Sunday, 13 April 2008

What did the Archbishop of Canterbury say about sharia law?

Archbishop Rowan Williams by the Sea of Galilee

Patrick Comerford

A few weeks ago, I was asked to join a panel discussion on Newstalk that turned into a very heated debate about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks on civil and religious law. I have the strong impression that many who rushed to criticise and attack him had neither read the full text of the lecture by Dr Rowan Williams at the Royal Courts of Justice on “Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective,” nor listened to his interview on the BBC’s World at One programme, although both are readily available and accessible on online.

Despite popular misrepresentation in the mass media, Dr Williams made no proposals in his lecture or during his interview for the implementation of sharia in Britain, nor did he call for the introduction of sharia as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law. Dr Williams merely raised the question of how a secular and unitary legal system can and should accommodate religious claims in a religiously plural society.

In his interview, Archbishop Williams observed that “as a matter of fact certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in [British] society and under [British] law.” When the question was put to him that “the application of sharia in certain circumstances – if we want to achieve this cohesion and take seriously peoples’ religion – seems unavoidable?” – he indicated his assent.

Perhaps the archbishop was ill-advised to go on The World at One before his lecture and to say things about sharia that only make sense within the context of the larger, careful argument he made that evening. But he began his lecture by pointing out that the very term sharia is often misunderstood, and the focus of much fear and anxiety about sharia arises because of the way it is applied in some places. He argued that sharia is a method of law rather than a single complete system ready to be applied wholesale to every situation.

Accommodating religious claims

During his lecture, Archbishop Williams explored the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in an increasingly plural society and asked how such a unitary system might be able to accommodate religious claims. Behind this is the underlying principle that Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences. An example of this is provided by situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions.

Dr Williams was not suggesting the introduction of parallel legal jurisdictions. Instead, he explored ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience.

He explained to his audience of over 1,000 people that he wanted “to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state,” and he was using sharia as an example. He argued that when the law does not take religious motivation seriously, it fails to engage with a faith community and opens up real issues of power by the majority over the minority. He asked how the distinction between cultural practices and practices arising from genuine religious belief might be managed. And he asked serious questions about how a supplementary jurisdiction could reinforce “in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women.”

At the end of his lecture, chaired by the Lord Chief Justice, Archbishop Williams referred to a suggestion by a Jewish jurist that there might be room for “overlapping jurisdictions” in which “individuals might choose in certain limited areas whether to seek justice under one system or another.” This happens within Jewish arrangements and increasingly in dispute resolution and mediation.

Dr Williams concluded: “If we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of ‘deconstruction’ of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment.”

Far-reaching questions

In his lecture, the archbishop addressed the relation between the law of the land and the religious conscience of the citizen, and he addressed some of the most far-reaching questions facing British society and western culture. He did this with sensitivity and intellectual rigour. But the responses were disturbing and were marked by the “crude oppositions and mythologies” he warned against – often expressed by people who neither read his lecture nor listened to his interview.

The Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, said “the astonishing misrepresentation of Archbishop Rowan in virtually all newspapers … and the scorn and anger which this has fuelled, have caused many people within the church to ask what on earth is going on.”

The idea that society can only respect diversity and promote tolerance by relegating expressions of religious faith to the private lives of individual believers is unacceptable not only to Muslims but to Christians too. Most world faiths, including Christianity, affirm that all of life is included within religious obedience. As Christians we might put by saying “if Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.”

When governments accept the suggestion that public expressions of the multifaith nature of society threatens social stability, we end up with an airline worker being sacked in Britain for wearing a cross, and Muslim women in France being banned from wearing their traditional head-covering in public offices and schools. But “multiculturalism” should never mean subordinating our variety and divergence to the demands of a secular state. Those demands have created problem for Catholic adoption agencies in Scotland and England, or for Muslims who want to follow traditional teachings that prohibit interest on loans while living within a society where the mortgage system is endemic.

Dr Williams tried to get to the roots of these problems, providing a fresh analysis and seeking fresh solutions. The question of how we live together as a civil and wise society while cherishing different faiths cannot be pushed away when people take fright at certain misunderstandings and allow their response to those misunderstandings to be based on misinformed and uniformed prejudices.

Tabloid emphases

Dr Williams clearly set out to rule out the very points the tabloids accused him of affirming, and distanced himself completely from stereotyping and from presentations of sharia that emphasise beatings, beheadings and the oppression of women. Some critics argued it might have been better had Archbishop Williams avoided using the word sharia altogether because of its extremely negative image in Britain. But as the Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright retorted: “Think … of what the word ‘Christian’ means in a country that has been bombed to bits by the ‘Christian’ west.”

