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Welby tackles abortion, extremism, and gender during phone-in

21 September 2017


Catholic convictions: Jacob Rees-Mogg receives communion during the funeral mass for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, in Westminster Cathedral, last week

Catholic convictions: Jacob Rees-Mogg receives communion during the funeral mass for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, in Westminster Cathedral, ...

THE Archbishop of Canterbury was pressed about the views of other Christians on legal questions, including abortion, sharia, and the gender policies of primary schools, in a phone-in on LBC radio on Thursday morning.

Heard with Imam Qari Asim, of the Makkah Mosque, in Leeds, he also expressed views on tackling extremism, and argued that it was now endemic on an unprecedented scale in the world’s history.

One caller asked whether the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg had been right to say that he was “just following his religion” when he told GMTV this month that he was opposed to abortion even after rape or incest.

The Archbishop said that there were “different views on abortion within the Christian faith” and that he was not sure that Mr Rees-Mogg’s was “held invariably within the Roman Catholic Church”. It was “certainly not held within the Anglican Communion: that there are no circumstances in which abortion is right at all, under any circumstances whatsoever. . .

“The circumstances in which the taking of any human life is permissible are invariably terrible, whether it’s in war, with abortion, or any other circumstances,” he said. “They are always nightmare circumstances. And we have to start with an expression of love and compassion for those caught up in those circumstances, and our decisions have to flow from that.

“But we have to hold to the dignity of human life, and, certainly, in common with the rest of the Christian Church, we believe that human life begins at conception, and, therefore, the baby in the womb requires legal protection in the same way as any other human. It doesn’t mean there won’t be dreadful times when horrible decisions have to be taken, in very extreme circumstances.”

Mr Rees-Mogg was “a man of great dignity, profound compassion” and had spoken “very courageously and very honestly, and with great integrity”.

Another caller asked about the parents who had withdrawn their six-year-old son from a C of E primary school, pending a legal review of its gender-fluid policy on pupils’ clothing (News, 15 September).

The Archbishop said that he had been “struggling with this” and was reluctant to comment: “I don’t know the school, and I don’t know the parents, and I haven’t listened to them.”

He continued: “I never see the point of going to law. I think that we should try and sort these things without legal involvement, and with mediation.”

Pressed on how he would respond if a parishioner came to him concerned about a child who was sitting next to a six-year-old boy who wore a dress, and that this was not “consistent with my faith”, he replied: “I would say to them: ‘I don’t think that’s a problem.’ The other family are making up their own minds. The other child is making up to their own mind. Talk to your child, help them to understand. Help them to see what is going on and to be faithful to their own convictions.”

He was also asked whether he shared the view of his predecessor, the Rt Revd Lord Williams, that the adoption of elements of sharia law in the UK “seems unavoidable” (News, 8 February 2008). Archbishop Welby said that he did not share this view.

“I don’t think that we should have elements of sharia law in the English jurisprudence system,” he said. “We have a philosophy of law in this country, and you can only really cope with one philosophy of law within a jurisprudential system. The English courts always have to prevail, under all circumstances, always.”

Imam Asim said: “We are not talking about having sharia law parallel to the English system. . . Muslims do abide in civil and criminal matters.” There were sharia councils where divorce cases were “discussed”.

“If marriages are registered in this country, divorces can take place in courts in this country. Therefore we may not necessarily need sharia councils,” he said. “There will have to be a transitional period. . . If we are to abolish them immediately overnight, there will be a huge number of people who are going to suffer.”

The Government launched an independent review of sharia law last year, chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui. Imam Asim is an adviser to the panel. Baroness Cox has attempted to change the law through Private Member’s Bills (News, 10 April 2015), warning that women are suffering from “religiously sanctioned gender discrimination”.

A poll of Muslims by ICM for Policy Exchange last year found that only one per cent of respondents were in favour of a “fully separate Islamic area in Britain, subject to sharia law and government”. When asked whether they would support the introduction of sharia law — broadly defined, to include civil law on questions of financial disputes — 43 per cent were in favour. The report concluded, however, that “expressing support for sharia is a way of saying something about one’s identity and religion rather than voicing a commitment to a specific policy and legal objective”.

Questions about extremism were taken during the phone-in. Imam Asim said that, as a Muslim, he had “a double responsibility to ensure that not one more person is recruited from my community to kill fellow Brits”.

While he could not be “confident that every mosque around the country is effectively above board”, he argued: “Wherever we have seen that there are extremist elements emerging in the mosques, imams and the local boards of those mosques have actually reported it to the intelligence service, to the police. We do not want extremists and terrorists in our ranks.”

His point that grooming by radical recruiters took place online was taken by the Archbishop, who said that the public did not understand why it “seems to take so long [for internet companies] to deal with this stuff”. He had spoken to Jewish leaders facing online abuse who had been given “a dead-bat approach” when they approached the relevant authorities. It was “time for fines”, he agreed.

“There is a growth in extremism and in extremist violence as a way of pursuing a cause, that we are seeing around the world for the first time on this scale, probably in global history.”

He condemned “the genocide in Myanmar” as “utterly appalling”, and called for “significant pressure on all those involved”, but was unwilling to condemn Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s State Counsellor.

“It is easy to stand outside a country, isn’t it?” he said. “Remember: this country has just moved from a military leadership in the last couple of years. She does need to give a lead, but we also need to recognise that, if she loses her position, if things go badly wrong in Myanmar, it is not going to stop the genocide: it will make it worse. I am always careful about expressing judgement on people whose situations I do not fully understand.”

Asked about the Grenfell Tower tragedy, he spoke of “considerable anger and unrest; and, when you look at what happened, it is fully understandable and reasonable. If we are not angry over roughly 80 people being killed in that way, then we are not really human.” Institutions, including the Church, had to “find ways of listening better”.

He later said: “We need a country where foodbanks are unnecessary.”

Responding to a report by the Electoral Reform Society, which said that peers who had spoken five or fewer times in the past year had claimed more than £4 million in expenses, he agreed that the House of Lords was “too big” and “totally unwieldy”.

He remained hopeful, despite “significant divisions”, about this country: “I don’t think that we should be intimidated or fearful as a result. This country is a place of immense solidity and stability, compared to many that I work in, and has the resources to flourish enormously in the future.”

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