Church of England head seeks a multi-faith settlement for the UK

By staff writers
February 9, 2008

As Dr Rowan Williams faced calls for his resignation last night over the row about his Sharia speech, Lambeth Palace issued a statement suggesting that recognition for Christianity in a secular state requires a multi-faith settlement.

In a media release designed to clarify the Archbishop of Canterbury's views, Lambeth said Dr Williams was seeking to highlight "the underlying principle that Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds (for instance in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions), if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences."

That senior Church of England figures now believe their established status, as well as special provisions in various areas, can only be maintained by a new kind of "multi-faith settlement" has been pointed out by the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia - which argues that freeing the church through disestablishment and distinguishing between the arenas of civil society and public governance is a better way of addressing these issues.

Writing for OpenDemocracy, a leading independent website on global current affairs, Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow noted: "[T]he Archbishop seems to be recognising that particular privileges for the Church of England are not on. But he is also being leant on to preserve them by seeking to construct a multi-faith establishment instead. That is no more credible or justifiable... His loss of a clear nonconformist conscience is unhelpful."

Lambeth Palace, which is both the Archbishop's home and staff headquarters, says: "[T]he Archbishop was not suggesting the introduction of parallel legal jurisdictions, but exploring ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience."

His core aim was to: "to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state" using sharia as an example, the statement says.

Ekklesia's Simon Barrow commented: "Framing the overarching concern in terms of conscience blurs a lot of different issues. Much greater clarity is needed on what the Archbishop is arguing. Questions of conscience in the health system, which can be handled sympathetically provided they do not harm the access rights of others, are not purely religious concerns. They are not the same as arguing for the recognition of communal provisions like Sharia family jurisdiction within the civil legal framework. Nor are they the same as arguing for equalities exemptions as a contractor, provider or fund-holder in statutory service provision, or as enacting selection on grounds of religion in faith schools."

In his 2005 book Faith and Politics After Christendom, Ekklesia co-director Jonathan Bartley first claimed that a "multi-faith establishment" was emerging from the "new deal" the government has been seeking to do with faith communities on public services, whereby its problems over funding and provision can be partly addressed by giving faith groups a role in statutory services.

On the susbstantive question of religious and civil law, the Lambeth statement says that the Archbishop "made no proposals for sharia in either the lecture or the interview, and certainly did not call for its introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law."

But it says that in raising the question of how certain provisions of Sharia might be recognised formally in civil law, he wishes to "deal with the possibility that a 'supplementary jurisdiction "could have the effect of reinforcing in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women".

A member of the Church of England's General Synod and a right-wing Euro-MP are among those who have called for Dr Williams' resignation as Archbishop of Canterbury so far. This is not considered a serious possibility, though the spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican Communion is said to be "in shock" over the ferocity of reaction to his remarks in a BBC interview and s speech to senior legal and other public figures.

There have also been expression of sympathy for Dr Williams, together with comments about his "naivete" in miscalculating the boundaries between academic discourse and political pronouncements.

The public argument is likely to continue, since the Archbishop's lecture, which was given before an audience of about 1000 people and chaired by the Lord Chief Justice, was the first in a series of six lectures and discussions being given by senior Muslim and other lawyers and theologians at the Temple Church on the general theme of 'Islam in English Law'.


The Lambeth statement in full:

'What lies beyond Lambeth's humiliation?' -

'Real problem, wrong solution' - Simon Barrow:

Faith & Politics After Christendom, Jonathan Bartley:

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