Sharia is complex and it varies from place to place. For example, the Guardian reported recently that Turkey is engaged in a bold and profound attempt to rewrite the basis for sharia law and reinterpreting the Qur'an for the modern age. This exercise in reforming Islamic jurisprudence, sponsored by the modernising and mildly Islamic government of the Prime Minister, Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is an effort to establish a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles.

This ambitious experiment may remove discrimination against women, banish some of the brutal penalties associated with sharia such as stoning and amputation, abolish the death penalty, reject honour killings, lead to women becoming imams, and redefine Islam as a modern, dynamic force in Turkey, which aspires to join the European Union.

The whole sorry affair over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s interview highlights how touchy British society has become about Islam, and this is not only in reaction to recent acts of terrorism. But British law already accommodates Islamic precepts regarding not only to marriage and divorce mediation, but also those involving undertakers, cemeteries, banks and mortgages, among other issues. This has not created a parallel system, but accommodates certain areas of civil life that do not run counter to existing British law.

Sound-bite society

The archbishop was making interesting points that do not come across well in our sound-bite society. A leading evangelical within the Church of England, the Revd Andrew Goddard, formerly of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, said: “The heart of Archbishop Rowan’s now infamous lecture on Islam and the law is a vision of how to enable order, cohesion and belonging in a single political society which seeks to embrace multiple religious and other communities under the rule of law.”

Dr Williams presented an eminently sensible survey of the place of religious conscience and sensibility within a secular, multicultural society, and spoke about the role of law in defending human dignity. He is one of the most gifted minds in Britain, and his views should have received careful consideration. But the popular media misinterpreted and misrepresented what he was talking about in his lecture.

The Sun headline stated boldly: “What a Burkha.” Inside it described Dr Williams as “Archenemy” and invited readers to “Bash the bishop: join our campaign to give him the boot … 96% of readers say he must go.” Ruth Glendhill, the religious affairs correspondent of The Times, asked on her blog: “Has the Archbishop gone bonkers?” The Sunday Telegraph proclaimed: “Britain must reject this craven counsel of despair.”

Only weeks before, the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali had been misinterpreted when he spoke about the danger of no-go areas in some urban areas with large numbers of Muslims. It appears that a Church of England bishop is to be damned by the British media when he appears to be tough on Islam, and damned when he is not. As Andrew Brown pointed out in the Church Times, Archbishop Williams “had been brutally assaulted for things he never said.” The press had assaulted “the very possibility of nuanced discussion.”

In a comment on the Open Democracy website, Dr Tina Beattie of Roehampton University said: “Rowan Williams – a uniquely gifted Christian leader and one of the finest theologians alive today – has tried to open up one possible channel of informed debate with regard to law, identity and community in Britain today. Many may legitimately disagree with his ideas and worry over his formulations, but the overall response to them suggests a country whose eagerness to abuse and accuse is crushing its ability to listen and learn.”

Useful links

The full text of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture is at:

A summary of what he said is at:

A transcript of his radio interview is at:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay first appeared in the April editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory).

Shaping the Liturgy

Patrick Comerford

IT is, perhaps, a truism to say that active Christians today are more likely to be concerned about the environment and the threats posed by global warming than about the liturgy. It requires a keen mind and a rooted spirituality to make the connections between both, making the liturgy a life-giving experience for the active Christian activist, and empowering the worshipping Christian to see in the liturgy an image of the world as God wants it to be.

A new book on liturgy and the environment seeks to make this connection between the Eucharist and the Creation story as a response to the present ecological crisis. Hugh O’Donnell believes it is critical that our concerns for the environment should be incorporated into our celebration of the Eucharist.

In his new book, Eucharist and the Living Earth (Dublin: Columba Press, ISBN 978-1-85607-573-2, €12.99), this Salesian priest and poet explores the possibilities of bringing new relevance to the Eucharist by weaving into the liturgy the principle of our responsibility before God for the well-being and diversity of the earth.

This book, which grew out of an MA course in ecology and religion at the University of Wales, Lampeter, O’Donnell explores how the connection between the Eucharist and its matrix within the created world can be strengthened, he asks how our celebrations of the Eucharist can be relocated not just within our earthly pilgrimage but within the narrative of the unfolding universe.

When we fail to make explicit the Eucharistic connection with the created world, he argues, we deny that we are woven into the fabric of the universe, that we live with the stars, that the sun and the moon leave their marks on our lives, that Christian liturgy is cosmic liturgy, and that without making these connections we have a ritual that is shorn of its roots, and are left with an impoverished Eucharist.

