Don’t panic over religion and law row, archbishop advised

By staff writers
February 10, 2008

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams is panicking over the demise of organised Christianity’s power and influence in society and seeking a multi-faith settlement to address these concerns, a TV discussion programme heard today.

Speaking on BBC1’s ‘The Big Questions’, which examines issues of belief and society, Jonathan Bartley of the think-tank Ekklesia said that the era of Christian dominance in British society was over, but the answer was for religious communities to develop their practices within civil society. He cited the different internal ways of handling marriage in Islam, Anglicanism and the Catholic Church – where tribunals do not seek the enforcement of civil law.

Ekklesia has suggested that the provisions of private contract law is also a natural place within the existing system where the interface between community traditions and the common civil law can be handled without undue conflict.

This morning the British media continued to resonate to expressions of confusion, anger, ridicule and some sympathy over views attributed to the head of the Church of England in his recent Temple Festival inaugural address on religious and civil law in England.

Observers are widely agreed that the real problem was Dr Williams’ interview beforehand on BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, where he said that some kind of formal accommodation with Sharia was “unavoidable” and talked of the possibility of Muslims otherwise facing a “stark choice” between community and religious loyalty and loyalty to the law of the land.

It is this which seems to have pressed huge alarm bells with politicians, commentators and others in public life – though Lambeth Palace is at pains to point out that the archbishop was trying to talk about how to avoid such a situation by maintaining a common law that recognised a diversity of practices. Many argue that this is simply not tenable.

“What the archbishop said [about Sharia] illustrates that religions divide people,” claimed veteran journalist and commentator Joan Bakewell, one of the contributors to today’s ‘The Big Questions’ TV programme’s other contributors. “Look at the arguments between themselves.”

But the secular politicians and contributors on the show disagreed vigorously with each other too. Former Sun tabloid editor and media mogul Kelvin Mackenzie launched a strong attack on Sharia in Saudi Arabia, deploring beheadings and the mistreatment of women.

It was pointed out by others that Dr Williams had criticised this too, and others participating from the audience said that Mackenzie’s views were one-sided and caricatured.

Haras Fariq, from the Sufi Muslim Council, which comes out of what is historically a majority version of spiritual Islam, pointed out: “There is no one interpretation of Sharia… actually the majority of Muslims do not recognise the system in Saudi Arabia.”

He also added that “there is no need to change British law”, citing the benefits the overall system offered benefits to both the majority and minorities, including Muslims.

Labour MP Diane Abbott forthrightly deplored “the abuse raised against the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Islamophobia underlying it is very disturbing. Most have not read his speech. However, I do believe strongly in one rule of law for all, and a clear line between religion and the state.”

Sir Stephen Wall, a former senior civil servant and adviser to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’ Connor, said that whatever was thought of the archbishop’s conclusions, “We have two million of our fellow citizens, and many of them (especially the young) feel disaffected.” This was an issue that had to be addressed, he said.

On the question of the distinction and overlap between religious and civil codes, Ekklesia has argued that the moral, ritual and covenantal frameworks of marriage as practiced in religious traditions should be regarded as distinct from the state’s legal rules for civil partnerships, with people choosing one, either or both to solidify their commitment.


Also from Ekklesia today: Simon Barrow, ‘A multi-faith muddle’ (Guardian, Comment-is-Free) and 'What lies beyond Lambeth's Sharia humiliation?' -

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.