Friday, 8 February 2008

The Archbishop makes people think

Well, the winter’s monsoon seems to have ended and we've finally had some dry weather. Yet it remains very mild and today as I drove back from College in sunlight, spring didn't seem far away. Hurrah! Increasingly winters seem to pass us by in the UK. Oh yes, every so often a cold flurry will blast down out of what is left of the Arctic and rampage across Britain, depositing a few inches of snow, but within hours it's all gone. Down here in the moist southwest of Great Britain we have had nothing remotely approaching snow all winter.

But enough of the weather: there were lots of things I was thinking of talking about this week but then yesterday the sort of the big story blew up that I cannot really resist commenting on. I'm not sure whether it has made it over to where some of you dwell, but it's not the sort of purely local news that you good citizens of Tallahassee, Des Moines or even Brisbane can dismiss with a shrug of the shoulders. On the contrary, here we may just be a few steps ahead of the rest of the world.

Basically, in case you missed it, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said, in as many words, that he felt that some form of Sharia law in Britain was probably inevitable. The result has been an enormous row, and for the first time that anyone can remember, people are seriously asking for the resignation of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Now as someone who has lived abroad in the more or less Muslim world of West Beirut for eight years I have some interest – and experience – in this matter. I have also, frankly, an interest in the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is not just that he is a Swansea man and a poet of some repute, (we Welsh writers need to stick together) it is because about seven years ago, before he was promoted to being head of the entire Anglican Church, I actually had quite a long chat with him. In his capacity as Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Wales he had been speaking at a Swansea Christian leaders meeting and at the meal that followed I found myself, quite inadvertently, sitting opposite him. We chatted about all sorts of things, the longer ending of Mark, Christianity and the environment, N. T. Wright and various other things. I remember asking him what he was reading at the moment. He then waxed lyrical about an obscure (and, I gathered, not just to me) Eastern European theologian from the Orthodox church. I came away with the impression of a man with a brilliant mind (he had held a distinguished post at Oxford) but one who was only questionably Anglican. I felt that, given half a chance, he’d quite happily have defected to the Orthodox.

Anyway, shortly afterwards, he got promoted to the big job. Several things have marked out his primacy, and both the sympathies with the Eastern Church and the intelligence I had been struck with have been a dominant feature. But as yesterday showed intelligence and wisdom are actually separate things and as innumerable commentators pointed out, he showed a great lack of wisdom in suggesting that some form of Sharia might be inevitable in the UK. One of the problems with Dr Williams is that he doesn't do clear, concise sentences. His language is rich, wordy, multi-layered and nuanced. Even people with a high level of English have to reread his articles to be sure of what he is saying. Try this for an example: "The rule of law is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity as such, independent of membership in any specific human community or tradition, so that when specific communities or traditions are in danger of claiming finality for their own boundaries of practice and understanding, they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity - and that the only way of doing this is to acknowledge the category of 'human dignity as such' - a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations) could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a human group." Welcome back!

Anyway he seems to have meant that Sharia was, in some way inevitable. There is a lot I could say about this. After all, we have a large, diverse and troubled Muslim community, and how Muslims relate to traditional UK values is unclear. It's not of course helped by the fact that, notoriously, we British have no constitution and suffer from a mindset which could be summed up as ‘we’re sure it will work out somehow’. Anyway, as many people have rushed to comment, this opens up all manner of problems. For one, Sharia varies across differing Islamic communities and in some cases seems to be little more than a formalised way of preserving traditional culture. No one really seems to know exactly what it means and what are its limits. For another, if Islam is allowed exemptions from the law why should not Judaism, Rastafarianism (with its dedication to hashish) or even Chris-ianity – my own personal form of hedonistic religion – also be granted exemption?

Three points, I think can be made. The first is that quite simply, the Archbishop could have been much clearer. There are constant claims by his office that he is being misquoted, but given his style of language it's hard not to misunderstand what is happening. Words and phrasing that would work very well in an Oxford common room are inappropriate for today's world. It is clear the man needs the discipline of writing a blog every week.

Secondly, Archbishop seems to have the sort of rosy view of Islam and Sharia that is commonly found amongst academics who deal only with highly educated representatives of other faiths who are on their best behaviour. The reality on the ground is, as many have pointed out, very different. So for instance, for all the fine words about the rights of women under Islam, their lot is not a happy one. Equally, the fact is that the blasphemy laws within Sharia can clearly be used to take down any critic of the system. Islam is not really a religion in the sense that Christianity is. I recall an interesting conversation with a very bright, ex-Muslim-but-not-yet-Christian, who said to me “Chris, you know, I don't see Islam as a religion.” “You’d better explain that,” I replied, nonplussed. The answer was memorable: “Chris, I see it as a social structure, a system of organising society. It is that much more than a religion.” It’s a fair point. In short, the Archbishop needs to paid more attention to the harsh reality rather than the benign dream. To make a literary point; maybe he should have read less philosophy and theology and more tales of genuine experience.

The third point is that he has, at least, raised the matter to the level where it must be discussed. Presumably by accident – he seems genuinely surprised at being either understood (or misunderstood) – he has made the point that multiculturalism does not work. After all, if we are going to let different communities go their own separate way then it is surely inevitable that the most legalistic of those religions will demand that its legalism is enforceable. That is probably a ray of silver in the cloud of the dispute.

Another and brighter gleam of silver is this. Atheists and their kind may not like Christianity, but it is now plainer than it ever was that to remove Christianity from Western society creates a vacuum. That vacuum is clearly unsustainable and there is one obvious major contender to fill its void. Today, my atheist friends were only too happy to agree that the Christian faith might perhaps have something in its favour. You could tell from the way they phrased things that they clearly felt that there were far worse possible systems to live under. Indeed, there are.