too clever by half

The Archbishop of Canterbury has had a hard time today. Now, there have been plenty of days when I’d have liked to give him a hard time, but this was not one of them.

There are three reasons I do not want to pester him over what he said about Sharia law:

  1. I know very little about Sharia law
  2. I have not yet read all that said
  3. I have not yet had time to come to terms with why he said it.

Which I suspect puts me in a similar position to most of the country — in my knowledge base, if not in my reaction to the archbishop.

From what I have read, +Williams was making his usual fine distinctions: recognizing that aspects of Sharia law are already at work in Britain, suggesting that that is a reality we may need to live with, questioning whether therefore we should do so deliberately in terms of British law. More specifically, he was suggesting that there might be aspects of Sharia law which could be held within British law in the same way the law makes space for aspects of Jewish law, and even Church law.

That does not seem to me deeply offensive. Even if he is wrong, it does not seem offensive. He is simply asking for clear thought and debate.

The problem is, +Rowan Williams doesn’t talk in sound bites. His sentences are carefully weighed and balanced, with lots of clauses and qualifications along the way. Which means he is an easy target for the media.

And doesn’t the BBC love a battle? On their web-site they have excellent links explaining sharia law which put +Rowan William’s comments in perspective. But on the radio, they have given lots of time to people who seemed determined to misunderstand him, even quoting a listener who suggested that we should do what Williams suggested so that said listener could form his own religion and his own laws based on his own made up God (which shows just how little our culture understands about faith communities and the nature of truth claims).

We live in a very silly media culture and have a very clever (but not always savvy) Archbishop of Canterbury. Sometimes the two clash horribly.

See what Rowan Williams actually said here.

9 thoughts on “too clever by half

  1. The responses have tended to come from people with names that Private Eye could hardly have bettered – it is totally hysterical, in both senses of that word. And you are quite right – they also come form those with no understanding of faith or community or faith communities.

    But I do ask myself where the ++ has BEEN not to realise that saying anything at all containing anything like the sound bites he offered would be big big trouble. The current state of Islamaphobia, and indeed racism, generally, in the UK terrifies me. How did not know? There is a fight to be picked, but it needs to be picked with care – and leadership involves KNOWING that.

    And FWIW I think he was wrong.

  2. I’ve read a fair few blogs about this, commented on Kelvin’s mainly and just after reading Rosemary Hannah’s comments there I’ve thought of another rather risky angle.

    Maybe he deliberately said it, knowing full well what media and public comment would come back at him.
    But why? To take the focus off Lambeth? or for another more secretive reason?

  3. I doubt it, Doug. I can’t imagine anyone would deliberately walk into the midst of such turmoil, and he has more than enough people who hate him and have cried for his resignation already.

  4. And ‘ought to know better’ is hardly adequate to describe his predecessor ….. ‘unprofessional’ would be a better phrase.

  5. I have been reflecting a lot on the broohaha that has emerged out of Rowan’s lecture and subsequent sound bite on Radio 4 and have a few questions:
    The first is, are we and indeed Rowan missing a bigger question – ie how do our laws privilege white supremacy? The legislature in the UK has an inherently white underpinning and any ‘foreign’ import to it challenges a deep seated comfort zone. Had Rowan come from that angle rather than one that seems to place secular law in opposition with religious belief I’d have felt more comfortable.

    The second is, can ecclesiastical courts such as exist within Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism in any way be compared to courts which have a cultural rather than a Church basis? Surely, one is based on cultural consensus, the other on organizational traditions.

    The third is, when do religious approaches to legislation infringe human rights? And vice versa.

    For me, I’d have thought Rowan more thoughtful had he started with these questions. In actuality, he focused on an issue which is just a constituent part of larger philosophical and political tensions within the West. By looking at a constituent part, he opened up the rift between toleration and acceptance for media scrutiny and has enabled journalists to deflect from the bigger issues (which are never as sexy and certainly only newsworthy for those of us teaching academic theology (which by the way, is increasingly seen as a subject which shouldn’t be based in universities).

    Having said all that he has also disrupted our comfort zone and calls for us to explore what we believe and what the boundaries of our acceptance of one another are. This strikes me as just the right job for an Archbishop.
    The trouble is, that by focusing on a constituent part of a bigger issue, he has just made me realize even more that I am not sure I can trust a white male at the head of a hierarchical and patriarchal system to move liberalism forward. Ultimately, his expressions reflect the self-interest of the clergy. Any time spent on the clerical preoccupations voiced in Leviticus should act as a warning when this is the case.
    OK, that’s my tuppence worth. Hope it stimulates 🙂

  6. Vicky said:

    >”The trouble is, that by focusing on a constituent part of a bigger issue, he has just made me realize even more that I am not sure I can trust a white male at the head of a hierarchical and patriarchal system to move liberalism forward.”

    I find that quite a difficult thing to know how to respond to. There are non-white people in similar roles – is Peter Akinola a better archbishop than R Williams? Similarly, I’ve known members of the clergy who happen to be female behave as badly as any man in the same role. I’m glad that men and women can be ordained but I don’t think that the ordination of women has changed ordination itself nearly as fundamentally as some suggested it would before it happened.

    Seems to me that the disappointing lack of more diverse representation in church roles (especially in prominant positions) is representative of some of the problems of the system rather than a primary cause.

    I’m puzzled too at the suggestion that RW has acted in the interests of the clergy at any time. Which clergy? Not this one.

  7. The sub text, surely, was ‘look, when it comes to adoption and stuff – why we, the C of E and the RCs want some opt outs – surely the Muslims should also be allowed some’.

  8. I think ++Rowan’s biggest mistake was to fail to challenge Chris Landau’s use of the word ‘unavoidable’ at the very beginning of the interview. The word occurs only once at the end of the original lecture (did CL only read the last paragraph?), and the context is as follows: ‘It is uncomfortably true that this introduces into our thinking about law what some would see as a ‘market’ element, a competition for loyalty as Shachar admits. But if what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of divers and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable.’ What is ‘unavoidable’ is the competition for loyalty, not the ‘the application of Sharia in certain circumstances’, as CL claimed.

    All of which suggests that, whatever the merits of the lecture (which, as many have rightly said, is a measured attempt to analyse and promote debate on a complex issue), ++Rowan showed a considerable lack of judgement in agreeing to be interviewed, and a lack of surefootedness in fielding the interviewer’s questions.

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