What is the Archbishop of Canterbury on about?

BBC NEWS | UK | Archbishop defends Sharia remarks

Rowan Williams is undoubtedly a profound thinker leading the Anglican Church through some of its greatest crises in recent years. The ordination of women, gay priests and the adoption issue, alongside more traditional subjects such as the war in Iraq are areas where he has – successfully so far – walked a tightrope.

So whatever possessed him to sound off on a subject which he admits is largely beyond his competence? And, after so many years walking a careful path through many minefields, how is it that he so misjudged the prevailing mood?

For the record, the actual text of the Archbishop’s speech is here.

It is quite clear that the hysterical presentation of Dr Williams’s views in parts of the media is both unhelpful and unfair. But it is also clear the Dr Williams really is advocating (in his words) “a higher level of public legal regard being paid to communal identity”, or, in other words, the genuine enshrinement into national law of some of the religious laws of a particular community.

It has since been suggested that Williams is simply trying to put ideas into the public debate. But this leaves us with the question: why is it necessary to consider these ideas? In academic debate, certainly all ideas can be considered, and all ideas are in some certain sense (purely as ideas) acceptable. But, equally, in public political debate, some ideas are simply dangerous. Enoch Powell’s famous ‘rivers of blood‘ speech might have had a different impact if published in a dusty academic journal, and written in academic language. But its actual effect, in Birmingham in 1968, was purely negative.

Why might these ideas be dangerous? (I am not, at this point, saying that they are). Essentially, they create the notion in a community that (in parts at least) already sees itself as poorly served and beleaguered, that certain rights or moral expectations are denied to them.

Is this a bad thing in itself? Quite possibly not. If we decided to outlaw ideas which might be disquieting or destabilising in a particular community, then we would not have many ideas left, and they would not be very interesting ones.

Is it a bad thing that the Archbishop of Canterbury is putting this forward? I think, most definitely, yes. There is no ‘ex cathedra’ in Protestant religion in the way it exists in the Roman Catholic church. Rowan Williams does not speak for all Anglicans, and certainly not for all of Britain. But the people who know that are Anglican and other Protestant Christians, and people who are culturally close to them. Very few people – unless they have made a special study – have much awareness of how other religions function. Witness the Western reaction to the pronouncements of the Ayatollah Khomeni which, in yet less enlightened times than these, were interpreted by many as the statements of all of Islam for all of the Muslim world. Rowan Williams’s ideas are couched in the careful language of the academic, which denies as much as it affirms. But the authority they appear to carry immediately cancels that out. I won’t labour the point: the reaction which the Archbishop’s comments have generated in the secular British press clearly indicate the ambivalent status of Archepiscopal pronouncements.

But there is another question: are his ideas right? Are we fooling ourselves with the belief that the British legal system can continue without compromise with Sharia, or other legal systems? If the Archbishop is right, then his comments are all the more important for being controversial.

Rowan Williams makes much play of deconstructing Sharia, the Enlightenment, and the nature of Law itself. Has no-one mentioned to him that deconstruction, which was all the rage in the 1980s, has gone out of fashion as an academic tool? He talks about overcoming the crude opposites and mythologies, but he fails to recognise (at least in this lecture) that both the enlightenment discourse and Sharia are founded on opposites (crude or not) and on unproven, a priori positions (generally referred to by atheists with the shorthand ‘mythologies’).

Deconstruction is not, in any case, a tool which has been much used by constitutional experts or by lawyers. We can talk about multi-layered discourse and contextualisation as much as we like, but the purpose of constitutions and legal systems is to be as unambiguously prescriptive as possible. Law is by its nature normative. Non-normative law is a contradiction in terms.

The progress of British jurisprudence from the Middle-Ages to today is the simplification of many systems into one system. In fact, to some extent, we still have two systems because civil and criminal law operate in tandem. However, civil and criminal law are administered by the same organisation. We have dispensed with ecclesiastical courts, courts of honour, courts for the nobility, for the commoner and for the serf. Whether or not this makes sense in a different cultural context is a moot question.

It was Samuel Rutherford in 1644 who, in Lex Rex (the law is king) refuted the doctrine of Rex Lex (the king is the law). After the Restoration of the monarchy he was cited for high treason, but his ideas (incidentally argued straight from the Bible, from Deuteronomy 17) set the stage for limited government and constitutionalism.

Rowan Williams argues that Sharia and Rabbinical courts are already in use in Britain for arbitration. This is a red herring: two persons may choose any means they like of arbitration, provided that they both accept the outcome. If, in retrospect, one party is unhappy with the outcome, they can still go to the courts. In many cases of civil law, the courts will first ask what attempts at arbitration have been made, and look askance at a case where no attempt at arbitration has been made.

In reality, while there may be space for more than one system within British jurisprudence – even if that is undesirable – there can be no basis for accommodation with a system which cannot exist as a subordinate partner. Rutherford’s argument about limited government and constitutionality apply as strongly to Sharia law as to absolutist monarchs. A system which cannot accept a restriction on its authority cannot be accommodated: and, without any attempt to mythologise or trade in crude opposites, Sharia is not a system (or tradition, if you like) which is designed for compromise.

For such an intelligent and profound thinker, it is surprising, and dismaying, that Rowan Williams did not think this through.
Finally, one more question. Should he resign? He may resign, but he should not. When we reach the point where Archbishops are subject to popular opinion in the same way that politicians are, we have reached a point where the freedom of the church – or any non-government body – has been fundamentally compromised. Rowan Williams has made a mistake. He should answer to his employer on this issue. But since, quite literally, his employer is the divinity, we should reflect on this common proverb: To err is human, to forgive divine.

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