It was announced back in November 2012 that Rowan Williams, the (former) Archbishop of Canterbury would step down to make way for his successor Justin Welby. Considered to be one of the most personable and intellectual Archbishops of recent times, Williams recently appeared as a panellist at the Temple Church to discuss a new book entitled ‘Islam and English Law: Rights, Responsibilities and the Place of Sharia’. The authors who include lawyers, sociologists and theologians of both religious and non-religious persuasions clarify and expand on the foundational lecture that Rowan Williams gave at the Royal Courts of Justice in 2008. As was the case then, the questions of the compatibility between Islam, sharia and the British system remain of acute importance. The book is an attempt to go beyond the rhetoric of scaremongering and to answer important contemporary questions such as the relationship between English law and Islamic customs and practice, and whether Muslims can be full members of Britain’s pluralistic society without being subject to the type of qualifications that are increasingly becoming an issue. It is doubtful that this debate would have taken the shape it has taken without the leadership of Rowan Williams and his previous role as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Church of England is the officially established religious institution of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury is not only the head of the Church but also the symbolic figurehead of the worldwide Anglican community. The Church performs a number of official functions as well as having a legislative role as twenty-six Bishops of the Church sit in the House of Lords. Despite this, very few of us understand the role of this institution and its leading figures.
The Church plays a notable role in injecting a religious ethos at the heart of government even if British society is increasingly becoming more secularised; the Church of England remains the dominant religious voice that also allows a space for other religious groups to voice their concerns and protect their religious and social interests. The recent gay marriage bill is a good case in point. The Church of England would be exempt from marrying same sex couples, a provision that would be enshrined by law. However, there are no such exemptions for other religious groups despite government assurances that the bill would not result in individuals being coerced into acting against their conscience. The privileged position of the Church of England however makes it that much easier to argue that favouring one religious group over another is in plain terms, discriminatory. This could have some consequence in developing an argument for other religious groups to share some of the privileges enjoyed by the Church.
Rowan Williams himself will be remembered by many for his pragmatic leadership as well as his readiness to build bridges between Britain’s many different communities. In his final annual Eid message to Muslims in August 2012 he touched on the many positive engagements between Muslims and Christians whilst acknowledging some of the challenges that lay ahead, noting that in the last ten years of his tenure as Archbishop ‘it is clear that our relationship as Christians and Muslims has grown and deepened. It has not been an easy time, and there are huge challenges that we still face together. Nevertheless, we have learned how to quarry together the resources we have of a vision of human beings honoured before God. The word honour, I believe, is one we should learn to use more freely, and even extravagantly, when we talk about our human world. We honour human beings because God in his creation and in his dealings with human beings honours them.’
Indeed Williams has written about Muslims and Citizenship in his book entitled ‘faith in the public sphere’ published in September 2012. Following excerpts of the book published on the Observer, some criticised what they considered an uncharacteristic attack of the Archbishop on Muslims in Britain. The passage was quoted as follows,
To suggest that the Muslim owes an overriding loyalty to the international Muslim community, the Umma is worrying, it is a factor that intensifies suspicion towards the Muslim community in a quite unnecessary way. What is desirable is thus for Muslims to make clear that they have a straightforward primary modern political loyalty to the nation state, unaffected by the private connections that individual Muslim believers happen to hold in common.
In fact, the passage was taken entirely out of context and was subsequently retracted by the Observer. Much of the book is a compilation of lectures given by Williams over the last 10 years with the particular point about Muslims and citizenship actually taken from a lecture given in 2004 at Trinity College, Oxford, entitled Convictions, Loyalty and the Secular State. At the centre of the lecture was an exploration of the space for religious conviction in a secular state, where he argued that states are naturally suspicious of additional loyalties beyond those to the nation state and that Liberals and non-Liberals alike have called into question the loyalty of Britain’s Muslims. He goes on to conclude that ‘loyalty to the Ummah is not necessarily in competition with dependable citizenship in the state if the state’s practices of consultation and acknowledgment of communal identities remove the threat of a total and terminal privatising of religious conviction.’
Indeed, Rowan Williams has been consistent in taking the polar opposite view of those who have often called for Muslims to illustrate their overriding loyalty to the state as a measure of citizenship. This view was in evidence in one of the most controversial points made by the Archbishop pertaining to Sharia law in 2008. Williams came under heavy criticism for his remarks from individuals across the political spectrum, and in characteristic style the tabloid press seized on the story by making references to the cutting of hands and beheadings in countries far removed from Britain. If one cuts through all the crude sensationist rhetoric, the point being made by Williams was actually an important and nuanced one. He was calling for a greater understanding of Islamic law and not a parallel legal system of Sharia as some charged, but was pointing out the defacto situation where Islamic law was already being practised in Britain. He also argued that the application of Sharia in some instances was no different to the existence of Orthodox Jewish courts that settled various social issues of the Jewish community. He went on to explain that whilst one law for everybody was an important part of social identity in a western democracy, it was ‘a misunderstanding to suppose that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and that the law needs to take some account of that’.
Despite heavy criticisms from many quarters, the Archbishops remarks received some support from legal sources, most notably from the then Lord Chief justice of England and Wales, Lord Phillips in 2008. In a lecture given at the London Muslim Centre, Phillips defended Williams’ argument noting that ‘it is possible for individuals voluntarily to conduct their lives in accordance with Sharia principles without this being in conflict with the rights guaranteed by the law.’
The issue of Muslims and their religious convictions within the secular framework, and the possibility of legal provisions of faith groups in the secular law of the land remain important issues that are yet to be resolved. It must be acknowledged that in many ways the Archbishops views have helped to kick start these important debates.
The Church of England faces many challenges of its own, from the ordination of female Bishops and gay clergy to gay marriage. Rowan Williams’ departing words for his eventual successor were that he hoped they would have “the constitution of an ox and the skin of a rhinoceros.” Beyond addressing the schisms within the Church, it is hoped that Justin Welby will continue in the tradition of Rowan Williams in helping to stretch the imagination of British society especially in regards to matters dealing with the relationship between religion and the secular state.