is the elephant in the room, not Archbishop Williams.
And if I didn’t get myself in enough trouble above…
I’ll even go a bit further and say that the public is also highly suspicious of the Church in general, and Archbishop Williams in particular. So they are apt to react negatively to controversial comments by the archbishop, as the general view of the church is one of mild disdain, or certainly lack of respect for its leadership.
Rowan Williams is an amazing figure, brilliant mind, strong leader, and kind heart. I do hope this row calms down, and the church can get on to mending fences instead of fanning flames.
For more blog insights see Mike’s coverage here. Thoughtful, in-depth, frank.
Or even better, check out Richard Sudworth’s article here. (Better because he says what I wanted to say, but much more betterly than me.)