A prominent Labour MP, speaking on behalf of the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM), has expressed dismay at what he calls "the hysterical and largely uninformed media response" to the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture on civil and religious law in Britain.
"As a movement committed to promoting the role of religion in society and mature dialogue between faiths, we welcome Rowan Williams's thoughtful lecture, and we can see no justification for the way his contribution has been misrepresented," said CSM's Chair, Rt Hon Alun Michael MP.
Speaking yesterday, he called for a much more serious debate about the boundaries between religious observance and obligation, and the responsibilities of citizenship.
"Headlines and comment in the tabloid press, and even in some normally more responsible sections of the media, ignore the fact that he didn't start this discussion spontaneously. He had been asked to give the first lecture in a series to lawyers and academics on an issue that is already very topical and relevant - the issue of issue of how the rights of religious groups may be accommodated within a secular state," declared the MP, who was been a Privvy Councillor since 1998.
He continued: "And we ought to recognize that is an issue for Christians, for Jews and for people of other faiths as well", he said. "Most of the critical comments I have heard bear little relation to the content of his lecture and his harshest critics seem unaware that his lecture deals with their concerns in a positive and constructive way."
Mr Michael, Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for Cardiff South and Penarth, spoke out in defence of Dr Williams on the BBC 1 in Wales 'Politics Show'.
He declared: "There are big issues where there is an apparent clash between religious law and secular law. Sometimes there is a direct clash such as in relation to the place of women in Muslim society - something that Rowan dealt with very clearly in his lecture - but we should recognize that it's not that long since the same problems existed within the Christian church. There is still tension over issues like contraception and abortion for some Christians, and last year some serious political issues arose in respect of Roman Catholic adoption agencies.'
Alun Michael also said that, under Jewish law, the requirements placed upon a bankrupt person can be more onerous than those imposed by secular law. Christian teaching, too, can encourage believers to go beyond the demands of civil law, an example being the biblical lectionary reading for the day in which the New Testament book of James, chapter 1 calls upon Christian to be 'quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger - for the anger of [human beings] does not work the righteousness of God.'
"Most religions make a distinction between the requirements of divine law and the need to respect and obey the law of the country, including local customs and culture', Alun Michael said. "Reconciling these two does involve considerable thought and inevitable tension, but that it what life and faith is about."
Mr Michael expressed his surprise at media reaction to the Lecture, given that it had been announced well in advance and had aroused such interest that it had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the thousand people wanting to hear it.
The context of Dr Williams' remarks is important, Mr Michael said: 'It is not as though the Archbishop simply walked out onto the street and aired his views: this was a lecture he had been expressly invited to give, the prestigious foundation lecture in the Temple Festival series, and he was keeping within the theme his hosts had intended.'
CSM calls for a serious and mature debate of the issues raised by Archbishop Williams - in particular, how members of different religious faiths and faith-based organizations operate under civil law. It has set up a facility for this on its website, www.thecsm.org.uk.