PM Brown asks Archbishop to clarify Sharia remarks

By staff writers
February 11, 2008

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has privately asked Archbishop Rowan Williams to clarify the precise import of his remarks about the social and legal codes of Sharia and the English civil law system, those close to No 10 Downing Street say.

Dr Rowan Williams is doing so in a carefully considered speech to the General Synod of the Church of England today. The three-tier governing body of bishops, clergy and lay people meets this week.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is addressing the Church of England's General Synod amid criticism of his remarks on Muslim Sharia law.

Dr Williams has faced calls for his resignation after he implied some aspects of Sharia could be adopted in the UK. But while some evangelical and catholic hardliners may seek to have him chastised, it is thought unlikely that this will get very far.

"Overall, I think there will be sympathy and a closing of ranks around Rowan, with some dissenting voices, and widespread recognition that the shape and form of his remarks was inappropriate but have been spun out of recognition," an insider told Ekklesia this morning.

However, hard-line conservative groupings like Reform and Anglican Mainstream are seeking an apology from Dr Williams, claiming that his intervention has made the situation of people facing the imposition of Sharia elsewhere in the world more difficult.

The Times newspaper reports that Prime Minister Gordon Brown telephoned the Archbishop yesterday and encouraged him to clarify his remarks, where Mr Brown felt they may have been misinterpreted.

Later, a prime minister's spokesperson said Mr Brown understood "the difficulties" the archbishop was facing and paid tribute to Dr Williams's "dedication to public and community service".

Dr Williams sparked a major row after saying, in a BBC Radio 4 interview last week, that the adoption of parts of Sharia law was "unavoidable" in Britain and that Muslims should not be forced into a "stark choice" between their community or faith identity and loyalty to the country and its law.

Lambeth has insisted that Dr Williams was not advocating a parallel set of laws, and that his speech makes this clear. But the details have been lost in a densely packed argument which has baffled many commentators.

Dr Williams's remarks have also been criticised by his predecessor, Lord Carey, who said on Sunday that acceptance of some Muslim laws would be "disastrous" for Britain. But he backed Dr Williams leadership of the C of E and said he should not resign.

He was writing in the popular tabloid paper the News of the World, better known for salacious celebrity gossip and the bed-hopping antics of the rich and famous than comment on religious, social and legal matters.

Two Synod members called for Dr Williams to stand down following his remarks - though not persons regarded as "significant players".

Colonel Edward Armitstead, from the diocese of Bath and Wells, said Dr Williams should move to work in a university setting instead of leading the Anglican Church, according to the BBC.

Alison Ruoff, a Synod member from London, said he was "very able, a brilliant scholar as a man" but in terms of being a leader of the Christian community "he's actually at the moment a disaster".

However, BBC News correspondent Robert Pigott said it was "pretty inconceivable" that Dr Williams would resign.

In a radio broadcast yesterday from St Mary's Church in Putney, scene of the historic "Putney debates" that contributed to the rise of English Democracy, the Rev Dr Giles Fraser - a leading figure in the Inclusive Church movement - said that whatever one thought of the Archbishop's remarks, many of the responses to them had been unfair and unpleasant.

What sort of culture are we becoming, he asked, "when people shoot first and think later".

Justice Minister Michael Wills told The World at One he understood why people felt strongly about "questions of national identity" and that some of the issues raised by Dr Williams were to be covered by a government review on Britishness.

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