Analyze this? The archbishop regrets

Williams's status was not put at risk by his misguided comments.

archbishop williams 224 (photo credit: AP)
archbishop williams 224
(photo credit: AP)
Two years ago this month the leadership of the Church of England, in a meeting of its General Synod, voted to divest from companies whose products are used by Israel in the territories. A week later, the leader of the Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, wrote a personal letter to British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and apologized for the measure, expressing "deep regret" over the "deep distress" the measure had caused. The only problem is that Williams had, in fact, supported the measure. The archbishop claimed that vote was only intended to "review whether we should or could continue with an investment policy which appeared to accept something with which we are deeply uneasy." That statement, though, contradicted the plain English of the motion, which called on the church to "heed the call from our sister church, the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, for morally responsible investment in the Palestinian occupied territories and, in particular, to disinvest from companies profiting from the illegal occupation, such as Caterpillar Inc., until they change their policies." At least moral and linguistic clarity was provided in this instance from Williams's predecessor as archbishop, Lord Carey, who declared he was "ashamed to be an Anglican when I see this kind of thing." This was not the first time Archbishop Williams had engaged in simplistic and one-sided criticism of Israel. The prior Christmas he had visited Bethlehem and penned an article about the troubles of the city's shrinking Christian population, placing the blame largely on "the tragic conditions created by the 'security fence' that almost chokes the shrinking town," without mentioning one word, in condemnation or otherwise, of the terror attacks that necessitated the building of the barrier. Williams's position in his church and in English society in general have not been put at risk by his misguided comments on the situation here. But the archbishop has sparked a backlash in recent years on his home turf for his outspoken comments on issues such as his outspoken stance against the invasion of Iraq, and the debate within his church over the ordination of openly gay clerics. Now Williams is facing a firestorm of criticism, including calls for his resignation, over his statement last week that it "seems unavoidable" that the British justice system will one day have to incorporate or officially recognize some aspects of Shari'a (Islamic law). The archbishop's office responded to the subsequent backlash by saying the media had distorted and simplified his comments, and that he "certainly did not call for its [Shari'a] introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law," and that his public address on Thursday night at the Royal Courts of Justice had dealt with the issue in a responsible and reasonable manner. It's certainly true that the archbishop had not said, or implied, that British courts should start allowing the UK's Muslim residents to have women stoned to death on charges of adultery. His full speech ( is indeed a more sophisticated and nuanced theoretical exploration of the relationship between religious and secular law that reflects his deep academic and intellectual training and interests. It is also a convoluted, disingenuous and in some sense dangerous expression of ideas that runs not only counter to the Western democracy, but in some sense to the history and traditions of his own church. More than once in his address, Williams tries to justify his call for some official recognition of Shari'a by comparing it to situations faced by other religious groups, specifically Orthodox Jews, living in Britain or in other secular societies. Some of the archbishop's defenders have specifically drawn parallels with official recognition of the UK Beth Din, which sometimes mediates in individual disputes in Orthodox communities. These comparisons, though, are misleading and tendentious, not least because they completely ignore the larger cultural and political context in which the discussion about current relations between Muslim extremists and the West, including on Shari'a, are taking place. Philosophically, Williams argues that "the danger arises not only when there is an assumption on the religious side that membership of the community (belonging to the umma [Muslim community] or the Church or whatever) is the only significant category, so that participation in other kinds of socio-political arrangements is a kind of betrayal. It also occurs when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity." Once again, a false comparison. A true secular democratic government never assumes a "monopoly" in defining public identity, only that the public arena remain free for individual expression (including religiously), as long as it does not limit or threaten the expression of others. Williams goes on to say, "I have been arguing that a defense of an unqualified secular legal monopoly in terms of the need for a universalist doctrine of human right or dignity is to misunderstand the circumstances in which that doctrine emerged, and that the essential liberating (and religiously informed) vision it represents is not imperiled by a loosening of the monopolistic framework." But it is, when that framework allows for members of its community to engage in practices that violate human rights and dignity in the name of religious law. Of course that may not necessarily be the case primarily with Islamic law; but thanks to the efforts of Muslim extremists, that certainly is the case nowadays in the UK and other parts of Western Europe. Ironically, the Church of England, which William heads, was created in large part because of a desire by England's rulers to liberate themselves (and their subjects) from Catholic strictures they saw as impinging on their rights and freedom as a sovereign English people. Whatever the motivation behind its founding, the Anglican Church subsequently became a principle force behind the intellectual underpinnings of the Enlightenment, and Britain's role as the cradle of democracy. Williams perhaps sees himself as carrying on in that tradition, or even in the role of those of his predecessors who risked much (including their heads), in speaking their conscience. In truth, though, on this issue and others, he is doing a disservice to the robe he wears.