Who will rid us?

It was inevitable that the stories both in the media and on the blogosphere would use variants of Henry II’s alleged comment, which sent the four knights on their deadly mission to Canterbury. The Sun was the only newspaper to avoid it successfully with the headline “What a Burqua”. As good a reaction as any other.

When the first news of the latest faux pas by His Bloviation, the Archbishop of Canterbury, hit the internet, I thought I would stay away from the mess, on the grounds that I have covered the man’s pronouncements in the past and need not do so for a little while.

Sadly, the story has become too big to ignore and it does fit in with one of the themes we cover on EUReferendum – the need for a British identity to be defined. There has been a great deal written about Dr Williams’s lecture and interview on Radio 4 both in the MSM and on the blogosphere. A lot of it is quite good, a lot of it uninteresting and predictable, a good deal very silly.

On EUReferendum we have little time for the Blair Derangement Syndrome, for instance, that has informed some of the postings. We have even less time for the hysteria that sees the inevitable or even probable supremacy of Sharia law everywhere in the UK. A little calculation and study of the situation on the ground should disabuse people of that one (though there is none so blind as those who do not want to see).

For all of that the Archbishop’s latest pronouncements are extremely stupid and dangerous. The best account of how this mess developed is on Melanie Phillips’s blog. It seems that the Archbishop was due to deliver one of his “nuanced” lectures on Thursday evening in which, as many knew, he intended to argue that there should be some accommodation between English law (or, presumably, Scottish law) and Sharia law. He was, one assumes, also intending to explain that Sharia law in some form or another was “unavoidable”.

In itself that is nonsense. Nothing on this earth, except death, is unavoidable and the Archbishop of Canterbury ought to know that. In particular, the introduction of any kind of law or legal form is not unavoidable. You avoid it by not doing it.

The Archbishop’s lectures are notorious in that they confuse and annoy people in about equal parts and Lambeth Palace thought that the media aspect of it all should be controlled. For that purpose Dr Williams’s staff restricted even the embargoed copies of the text and organized an exclusive interview with Radio 4’s “World at One”, reckoning, perhaps, that there would be friendly sympathy from the interviewer.

As an exercise in damage limitation this was not a howling success. The Archbishop cast all restraint to the wind and said all the things some well-meaning fluffy individuals are pretending he did not say. One cannot help feeling sorry for those unfortunate officials at Lambeth Palace who have to deal with the extraordinary phenomenon with the completely undisciplined mind that is at the head of the Church of England.

By the time he stood up to deliver his lecture, the internet and some parts of the media were buzzing with the man’s unfortunate statements.

While Dr Williams asserted that he would not like to see the extreme forms of Sharia law in this country, he did think that apart from being “unavoidable” some form of it was a good thing as Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

That raises several issues immediately. In the first place, how does His Bloviation intend to control what kind of Sharia law emerges in the various communities as soon as its equality to the law of the land is accepted? The fact, that his source for analyzing, however superficially, Sharia is the highly dubious Tariq Ramadan, well-known for writing different things in different languages, is enough to raise scepticism in many of the listeners.

Secondly, Muslims are not the only people who have to accept that cultural and state loyalty might occasionally clash. What of those Christians who think abortion is murder? Ah well, I hear people say, they do not have to have abortions. Nobody has to have abortions but it is hard to live in a state that not only allows such things to take place but apparently encourages them, if you happen to hold strong views on the subject.

If memory serves, a far greater man than the Archbishop of Canterbury dealt with that particular issue a couple of millennia ago. Something about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. Might one suggest that the Archbishop spends some time meditating on the second part of that saying?

One does find some senior prelates perplexing. After all, one has to assume that the Archbishop is a Christian and has read the Bible. He is supposed to be highly intellectual though the comment that is attributed to both Henri IV and Sully about James I of England and VI of Scotland that he was “the wisest fool in Christendom” seems remarkably appropriate.

Surely, His Grace recalls St Paul’s insistence, repeated both to the Galatians and to the Colossians in different forms:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female.

St Paul, a great man and not nearly as much of a misogynist as some of his self-appointed followers are, was writing that “for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”. But it is that equality that is mirrored in the legal structure that has been painfully built up over centuries in the West. It is that equality that His Grace seems to want to destroy by his suggestion that there should be many different, equal laws in this country.

It is hard to imagine a subject more calculated to annoy just about everybody in Britain, those who think, with some justification, that Muslims are allowed to get away with a great deal already and those among Muslims who have finally recognized that the only way forward is integration and acceptance of a British identity.

What His Grace seems unable to recognize though a number of people, starting with Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights, have been trying to tell him is that removing people from the country’s legal structure and putting them into a separate one may seem like a privilege or sensible accommodation. In actual fact this creates huge disadvantages. What His Bloviation is rather vaguely proposing is a form of apartheid – separate development for certain communities and denial of civic rights to all members of those communities as well as human rights to the female ones.

