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Synod welcomes Dr Williams’s robust defence

14 February 2008

by Pat Ashworth and Margaret Duggan

Standing ovation: members of the General Synod stand in support of the Archbishop of Canterbury on Monday. A few individuals remained seated PA

Standing ovation: members of the General Synod stand in support of the Archbishop of Canterbury on Monday. A few individuals remained seated PA

A MINUTE-LONG standing ovation greeted the Archbishop of Canterbury when he entered the chamber at the start of the meeting of the General Synod this week.

Dr Williams looked pleased, then abashed, then embarrassed, as he tried to persuade Synod members to sit down.

In his presidential address, he apologised for any “unclarity” in his lecture on Islam and English Law in the Royal Courts of Justice, or in his BBC radio interview that provoked the storm of protest. But he strongly defended the appropriateness of a pastor of the Church of England addressing “issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities, and to try and bring them into better public focus”. It was a privilege to speak on behalf of other faith communities, “however clumsily it may have been deployed in this instance”.

The lecture had posed the question whether English law could accommodate some aspects of Islamic law, but not if it removed any rights enjoyed as a citizen of the UK.

He was not talking about “parallel jurisdictions”, and certainly nothing that would affect the status and liberties of women. “The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity.” The question was whether additional choices should be available under UK law for resolving disputes and regulating transactions, in the way that there was already special provision around Islamic mortgage arrangements.

Much work would have to be done if there were a move in that direction, he said, and there would be some areas where such co-operation would be impossible. Muslim attitudes to “apostasy”, for example, posed a very serious question — one that was recognised by many Muslim scholars.

Dr Williams said he had had “a fair amount of recent first-hand contact with Christian minorities in Muslim-majority countries, which has left me with no illusions about the sufferings they can and do face, even where there is a national legal framework which fully recognises their liberties”.

He had hoped in his lecture to raise the wider question of the relation between faith and law. While there was no dispute about the law’s recognition that religious communities formed the conscience of believers, there were signs that this could not be taken for granted as society became more secular.

He spoke of the “burden and privilege” of being the established Church, and concluded: “If we can attempt to speak for the liberties and consciences of others in this country, as well as our own, we shall, I believe, be doing something we as a Church are called to do in Christ’s name: witnessing to his Lord-ship, and not compromising it.”

The second part of Dr Williams’s address concerned the Anglican Communion, particularly the Lambeth Conference and recent events in Zimbabwe. He declared the reaction of critics who had complained that Lambeth was “too focused on prayer and reflection, and not enough on decision-making” to be “an extraordinary thing to say about any Christian gathering”.

He rejected any notion of using prayer as an alibi for not grasping the nettle.

While respecting the consciences of those who were not coming, he expressed regret at their absence.

The new Bishop of Harare, Dr Sebastian Bakare, was in the public gallery to hear Dr Williams speak about the Church in his country.

Dr Williams described him as “a deeply respected and courageous elder statesman of the Zimbabwean Church”.

Dr Williams criticised his predecessor as Bishop of Harare, the Rt Revd Nolbert Kunonga, whom he accused of “using conflicts in the Communion as an excuse to pursue self-seeking agendas”.

He also warned against the “toxic effect” of the current style of electronic global communication.

Dr Williams’s address drew strong and genuine applause, even from some who had not greeted his entry, and there was a tangible sense of relief at his defusing of the crisis.

The mood lightened further when the Archbishop’s presidential address was followed by a practice session for using the new electronic voting system. Mock votes on mock issues elicited booing and cries of “Shame!”

The ensuing debate on the agenda threw up no obstacles. There was no appetite for a call from Canon Chris Sugden, the secretary of Anglican Mainstream, for a debate on the legal issues raised by Dr Williams. The chairman of the business committee, Prebendary Kay Garlick, did not, however, rule out a future debate on the issues, provided it was “well aired and well documented”. There could be no debate from “documents from the media”, she said firmly.

The Bishop of Lincoln, Dr John Saxbee, passionately defended the relationship between reason and religion, and deplored the cry of “Get thee to academia” that had followed Dr Williams’s demonstrated intellectual rigour. He urged Synod members in forthcoming debates not to “leave their brains outside the door, lest they frighten the horses”.

Presidential address in full

Has Dr Williams handled the sharia row well?

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What Dr Williams said

What Dr Williams said

In the lecture:

“If the law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour — for protest against certain unforeseen professional requirements, for instance, which would compromise religious discipline or belief — it fails in a significant way to communicate with someone involved in the legal process . . . and so . . . fails in one of its purposes.”

“To recognise sharia is to recognise a method of jurisprudence governed by revealed texts rather than a single system.”

“The secular lawyer needs to know where the potential conflict is real, legally and religiously serious, and where it is grounded in either nuisance or ignorance. There can be no blank cheques given to unexamined scruples.”

In the BBC interview:

[On the application of Sharia] “It seem unavoidable and, indeed, as a matter of fact, certain provision of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law. So it’s not as if we’re bringing in an alien and rival system.”

“Nobody in their right mind, I think, would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that sometimes appears to be associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states — the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women, as well.”

A transcript of the interview can be found on www.archbishopofcanterbury.org

Read the full lecture on the link below.

A transcript of the interview can be found on www.archbishopofcanterbury.org

Read the full lecture on the link below.

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