As the dust settles at General Synod

I’m spending most of this week at the General Synod, which is the main legislative governing body of the Church of England. It normally only gets a ripple of interest from the British media, but on Monday there was a scrummage of photographers who were there to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Presidential Address, which – it had been advertised – would contain some remarks following the hoo-hah after his comments last week about the relationship between British civil law and elements of Sharia law code in British Muslim communities. You can read his presidential address on his website.

The media’s reporting of his speech was histrionic and islamophobic. Even the BBC website, normally a balanced source of news, succumbed. Politicians, knowing this, sought to distance themselves from his comments. I was phoned up on Friday by the Daily Telegraph as part of a poll they were taking of Synod members regarding Sharia Law and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Predictably, I was asked whether I thought the archbishop should resign. After a snort, I indicated he had my full confidence and support. The comment by the researcher was, “yes, we’re getting that response from rather a lot of the Synod”. In the end, only two members of the Synod said that they believed he should go. There are nearly 500 members. That’s 0.4% of the Synod, which is significantly lower than the lunatic fringe one can normally rely upon existing in most human organisations – particularly church ones. The BBC website the next day reported these two members under the headline that the Archbishop was under growing pressure to resign.

If the Archbishop was guilty of anything, it was of overestimating the capacity that Britain currently has for having an informed and genuinely open debate over the place of Islam in British society. His remarks show a commendable openness to explore, with seriousness, the desire expressed in different ways by British Muslims for recognised space for the practice and expression of their faith and culture in the public sphere. This might include exploring possible ways to permit a connection between religious authority and the governing of civil affairs in way that, to a limited degree, both Jews and Christians presently enjoy. The archbishop, in expressing his remarks, was showing Christian leadership by example in treating the Muslim as his neighbour. If we are to love our neighbour as ourselves, that must surely include a willingness to dialogue, which in turn does not insist on limits and preconditions before the dialogue exercise begins. True dialogue must always imply that either side is willing to be changed by the process.

By contrast, many politicians and political commentators contributed to the controversy with doctrinaire assertions about the relationship of faith to the national state, most of which were based on philosophical thinking from the Enlightenment. David Blunkett, former Home Secretary, when interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme, referred to Rousseau and Locke as if they were the Last Word which could not be challenged or questioned. Yet the point is that much Western thinking on faith-state relationships assumes faith difference to lie within a single majority religion (Christianity) located within the contextual unity of a single culture. The fact that we are no longer in this situation, with the presence of many who are in effect of no faith, and others of widely-varying faiths and cultures, indicates our need for a nuanced exercise in listening, dialogue and debate conducted with considerable maturity assisted by wise, responsible and courageous leadership. Nevertheless, the week’s news showed that our present political consensus is wedded to a secularist approach, which either cannot or will not understand that for most people of faith, God’s will will always be more authoritative than the State’s will. It would seem that British political opinion is conforming itself more and more to French models of secular democracy, which in that country seem in danger of fostering tinder-boxes of seething cultural resentment. Too few of our younger politicians seem to appreciate that Britain’s historical acceptance of Faith as an intrinsic part of its public life has yielded, as a by-product, religious leaders with a place in the constitution who have unique expertise and insight to help in any discussion of how an alienated religious minority might be included and find their place in the public square. Sadly, many commentators last week suggested that the Archbishop’s comments were nothing other than a part of some hard-line drive to resist inevitable secularizing forces. By alienating even the established elements of religion, inclusion of alienated religious minority communities is made less likely, not more. Through immigration, it is likely that British society has become far more religious, not less. Stock political solutions drawn from European secularization, founded on philosophy which is two centuries old, may serve to back the forces of social fragmentation, rather than the forces of social cohesion. This is bitterly ironic and deeply worrying.

The sad part of last week’s coverage is not whether or not it has detracted from the Archbishop’s authority. Monday’s immense standing ovation by the General Synod after the Archbishop’s Presidential Address indicated that within that body, at least, he continues to enjoy overwhelming love and support. No – the sad part is that it has indicated something far more worrying: that presently Britain lacks the political courage and the public ability to discuss the place of Muslim communities within the public sphere with anything like fairness, wisdom or maturity. Our press, both editors and journalists alike, seek rich professional pickings by trading on an undercurrent of Islamophobia amongst the chattering classes, reflecting a subterranean racism lurking under most of “middle-England”. Only a glance at the BBC website discussion boards makes this abundantly clear.

Perhaps in this respect, the Archbishop’s comments could be regarded as “prophetic” and like most prophecy within the Bible, it clarifies a deeply uncomfortable situation. The past week’s events have shown us a picture of the condition of Britain, from the top of power downwards, that we would rather not have been forced to acknowledge. And, as Jeremiah on occasion was wont to do, perhaps Rowan Williams is asking himself whether it would have been better not to have given voice at all, since to do so merely makes the pain seem so much worse. At times like this, it feels like holding onto an article of faith that only the truth can set us free, however painful the discovery, and however challenging the task it assigns us.


Inevitable and Unavoidable » The Cartoon Blog by Dave Walker 14/02/08 - 10:48 am

[…] Paul Roberts » As the dust settles at General Synod It was good to meet Paul – we had a chat in the gallery and he pointed out some synod features – about which I’ll say more at some point. […]

John Richardson 14/02/08 - 6:05 pm

Although there may have been some unnecessary reactions to Rowan Williams’s proposals, the proposals themselves are still problematic.

At very least, given Jesus’ propensity to disregard the law of his own day, the Christian approach to Muslims, living under the law of Shari’ah, should surely not be ‘more law’!

I am interested in finding how Christians want to push forward Rowan’s thinking and how they would elaborate on his suggestion that there needs to be “a much enhanced and quite sophisticated version” of the Islamic Shari’ah Council which exists already, if there are to be ‘supplementary jurisdictions’ for Muslims.

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