In a question and answer session with the ladies (and a few guest men) of the Holy Trinity Mothers' Union yesterday, the question of the Archbishop's remarks came up once again. I have written a piece for Urban Saints (formerly Crusaders) leaders on this but it will only be available to those who subscribe to their Energize web-site. So here is an edited and, as far as I am able, simplified, version.
Last Thursday, in an interview on Radio 4’s The World at One, Archbishop Rowan Williams appeared to suggest that there was a certain inevitability about the adoption of some aspects of Sharia Law in the United Kingdom. The interview was in advance of a lecture to be given that evening. Although it was a reasonably long interview, and he was guarded and cautious, the opposition generated was astounding.
‘Sharia law is the body of Islamic religious law. The term means ‘way’ or ‘path to the water source’; it is the legal framework within which the public and some private aspects of life are regulated for those living in a legal system based on Islamic principles of jurisprudence and for Muslims living outside the domain. Sharia deals with many aspects of day-to-day life, including politics, economics, banking, business, contracts, family, sexuality, hygiene, and social issues.’[i]
Sharia is not a fixed system. Within it some actions which we consider abuses of human rights are enshrined. But the Archbishop said, ‘...while certain elements of the sharia are specified fairly exactly in the Qur'an... there is no single code that can be identified as 'the' sharia.’[ii] So although he distanced himself from being thought to advocate the adoption of sharia in its entirety, many journalists and commentators picked up on the Archbishop’s use of one word, ‘unavoidable.’
There followed a scramble of comments on the relationship between the law of the land and sharia, most of them based on things the Archbishop did not say. For many the idea of sharia conjures up images of stonings and amputations. But we should be very wary of judging a whole movement by its extreme positions – that would be like assuming all Christians are Mormon polygamists. In his opening address to General Synod last weekend the Archbishop quoted Ronald Knox saying, 'The prevailing attitude ... was one of heavy disagreement with a number of things which the [speaker] had not said.'
The text of the interview and lecture are both available. You can also listen to the lecture, courtesy of the BBC, here. The lecture is academic and includes many precise and technical words. Only the finest minds could listen to it and make immediate sense of it without access to the text later. The interview, whilst still complex, attempts to simplify for a non-technical audience, the nature of the discussion. It is probably within this process that the confusion arose. It is not easy to popularise a complex lecture for a non-specialist audience before you have delivered it to the specialists.
Many laws and rules govern our behaviour. We put ourselves under some of them voluntarily. The two places I have been questioned about this both have their own sets of rules:
Pubs - drinking hours, management right to refuse
Mothers' Union - subscriptions
In sports and games we stick to the rules or we will find ourselves in trouble, or become a founder of rugby football. If we belong to a club we agree to abide by its regulations. In each case access to a higher authority is possible – a person badly fouled in a game of football can sue in the civil court for damages. So where do we agree to have our disputes resolved? Arbitration is often agreed between parties without resorting to using the courts, but appeal to a higher court or authority is always available.
There already exist some concessions to faith communities in matters of family law within the law of our land. The Church of England enjoys the privilege of having control over its own buildings (through the ‘faculty’ system) without recourse to the law of the land. Church consistory courts hear cases on matters of parish discipline.
The Archbishop appears to argue that there should be a certain tolerance of faith groups in the order of a state justice system. Some will say no to that in a secular society; others might affirm individual group’s rights to self-policing as long as the law of the land is still the ultimate authority.
We live in a culture of opposition. Truth is established by setting out alternative propositions. Sometimes the desire to find the alternative pushes aside the desire to understand what is being said. We're an argumentative lot. We have all experienced being contradicted or even shouted down before we have finished our point. We are not good at hearing people out. The newspapers represent this. The Sun's headline was, 'What a burka!' Hardly tolerant.
There is a strong theme in the Old Testament prophets of the need for leaders to counter injustice and speak out on behalf of the unrepresented – see Amos 2:6-7 in particular. Has the Archbishop done any more than that? Christians believe that Jesus removed our obligations towards the ceremonial law (ritual washing, food laws etc) but the ethical law still stands, although needing interpretation in the light of today's culture.
In Romans 13:1-7 Paul writes about the law of the land and our attitude to authority. His basic premise is that the authorities are good. They are established by God and we should obey them.
‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’[iii] Let us be more entertaining of views we don't immediately find attractive. We may grow to love them, and that has to be a good theme for Valentine's Day.
[iii] attributed to Aristotle