Archbishop faces church Synod over Shari'a comments

Anglican officials call on Williams to resign despite his insistence that he does not advocate a parallel set of laws.

archbishop williams 224 (photo credit: AP)
archbishop williams 224
(photo credit: AP)
Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has been severely criticized by fellow Anglicans and is facing growing calls for his resignation, including from members of the Anglican Church, over his comments on Islamic Shari'a law. Williams sparked a major controversy last week after saying in a BBC Radio interview that the adoption of parts of Shari'a law was "unavoidable" in Britain. However, he has insisted he was not advocating a parallel set of laws. Addressing the annual meeting of the Church of England's General Synod on Monday, Williams said that although he felt some of his remarks had been taken out of context, he took full responsibility for any resulting misunderstanding following his comments. The archbishop thanked those who had supported him and said it was part of his duty to "address issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities and to try and bring them into better public focus." He said his comment, which was written as an opening contribution to a series of lectures on Islam and English Law, posed the question of whether accommodating aspects of Islamic law would create situations in which the law of the land didn't apply. "If - and please note that word - this were thought to be a useful direction in which to move, there would be plenty of work still to be done... on what would and would not be possible and appropriate areas for such cooperation. I noted, for example, that traditional Muslim attitudes to 'apostasy' posed a very serious question - recognized by many Muslim scholars today - and that honest discussion of this was imperative." He also touched on the treatment of Christian minorities in Muslim countries and the limitations of Shari'a laws in those countries. "I noted that many Muslim majority countries do distinguish clearly between the rights of citizens overall and the duties accepted by some citizens of obedience to Islamic law. It is this that encourages me to think that there may be ways of engaging with the world of Islamic law on something other than an all-or-nothing basis," Williams explained. He said that his remarks were meant to raise a wider question about the relation between faith and law. Earlier Monday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave his backing to the Archbishop. "The prime minister believes the Archbishop of Canterbury is a man of great integrity and dedication to public and community service," a Downing Street spokesman said. "And he understands the difficulty he is facing at the moment. "The prime minister is very clear that British laws must be based on British values and that religious law, while respecting other cultures, should be subservient to British criminal and civil law," he added. Meanwhile, several members of the General Synod called for Williams to step down. Colonel Edward Armitstead, a Synod member from the diocese of Bath and Wells, urged him to return to academia instead of leading the Anglican Church. He said of Williams: "I don't think he's got the gift of leadership that the church needs." The archbishop's predecessor, George Carey, joined the chorus of criticism, accusing Williams of "overstating" the case for accommodating Shari'a. "There can be no exceptions to the laws of our land," Carey wrote in Sunday's News of the World newspaper. "His conclusion that Britain will have to concede some place in law for aspects of Shari'a is a view I cannot share. His acceptance of some Muslim laws within British law would be disastrous." However, Carey said that Williams should not resign over the matter. Other clergy, however, threw their support behind Williams. The Right Reverend Stephen Lowe, the Bishop of Hulme, said he was disgusted at the reaction to the archbishop's remarks. "The way he has been ridiculed, lampooned and treated by some people is quite disgraceful," he told BBC Radio. The Catholic leader, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, has also defended Williams. "He may fear that people with a Christian conscience will be put to the sidelines and not allowed to say what they believe to be true for the common good," Murphy-O'Connor told the BBC. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Canon Guy Wilkinson, Interfaith Relations adviser and secretary for Interfaith Relations to the Archbishop, said that media reports have not represented the archbishop fairly. "The text [of the archbishop's full speech] shows that what he is saying is very far removed from the media reports, which were derived from a brief lunchtime interview rather than from the lecture which was delivered on Friday to an audience of about 1,000 people at the Royal Courts of Justice," Wilkinson said. Williams's lecture presented a very careful exploration of the limits of a uniform and secular legal system in an increasingly pluralistic society and of ways in which the system might be able to accommodate religious conscience. This would affect not only Muslims but also Christians, who cannot claim exceptions on religious grounds from a secular justice system if they are not willing to consider how the system could accommodate other religious belief systems. "The archbishop has made no proposals of any kind about Shari'a but has simply set out in a rational way some of the issues, using Shari'a as a highly topical example," Wilkinson added. David Gifford, chief executive of the Council for Christians and Jews, told the Post he had not understood Williams's statements as advocating for Shari'a law as a parallel legal system in Britain. "The issue is inflammatory, perhaps because people associate Shari'a with the oppressiveness of harsh regimes, beheading and stoning," he added. "If the Shari'a system adopted by the Muslim community in Britain worked as does the [rabbinical] Beit Din, completely within and under British law, there would seem to me to be little to argue against. The question, though, is would Shari'a in Britain operate like the Beit Din?"