And so, he makes a number of practical suggestions. For example, the penitential rite can invite us to an ecological conversion. The Gloria praises God for the wonders and beauty of the Creation. The traditional formula of the Nicene Creed includes the basis of a creation spirituality. The Prayers of the Faithful should always include prayer for the living Earth to which we belong. Learning from the practice of the Greek Orthodox Church, the presentation of the gifts can be an expression of humanity giving thanks to God for the gifts of creation.

His examples from the Eucharistic Prayer of Thanksgiving are taken from his own tradition, but it is easy to find examples in the Book of Common Prayer 2004. Prayer 1 praises God as “the creator and sustainer of all things” (page 210). Prayer 2 recalls that Christ is the eternal Word through whom God has “created all things from the beginning” and through whom all things are made new (page 212). Prayer 3 praises God as Lord of all creation. Those beautiful words in Prayer 3 – “He opened wide his arms upon the cross and, with love stronger than death, he made the perfect sacrifice for sins” – are complement by the words in Graham Kendrick’s hymn, The Servant King (ICH 219): “Come see his hands and his feet,/the scars that speak of sacrifice,/hands that flung stars into space/to cruel nails surrendered.”

Professor Paul Bradshaw of the University of Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey is one of the leading Anglican liturgists today, best known, perhaps for his Search for the Origins of Christian Worship (London: SPCK, 2002). Now with his colleague at Notre Dame, Professor John Melloh, he has edited a new collection of essays, Foundations in Ritual Studies: A Reader for Students of Christian Worship (London: SPCK, 224 pp pbk, £16.99 Stg, ISBN 978-0-281-05746-7).

At one time, the study of liturgy meant studying what Christians did in the past and how worship traditions developed over the centuries, with a particular focus on liturgical texts. Now the spotlight is on liturgical actions – what we do in worship, how we do it, and what our actions mean. Scholars now look at the global present and compare what Christians say and do in worship with actions in other religious and cultural settings.

When it comes to Christian liturgy, the starting point for ritual studies is to observe and record the totality of an act of worship, paying attention to the people involved, their attitudes, lifestyles and behaviour, their understanding of what liturgy is for, their motives for taking part in it, and how they understand its place in their lives.

This book, which is the first collection of its kind in the new field of ritual studies, applies anthropological methodology to the study of religious actions, focussing on the Christian liturgy as an example of ritual studies. This one-volume collection offers students fresh insights into Christian liturgy with key essays by specialists in anthropology, religious studies, and Christian liturgy. Many of the great names from the present and the recent past are here, with a wide range of up-to-date work in this growing field. Romano Guardini, Mark Seale and John Witvliet examine the application of ritual studies to Christian liturgies; Mary Douglas and Victor Turner discuss the anthropological basis for ritual studies; Nathan Mitchell, Ronald Grimes and Catherine Bell write on ritual; and Margaret Mary Kelleher writes on liturgical theology.

One of the pioneering figures in Anglican liturgical studies was the late Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican Benedictine monk whose magnum opus, The Shape of the Liturgy, has stayed in print for over 60 years. Although some of its conclusions are now questioned, The Shape of the Liturgy is still unsurpassed as an account of the origins of the Eucharist. It continues to underpin the work of many liturgists today, such as Richard Giles, and at least one college requires all prospective students of theology to read the first 100 pages of The Shape of the Liturgy before applying.

But apart from The Shape of the Liturgy, Gregory Dix left many pamphlets, papers, sermons, radio talks and other unpublished texts. Now, Simon Jones has drawn on this remarkable archive for a new book, The Sacramental Life: Gregory Dix and his writings (London: Canterbury Press, Norwich, 161 pp, £16.99 Stg, ISBN 978-1-85311-717-6).

Simon Jones is Chaplain and Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, Oxford – Gregory Dix’s own college – and an oblate of Elmore Abbey, the Anglican Benedictine community in Berkshire where the Dix archives are held.

Jones has created a collection that will be valued in teaching, study, and as devotional reading for a new generation. This collection focuses on topics as central as the subject of his classic work on the Eucharist: the Liturgy, the Spiritual Life, the Religious Life and the Church’s Ministry.

As Archbishop Rowan Williams says in his foreword, this book is a real gift and “in a very robust sense a joy to read.” He writes: “Here we see most clearly how Dom Gregory brought the immensities of his theological vision to bear on the bread and butter of learning to live Christianly and to pray intelligently.”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. These book reviews were first published in the April edition of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough)