Mixed views and disestablishment calls greet Archbishop's speech

By staff writers
12 Feb 2008

Rowan Williams succeeded in clarifying the nub of his thinking and showed contrition for his clumsiness, but he declined to apologise and is not off the hook - this seems the majority verdict among commentators and other public figures today, amid calls for disestablishment.

Alex Kirby, who has been a leading religion correspondent, writes on the BBC's website: "If Rowan Williams ever imagined his explanation could get him off the hook, he is wrong. The damage is done, and it will take more than his elegant mea culpa to undo it."

Kirby continued: "The archbishop was wrong to accept in his BBC radio interview that there could be anything inevitable about any part of Sharia ever holding sway in the UK. He was also pretty certainly wrong not to ask someone to rewrite his speech so he would not have to apologise, as he has, for its 'unclarity' and his own 'clumsiness'."

"And he should have had some idea of how the very word Sharia is enough to drive reason from many minds. All that said, though, the damage he has caused is minuscule by comparison both with what his critics are doing and with the good he himself has done," concluded Kirby.

In a news release (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6741) the Christian think-tank Ekklesia argues that Dr Williams' speech "highlights the need for disestablishment and a level-playing field for faith communities with other groups in civil society, distinct from the legislature, executive and judiciary."

Several Labour MPs also tabled a parliamentary Early Day Motion calling for disestablishment recently, amusingly and coincidentally numbered 666, and the issue surfaced some months ago in a Home Office report which acknowledged that the privilege of the Church of England under the Crown "disadvantaged others", said Rachel Sylvester in the Daily Telegraph.

The government also plans to get rid of blasphemy laws that protect the Anglican faith and reduce the number of unelected C of E bishops in the House of Lords.

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of Ekklesia, says that in his presidential address to General Synod, which is meeting this week: "The Archbishop has provided the clearest evidence yet that he realises that the special privileges and exemptions that the Church has enjoyed historically are no longer tenable."

"Rather than accepting what others might see as a welcome move toward greater equality and justice for all, the Church of England now seems to be wishing to explore whether special protection and exceptions might be extended to other religions too – for instance Dr Williams' recent claim in his James Callaghan Memorial Lecture that a blasphemy law protecting the Anglican faith might be replaced by a 'legal provision' to 'send a signal' about what was acceptable in terms of 'the general risks of debasing public controversy by thoughtless and, even if unintentionally, cruel styles of speaking and acting'."

"Such a wider restriction on free speech, together with the proposition that churches should be exempt from full equalities provisions when they are in receipt of taxpayers' money or contracts for delivering public services, goes far beyond the protection of the 'rights of conscience' Dr Williams cites," says Bartley.

Meanwhile, in a letter published today in The Times newspaper, Alastair McBay from the National Secular Society (NSS) in Scotland wrote: "There is, sadly, no 'wriggle room' for the Archbishop."

He declares: "We already know through his arguments for taxpayer-funded faith schools and for exemptions under equality laws that he wants belief in God (any one will do apparently) to be privileged. I have a duty to my fellow citizens as prescribed by British law as laid down by Parliament, while Dr Williams clearly argues that there must be times when he is allowed to vary his duty to me in accordance with his religious dogma, and he has 26 seats in the House of Lords at his disposal with which to achieve it."

Others suggest, in the words of the Rev David Swain, from Oxford: "Disturb the religious ecology .of our culture and society and we may not be pleased with what emerges."

Swain told Ekklesia: "Piecemeal disestablishment has been taking place since the reform acts of the 19th century. The very diversity of the established church itself is important as a balance to those religious positions and organisations which cannot tolerate a diversity of position within themselves and which verge on being totalitarian in thought and teaching and practice... [T]he established church and its ecumenical outreach and concern... represents along with other major historic Christian denominations a maturing approach to religion and life."

But Jonathan Bartley argues: "Letting go of privilege is a far better witness to the Christian message than either clinging on to it, seeking to preserve it on a wider basis, or speaking for others rather than engaging them as equals."

Terry Sanderson, president of the NSS, says that "the Archbishop seems insensitive to where ‘religious conscience’ ends and unfair discrimination begins", adding "[he] has dug himself in deeper with his call for special legal privileges for all religions. There are already unacceptable religious opt-outs in equality legislation."

Mr Sanderson claims that "Christian and Muslim pharmacists are increasingly refusing to fill prescriptions for contraception. Female Muslim medics are refusing, with the support of their medical association, to bare their arms to scrub up appropriately to prevent C. dificile. There are also calls for conscience clauses in other medical and legal matters.

Ekklesia says that it is right that conscience (for both religious and non-religious persons) is allowed for in public life, but that the government will reasonably want to ensure that ability of people to access public services intended for all is not thereby comprised.

"There is also a big difference between making allowance for personal conscience and taking taxpayers money and public contracts for schools and services while maintaining a 'right' to select and discriminate," says Simon Barrow, co-director of the think-tank. "Using 'conscience' as a wedge for a wide and unspecified raft of exemptions is at best confusing, and at worst dubious. If churches do not feel that a full equality of access in public services is something they can endorse, they do not have to take state money."

Barrow (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6726) adds that moving beyond an establishment mentality and practice "would take imagination, bravery, intelligence and prayerfulness. But Dr Williams has those in spades. It is a crying shame that they are currently being applied to a totally misguided strategy – defend ourselves by extending religious exemption; use church schools to get the next generation (demographics suggest that won’t work); and try some ‘fresh expressions’ of church without transforming the core of the institution. Maybe the shock of this current archiepiscopal humiliation will shake some of the church’s leaders into a more radical, creative and outward looking re-think?"

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See also: Which 'conscience' are we talking of?, by Simon Barrow.

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