Rowan Williams is an intelligent man with university degrees to prove it. Yet when it comes to plain speaking, and public awareness, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s touch seems to desert him.
Recently, Dr Williams spoke about the role of Islam under English law. He claimed it ‘seems unavoidable’ that aspects of Sharia, or Islamic law, would be adopted in Britain. He urged that British law should do more to accommodate the religious convictions and practices of faith groups generally.
There was public outcry. Sharia is widely perceived as a repressive and discriminatory legal system. News reports pointed out that in some countries Sharia is infamous for discrimination against women and punishments such as amputation, stoning and beheading, although presumably this was not what the Archbishop was talking about.
There will be much more said on this subject and ET may return to it again. However, in the immediate aftermath of Williams’ comments, three questions are worth asking.
First, are there occasions when religious people, for conscience sake, should be given exemption from state or national law? For example, should doctors who are morally opposed to abortion be free to refuse to refer patients for the procedure?
Second, should not the secular state be the final safeguard of personal freedom in society? Religious systems abound and followers, perhaps born into them, can be pressured by family and community to adhere to every dictate – sometimes even under threat of death. Examples include dress-codes, arranged marriages and polygamy. Secular laws applying to everyone provide an escape for those wishing to live differently.
Third, is it wise for a church leader to become entangled with such issues? Apart from damaging his own reputation and that of the Church of England, Dr Williams may have unintentionally made life more difficult for Christians living in Islamic countries and persecuted under the very law he advocates. Better to hear church leaders defend the faith, uphold the Lord Jesus and guide their followers in the paths of righteousness.