Saturday, February 9, 2008

Archbishop: 'A noble, reckless rebellion' - Guardian

There are 482 members of the General Synod of the Church of England. So having two members, Alison Rouf and Colonel Edward Armitstead, calling for Rowan Williams to resign is a bit like Sir Peter Tapsell and Ian Paisley calling for Gordon Brown to resign.

I am in the rather light-headed situation of strongly supporting Dr Williams in what he said. It's a bit like being a member of the Flat Earth Society.

Madeleine Bunting wrote a very sensible article on the subject in the Guardian today. It was entitled "A noble reckless rebellion". She elegantly summarised what Rowan Williams said in a clear way, arguiing that it needed saying. She characterised his speech as a "rebellion" against the "parade of simplistic, anodyne platitudes" which are common in our everyday public discourse:

What Rowan Williams was highlighting is that there are other aspects of sharia law that are implemented through sharia courts in operation in this country. Do we continue to pretend they don't exist or give them some recognition, challenged the archbishop. To be clear: they deal only with civil cases such as family disputes, never criminal. In many respects, the sharia courts operate much like the longstanding Jewish rabbinical courts, the Beth Din. The latter are regarded as a form of private arbitration, and as such can have their rulings upheld in English law, which allows for private arbitration and is used in many non-religious cases. Surely there's a basic issue of equal treatment here, in that sharia courts shouldn't be treated any differently from the Beth Din. In fact, one BBC report has suggested that sharia courts have begun to follow the Beth Din's example. In other words, the kind of "recognition" of sharia Williams was proposing is happening anyway.

...By throwing his hat into the ring, Williams was hoping, firstly, to challenge the widespread prejudice and ignorance around sharia. Most of sharia has nothing to do with beheadings or hand-chopping, he argued, and insisted that these brutal punishments have no place in the UK, as many Muslims would fervently agree.

His second point was that these sharia courts are operating anyway, but that many are rather shambolic, with poorly educated judges - perhaps, rather like faith schools, if we could bring these institutions into some relationship with the state, then a measure of regulation could follow. Lastly, he suggested that if Muslim communities felt that their identity and faith were given a greater degree of recognition by the state, they would feel less alienated. This was his point about social cohesion.

...Why should he speak any differently in public to how he does in an Oxbridge theology seminar?
Why, oh why indeed. There are so many answers to that question. Because you would have avoided an already demoralised Church of England being publicly humiliated. Because this speech will be a byword for the failures of liberal Anglicanism for decades. Because it's a terrible preface to the Anglican communion's Lambeth conference this summer. Because you now have a whole new batch of incensed critics. Because ... Yet despite all that, there is something mad and admirable here.
He was honouring his audience last night - many of whom were lawyers and academics - by engaging them in a complex exploratory argument. Here is a fine mind at work: what sort of anti-intellectual populism assumes we should be able to easily understand everything he says?

It's a bad day when all our public figures are trapped in a parade of simplistic, anodyne platitudes: our politics have reached that degree of non-speak, and bishops are close behind them. What Williams did was defy all media convention - it was a rebellion against the spin and public relations mediation of public life; buried in all the frustration, there has to be a measure of awe for someone so recklessly prepared to buck the system and continue to be what he is - a big mind and a big heart but without a political bone in his body.

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