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Monday, February 11, 2008

Removing the state from Dr Rowan Williams

By Janet Daley, Daily Telegraph
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 11/02/2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury said something stupid. What is to be done about it? There is now a fusillade of demands for his resignation rather as if he were a Chancellor of the Exchequer whose fatally bad judgment had undermined the economy.

  • Synod turns on Rowan Williams in sharia row
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  • In almost any other country in the world, this would seem bizarre but here, the parallel is apt.

    Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury
    Dr Williams has discredited the position of the established Church

    The head of the Church of England is a political figure. Founded as a conscious bulwark against the Roman outfit to which the nation's enemies owed allegiance, the Anglican Church must play out its uncomfortable, anomalous role.

    Dr Rowan Williams's latest pronouncements are, in a sense (or should I say, "in a very real sense"?) a peculiarly frank expression of the messy overlap between matters of state and of faith that is its remit. And, as so often happens with well-intentioned attempts at appeasement and compromise with the unacceptable, Dr Williams's intervention has made it clear how untenable all this now is.

    The archbishop has discredited not just himself, and the ├╝ber-tolerant multicultural lobby that he sought to support, but the position of the established Church.

    Why say this, when so many other members of the Anglican hierarchy - including his immediate predecessor - have countered his remarks with eminent good sense?

    Indeed, you may think, if the former archbishop Lord Carey can enunciate so neatly and forcibly, as he did at the weekend, everything that was wrong with Dr Williams's stated view, then surely the problem is just with the man who currently heads it and not with the institution itself?

    Perhaps, perversely, I would argue that

    the dilemma that Dr Williams thought he was addressing was a genuine one and that it goes to the heart of this matter.

    Being an unworldly scholar, he was profoundly wrong in his understanding of the political implications of what he was saying,

    but actually quite right (from the point of view of a spiritual leader) in his concern about the place of religious belief in a modern democratic society.

    What he was suggesting was that, for the genuine believer who takes adherence to his faith seriously, the concept of the secular law whose authority must take precedence over all other authorities is a problem. And that is true. It is also true that the law - secular though it is - makes allowances for the sensibilities of religious believers.

    Although this notion can be overplayed: the obvious example is Roman Catholic doctors not being forced to perform abortions, but in a life-threatening crisis I doubt that religious scruple would constitute legal protection to a medical practitioner who refused to intervene.

    The law generally takes the view that an individual's religion should be respected wherever possible, but that it should not be permitted to over-ride other people's basic human rights to life and liberty.

    In a contest between the principles of modern democracy and doctrines of faith, democracy and the rule of secular law must always win. And that is the solution to the problem with which all of the great faiths that survive in freedom have made their peace.

    But that is exactly the assumption that Dr Williams was challenging because, I presume, it seemed to him that it relegated religion to a private sphere - a matter of personal taste or preference - which somehow trivialised it.

    What Dr Williams presented was a clear-cut distinction between what he called "a universal Enlightenment system" with its concept of "one law for everybody" and what he described as "plural jurisdiction" in which different communities within one country are permitted to follow their own codes of justice.

    He was, in effect, casting doubt on the most fundamental premise of modern political life: that freedom and equality under a universal rule of law is the most advanced and just system of government in which human beings may live.

    This doctrine is now considered so utterly irrefutable that it is paid lip service even by the tin-pot dictators who attempt to crush its exponents: to be explicitly opposed to it is to rule oneself - either as an individual or a party - out of consideration on the world stage.

    Yet this is what the archbishop chose to dispute. Not only did he exacerbate ethnic tensions in our society and do almost immeasurable damage to the cause of moderate Islam but his disservice to his own Church was immense.

    He has laid bare the question that should never have been asked if the prevailing fuzzy compromise between established church and state was to remain tenable: how can a revealed religion officially accept that its position is subservient to secular law? Answer: it can't - not without surrendering its understanding of absolute truth.

    By definition, the rules of a democracy are subject to majority opinion. They are negotiable, amendable and retractable - providing that they accept the basic principle of liberty and equality.

    So religious beliefs and doctrines will always be in potential conflict with forms of law that evolve with social attitudes, and what Dr Williams saw was that Islamic doctrine had a particular problem because it had no history of adapting its theology to being a minority religion within a liberal society. It has no official doctrine for coming to terms with diaspora (as the Jewish religion has).

    So the archbishop turns this into a virtue: faced with people who take their religion very seriously, he seems embarrassed by what has been the historical readiness of his own Church to compromise and hints that maybe we could all learn something from the commitment of Muslims to a higher truth.

    Being the head of a national church, he is determined to defend the value of faith in general, not just Islam, against the encroachments of the profane concerns of political life. Just because he is a political figure, and because he takes philosophical dilemmas seriously, he cannot evade the question.

    So he feels he must repudiate the Enlightenment altogether: the problem becomes secularism itself and the belief that there is one universal system of law which must apply to everyone equally.

    In fact, as is being proved once again in the United States where Christianity of a very muscular kind indeed is a formidable political force in the presidential race, religion - far from being threatened by the secular state - can flourish in it.

    It is not the primacy of secular law that threatens the survival of religious faith but the unedifying equivocations that a church feels obliged to make when it is a branch of the state.


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