As Melanie Phillips explains, acknowledging Sharia courts in certain matters, including family law, as the equal of this country’s courts would not recreate the situation of the Jewish religious courts, the Beth Din:

Yes, Jewish religious courts, like sharia courts, deal with such issues as dispute arbitration, family issues, marriage and divorce. But the Jewish courts have never sought official recognition of their rulings, and these are not recognised under English law. Their dispute resolution is informal and voluntary. Their religious marriage and divorce rituals have no status in English law (with the exception of one tiny wrinkle designed to help resolve an anomaly in Jewish divorce law which causes otherwise unavoidable distress); for the state to recognise their marriages or divorces, Jews have to marry or be divorced according to English law just like everyone else.

If sharia courts were to operate in this way, there would be no problem. Why should anyone care, after all, what minorities are doing in the private sphere as long as it doesn’t break the law? But the crucial difference is that such Muslims want their rulings to be accepted by the state as having the same legal authority as English law — and Dr Williams is endorsing this. But it breaks the fundamental precept that Jews have always acknowledged — that as a minority they live under the law of the land and do not seek to change it to accommodate them.

In actual fact, some Sharia “courts” already operate as arbitration tribunals, whose decisions may or may not be acknowledged by the real courts of the land. Whether those arbitrations are quite what we want to see when it comes to family law remains to be discussed. The case, splashed all over the London Evening Standard yesterday, of the youths who were “released” by a sharia court is not actually conclusive of anything except police incompetence. According to the article, a number of Somali teenagers were arrested on suspicion of stabbing another teenager, then released on bail, because the police were told that the Sharia will deal with the matter. They did by dint of the families of the accused paying money to the family of the victim. In actual fact, the youngsters are still on bail and, if there is evidence against them, and the police manages to get its attention away from “homophobic crimes”, i.e. people insulting other people, they could be hauled back in and put on trial. The decision of the Sharia court has not been recognized as legally binding though by non-action the police in this case might do just that. To be fair, not all Muslims want their rulings to be accepted by the state as having the same legal authority as English law. A number have criticized His Grace while others pointed out that Sharia courts exist already as unofficial arbitration bodies. As such they can be acceptable though their meddling with the family is disturbing. Sharia rules for the family are somewhat different from Jewish rules in that they may well include forced marriage, virtual imprisonment of girls, wife-beating and, at times, honour killing. The Archbishop was also criticised by politicians of all parties though their criticism left something to be desired, namely an understanding how legislation is carried out in Britain these days.

Baroness Warsi, the shadow minister for community cohesion and social action, said: “The Archbishop’s comments are unhelpful and may add to the confusion that already exists in our communities.”All British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts.”Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, said: “I think there is one law in this country and it’s the democratically determined law.

“That’s the law that I will uphold and that’s the law that is at the heart actually of the values that we share across all communities in this country.”

Quite apart from the somewhat nebulous concept of British values that no-one has yet been able to define, it might be a good idea if the good Baroness and the hapless Home Secretary understood that British laws are no longer developed through Parliament and the courts. Between seventy and eighty per cent of our legislation comes from Brussels, most without even touching Parliament. What does go through that institution cannot be rejected by our democratically elected parliamentarians.

Oh yes, and our courts are routinely over-ruled by the ECJ, whose decisions are binding. But I digress.

The curious thing about the Archbishop is that he has been known to make quite sensible speeches and the lecture he gave in Liverpool, entitled “Europe, Faith and Culture” raised some interesting points about that convoluted subject though, as ever, these were very hard to understand. Among other matters he emphasised the importance of the individual in western culture, in Christianity and in the modern world.

Both Marxism and Islam are in their basic conception morally serious and philosophically sophisticated visions which seem on the face of it to have relatively little place for pluralism or irony on the classical European model; both assume that the presence of a finally satisfactory human order sanctioned by God or by the objective forces of history is at least a possibility within the world we know, and both are critical of the ‘interior’ focus of Christian language and the pessimism or even passivity which this can, in their eyes, generate. In both cases, the experience of searching dialogue with Christianity makes it quite clear that we are not talking here about worlds that simply can’t communicate with each other; but there is no doubt that the divergences are plain and significant. Even when the Marxist or the Muslim shares substantial aspects of the cultural inheritance of the European world, they will write very different kinds of novel or drama.This is nothing to do with the clichés about clashing civilizations that we regularly hear, nor to say that Islam is always going to be ‘other’ to Europe: Islam has long been bound up with Europe’s internal identity as a matter of simple historical fact, and it stands on a cultural continuum with Christianity, not in some completely different frame. It is simply to underline that there is a genuine distinctiveness about the cultural mindset that most directly inherits the Christian perspective; whether this is good or bad, true or false, we ignore the distinction only at the cost of honest and effective conversation across boundaries.

