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Day one: Monday

12 February 2008

PRESS and public galleries were both full on Monday, in anticipation of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s explanation of what he had really told lawyers at the Royal Courts of Justice last Thursday. Some of the more sensational morning headlines had declared Synod to be turning against Dr Williams, much had been made of calls to resign from three Synod members, all from Reform, and there were predictions of an alliance of conservative evangelicals and anglo-catholics to force a debate.

But there were signs even before the Archbishop’s address that much of the huffing and puffing had evaporated. Arriving Synod members had determined much of the media response to have been  “hysterical” and “knee-jerk”, and when the Archbishop entered the chamber, the ovation was loud and prolonged and only a very few members resolutely refused to applaud.

Dr Williams did not shirk responsibility for any “unclarity” in either his text or his radio interview that had helped to cause distress or misunderstanding, 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 ring them into better public focus.” 

At no point during his defence of what he had said did he refer to ‘sharia’ law. The lecture had been an opening contribution to a series on Islamic and English law, and posed a question to the legal establishment of whether attempts to accommodate aspects of Islamic law would “create an area where the law of the land doesn’t run.”

He emphasised: “We are not talking about parallel jurisdictions; and I tried to make clear that there would be no ‘blank cheques’ in this regard; in particular as regards the sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women. The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity.”

He reflected on whether additional choices could and should be made available under UK law for resolving disputes and regulating transactions; and went on to  raise wider questions about the relation between faith and law. 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 Lordship and not compromising it.”

Dr Williams returned then to what he had originally intended to speak about: the Lambeth Conference and the developments in the Anglican Church 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” and 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, and acknowledged that the absences also reflected a “legacy of hurt” over perceived insensitivity on the part of many churches of  the West or North, including the C of E. Dr Williams’ deepest hope for Lambeth was that it would be “a decisively counter-cultural event.”

The Bishop of Harare, Dr Sebastian Bakare, was in the public gallery to hear Dr Williams speak on the Zimbabwe situation. Dr Williams described him as “a deeply respected and courageous elder statesman of the Zimbabwean Church”.
In charting the unhappy record of Bishop Kunonga’s activities and the “preposterous” charge he had made against the province, he warned against the possibility of “using conflicts in the Communion as an excuse to pursue self-seeking agendas in various contexts, and the great danger this poses in divided or fragile local churches. We saw it in Sudan and now here it is in Central Africa,” he said. He also warned against the “toxic effect” of the current style of electronic global communication.

His address drew strong and genuine applause, even from some who had not greeted his entry, and there was a tangible sense of relief at the defusing of the crisis. The mood turned almost to hilarity in the practice session that followed for using the new electronic voting system, with mock votes on mock issues eliciting booing and cries of “Shame!”

The debate on the agenda threw up no obstacles. The Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Revd Nigel McCulloch, confirmed that the House of Bishops would have its report on women bishops signed off in May ready for debate at the York Synod in July. 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’ demonstrated intellectual rigour. He urged Synod members in forthcoming debates not to “leave their brains outside the door, lest they frighten the horses.”

No appetite was found for Canon Chris Sugden’s call for a debate on the legal  issues raised by Dr Williams, though the chairman of the business committee, Prebendary Kay Garlick,  did not 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.

Synod finished the day by getting through all 84 questions submitted for written answers.  






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