‘Religions will be heard when they stop fighting for power’

12 September 2007

by Rachel Boulding

Seat of power: Dr Williams talking to Betty Costa at the 30th-birthday party for the Lambeth branch of L’Arche, the charity for people with disabilities

Seat of power: Dr Williams talking to Betty Costa at the 30th-birthday party for the Lambeth branch of L’Arche, the charity for people with disabiliti...

THE Archbishop of Canterbury chose the eve of 11 September to present his vision of the Church and its place in society — in terms of its refusal to compete for power or resort to violence, and what it shares with Islam. The Church was convincing to others only when it ignored its own security, and admitted its dependence on God.

Addressing a conference of the Christian Muslim Forum in Cambridge on Monday, he referred to the “act of nightmare violence” of 11 September 2001, which he witnessed from close quarters in Manhattan. He contrasted it with the public meeting held in Johannesburg on 11 September 1906, at which Gandhi launched his non-violent protest movement.

Dr Williams spoke of this movement’s “‘soul force’, whose central principle was that our behaviour must witness to truth whatever the cost — and that this witness to truth can never, of its very nature, involve violence”.

Dr Williams praised Gandhi’s refusal to grasp at power, and quoted his words: “We do not imitate anything except the truth: our model is the divine communication of what is good.”

The Archbishop argued urgently for the place of authentic religion in society: “The nature of an authentically religious community is made visible in its admission of dependence on God — which means . . . that it does not fight for position and power.”

He continued: “The Church is most credible when least preoccupied with its security, and most engaged with the human health of its environment.”

He went on to consider what he described as a paradox about the influence of religion in the public sphere. “Surely,” he asked, “what any religious believer wants is to have the voice of faith heard within the pluralist debate?” But, he said: “We shall persuade our culture about this only when religion ceases to appear as yet another human group hungry for security, privilege, and the liberty to enforce its convictions.”

The Archbishop suggested: “It is when we are free from the passion to be taken seriously, to be protected, or, indeed, to be obeyed, that we are most likely to be heard. The convincing witness to faith is one for whom safety and success are immaterial.”

He outlined the Church’s radical “vision of a social order that is without fear, oppression, the violence of exclusion, and the search for scapegoats”.

Dr Williams ended by drawing parallels between Islam and Christianity, saying that, despite their differences: “both claim that their legitimacy rests not on the licence of society, but on God’s gift. . .

“They cannot be committed to violent struggle to prevail at all costs, because that would suggest a lack of faith in the God who has called them. They cannot be committed to a policy of coercion and oppression, because that would again seek to put the power of the human believer or the religious institution in the sovereign place that only God’s reality can occupy.”

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