More to our present point, we ignore the history of this distinction at the same cost. If we want to know why Europeans and their cultural relatives take it for granted that appearances can be deceptive and that we always need to ‘decode’ even the most innocent-looking claims, why we take it for granted that even our talk about what is most sacred and serious carries a shadow of incongruity, the answer is in a theology that has encouraged us to think of the world around us as never being a place to settle down for good. In this context, the challenge posed to the classical European legacy by Marxism or by contemporary Islam is important and constructive; a growing number of European thinkers in recent years have acknowledged that the pure pluralism of some sorts of postmodernist theory does not provide a very robust or compelling alternative to the ‘monotheistic’ certainties of other philosophies, even within the historic territories of Europe itself. If
Europe is to go on being culturally alive, it will need to ask if it has understood its own legacy too narrowly and exclusively.

It is hard to see how the same man could elaborate in his lectures the ideas of Sharia law becoming the equal in certain parts of this country to the accepted law of the land. Clearly the Archbishop understands the difficulties with Islamic law; he must know that handing over large numbers of British subjects, particularly the female ones to Sharia courts on the subject of family matters will deny everything that is essential to our country and our culture.

So why is he saying things like:

The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural – as many political theorists have pointed out – this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities.

As Melanie Phillips puts it:

If therefore we really don’t have the right to uphold the primacy of our own western liberal and Christian laws and traditions, the way is open for fragmentation and eventual rule by the religious culture which exercises the strongest muscle. Which is Islam.

What is to be done with the impossible Archbishop of Canterbury? I am reminded of an episode of “Yes, Prime Minister”, as I so often am. I think it must have been “Bishop’s Gambit” in which Jim Hacker, the Prime Minister, has to appoint a new bishop and Sir Humphrey discusses the two candidates, making it clear that one is preferable on a number of political and social grounds.

Hacker expresses some doubt about the candidate’s faith. Suavely, Sir Humphrey explains that for a bishop in the Church of England, belief in God is an optional extra. What is not an optional extra is an understanding of the standing of the Church in British life. It has been tarnished, agreed, but the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury is to try to revive that standing and, if possible, support the constitutional and legal structure. The last two are, of course, the duty of everybody in this country. If those structures have been undermined, it is our duty to restore them. Certainly, the Archbishop of Canterbury should be leading that effort.

There is another aspect to this issue. The Church of England is a large world-wide organization with many members in African countries where they are under constant threat from either Marxist governments or their Islamist neighbours. People are murdered and tortured; churches are torched; villages destroyed. The people in those circumstances who courageously continue to profess their faith need the support of their leader, who seems unable to work out the simplest facts about law, Christianity, Islam or Shariah.

If, however, the Church of England and its Primate, reject their role in the definition of British identity (this does not imply in any way that to be British one has to be C of E) then we must start thinking whether the institution is quite as useful as it was for several centuries after the Elizabethan settlement.

The story is not over by a long chalk. The Archbishop and Lambeth Palace’s press office have tried to minimize the damage by insisting that he did not call for equal status for Sharia courts, hoping that the usual fog that surrounds Dr Williams’s speeches might just befuddle everybody to the point of catatonia. This is not happening and the Sunday newspapers have been having a field day, demanding variously that he should resign or be forced to resign.

Is there, in fact, any way of getting rid of an Archbishop of Canterbury apart from Henry II’s solution to the problem of Thomas á Becket or Mary I’s to that of Cranmer? He can be forced to resign but the man seems rather too fond of himself to fall on the metaphorical sword. Can anyone sack him?

Or should we start thinking considerably more seriously than we have done so far about disestablishing this very fine old institution? Would the cure then be worse than the disease itself?

Cross-posted (mostly) from EUReferendum

4 thoughts on “Who will rid us?”

  1. Thanks for writing this Helen.
    We owe so much to the traditions – the way of looking at souls and citizens – that came out of England, that when England seems to squander & demean them, it seems (indeed, to someone wehose faith is as much in that liberal tradition as anything, it is) sacrilege.

  2. One should remember that England is no stranger to the reality of different legals systems existing in the ssame country. During the time of Henry II and Becket, Archbishop of Cantebury,
    Becket claimed that all members of the clergy were exempt from English Common Law and were not bound by any decision of the King or his courts. At that time. each Archbishop, Bishop and Abbot maintained his own personal company of armed knights which defended the clergy, their lands and their rulings. In addition, the Dukes, Earls, Counts and other Lords claimed similar rights over people who lived on lands not held in feodum of the King.

    Perhaps the current archbishop dreams of restoring the temporal powers of the episcopal courts to what they were in the Dark Ages.

    Henry II solved this problem using the standard Dark Age solution — he accidently killed the archbishop; Henry VIII by replaced the Bishop of Rome with himself as the head of the English Church which resulted in one law governing the realm.

  3. Henry II and Thomas a Becket in the Dark Ages? I don’t think so. High Middle Ages maybe but a long way from the Dark Ages. I dare not even think what my tutor of Mediaeval History would have said to that. :-o

  4. The term “Dark Ages” sings — bringing forth visions of narrow minded intolerance, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. :) And it helps dramatize what a massive step backwards in history making Sharia co-equal with Common Law would be.

    Of course, today’s scholars agree that the light of modern scholarship has banished the Darkness and brought forth light to that period that lies in the middle between the end of the Ancient age and the beginning of the Modern age.

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