THE Archbishop of Canterbury has challenged the idea that human
rights and religious discourse are "intrinsically opposed" to one
another, and has urged religious people to abandon the
"preposterous" notion that "they have to win God's arguments for
Speaking on the place of faith in the public square, during the
last in a series of Westminster Faith Debates on Tuesday, organised
by Lancaster University in partnership with Theos, Dr Williams
appealed for less panic among religious people who were engaged in
debate. Refusing to try to "be God", and acknowledging that one
might fail, was "a recognition of the majesty and supremacy of the
God you believe in. . . I think he can look after himself!"
An argument might be advanced from a religious conviction, Dr
Williams said, but "if I can only appeal to my faith in public
discussion, it's not going to make very much impact. I have to look
for other areas of convergence."
There was, he suggested, a theological reason for this: "If I
believe that assisted dying, or gambling . . . are not in accord
with God's will for human beings, of course there will be pragmatic
arguments against them, because they are not going to work."
He saw, he said, the extent to which people of faith felt
"victimised or marginalised", but was not sure that they always saw
it clearly. A few "extremely hard cases" had created a "slightly
highly coloured view of where we are".
Dr Williams agreed, however, with a contribution made by
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop Emeritus of
Westminster, who described the dangers of "militant relativism".
One of his "biggest worries" was moving into a climate "where
people seem to assume we all know what's rational, but
unfortunately a few religious people seem to complicate matters".
It was important to remind people that the language of human rights
had religious roots, and "depends on a really big act of faith in
Tony Blair, also present at the event, agreed that this "basic
and fundamental" truth was a "huge contribution" that people of
faith could make to society. The former Prime Minister, the target
of a protest outside the venue of the debate, Methodist Central
Hall, spoke openly about his own faith. He believed in "salvation
through Jesus Christ", and had prayed on his knees with the
Salvation Army while he was leader of the Opposition - although he
had not done so, as had been suggested, with President George
Mr Blair said that he wanted to see "religion-friendly democracy
and democracy-friendly religion". While it was "completely
justifiable" for people to advance an argument as a result of
religious conviction, democracy was "pluralistic", and people must
accept that the views of others were equally valid. It was
particu-larly important to model this at the moment, he said,
because people in the Middle East, while moving towards democratic
systems, needed to understand the "proper place" of religion.
Dr Williams took the opportunity to promote the outreach,
presence, and communication of churches "on the ground". He gave as
an example Coleford, in Gloucestershire, where the vicar had
organised a book of condolence, and clergy had gone into schools,
after three children were stabbed to death last week. "The church
is where people want to put . . . a lot of their otherwise
unmanaged feeling and suffering."
On the question of women bishops, Dr Williams said that he had
recently learned "just how difficult it is for women to hear an
all-male body pronouncing on their future". While he still thought
that the bishops had the right general idea, that was "not going to
make much difference to those who heard it as offensive and
problematic. . .We expect people to be able to say what they are
feeling about issues, as well as what they are thinking, and to be
heard and be taken seriously."
While the dialogue remained good-natured for the most part, Dr
Williams did tell Mr Blair that he remained unconvinced that the
Labour Government's plan to "regenerate an impoverished area of
Manchester by importing a super casino" was "utterly, utterly