Tag Archives: rowan-williams

Rowan Williams: still clinging onto exceptionalism

Blink and you might miss it, but someone at the BBC has finally spotted the real problem with Williams’ speech and his repeated clarifications:

He made that clear to the Synod, too: “…as the assumptions of our society become more secular…Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together.”

That of course lays him open to a quite proper charge by non-believers, that he is seeking to advance the interests of religion however it is defined. But that is quite separate from the criticism assailing him from within Anglicanism.

The point which much of the media has ignored is that Williams has argued for a system of exceptionalism whereby we atheists (or, as he put it in his speech on Thursday, sterile positivists) must abide by the rule of law while anyone of faith can negotiate whatever opt-outs they wish. At the same time, of course, he insists that the Church should be established and retain its existing seats in the House of Lords. Gay marriage, and even same-sex registered partnerships, is apparently a threat that undermines the institution of marriage, yet we should at least be open-minded about the idea of Muslim polygamy. People of faith can say what they like about atheists, but atheists should be locked up for slagging off the religious. In short, he believes absolutely in equal rights with the modest proviso that the religious are more equal than the rest of us.

Sadly, I suspect that because of all the sound and thunder over sharia, we won’t have a wider debate about this most pernicious part of his thinking. Ho hum. The only rational response is to all go and join Charlotte Church’s Jedis.

UPDATE: Another point which I meant to include here but forgot was a reminder that for all Williams’ exhortation about the importance of human rights, it was the Church of England that demanded that they be exempted from such rights when the Human Rights Bill was being debated in 1998.

General Synod: how Williams should break the ice

There’s still time to give Rowan Williams some advice on how to spin himself out of the mess he’s created for himself at the General Synod today. My suggestion is that he should start with something like this:

When I set out to write a speech about major religions operating their own quasi-legal systems, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

Trust me; they’ll love it.

Rowan Williams on religious hatred: quite silly actually

Before Thursday’s brouhaha about sharia law erupted, I had already intended to read Rowan Williams’ earlier speech about religious hatred laws, following on from the praise that Chris Keating garlanded it with on Monday. I’m afraid I don’t share Chris’ enthusiasm.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Academic background or not, Rowan Williams is a politician. He is the leader of a worldwide movement which is happy to roll its sleeves up and get involved in political matters on a daily basis. He is a member of the UK’s legislative assembly. So when he says something, it matters. And when he makes a speech about religious hatred laws, at the very least he must acknowledge the role in which he and his political party (in this case, the Bishops) personally played in getting those laws onto the statute books. In particular, it should be remembered that the neutered piece of legislation we have now is not the draconian measure that the Church of England actively campaigned for and which we would now have were it not for the ineptitude of Hilary Armstrong, the anti-Parliamentary instincts of Tony Blair and arguably the intervention of another Rowan. For Williams, two years later, to make a speech justifying an Act of Parliament he didn’t actually want in its final form is utterly shameless.

In terms of his speech on religious hatred (which is equally as long but in fairness not quite as oblique as his speech on sharia), it can essentially be summed up by two statements:

The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded.

and

It can reasonably be argued that a powerful or dominant religious body has every chance of putting its own case, and that one might take with a pinch of salt any claim that it was being silenced by public criticism; but the sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grates on the ear. Context is all.

These two principles are designed to guarantee what Williams refers to, both here and in other speeches as ‘argumentative democracy’ – the idea of the public realm being a marketplace of ideas where people can freely argue without fear of being shot down, moderated by restraint.

Superficially this all sounds fine. The powerful must not be allowed to drown out the powerless. The problem is, it is so subjective and his definition of ‘power’ is at best undefined, at worst to be taken to refer merely to the power of the state. It certainly is when he offers his critique of the Enlightenment – there we are asked to put it in the context of a few brave intellectuals standing up against an over-powerful church which influenced every part of public life. No supra-powerful church these days (thanks to the Enlightenment), ergo no real need to continue the Enlightenment project. Their work is done, time to move on, is essentially Williams’ argument.

But the power of the state is just one tool. There is the power of big money, something which religion continues to use around the world, from Saudi Arabia through to the US Presidential elections through to the bankrolling of UK Academies. There is also the power of violence.

Williams does not reflect on this and without wishing to sound like a neo-con this is pretty unforgiveable in the post-9/11 world where the asymmetry of conflict is now well understood (at least outside of Lambeth Palace). You don’t need to be a super-power to change the world these days, just enough people who are willing to die for your cause.

In a global world, does anyone have a legitimate claim to be a Goliath-fighting David? The brilliant film In the Valley of Elah explores this theme in the context of the Iraq conflict, showing how that metaphor can be applied and reapplied in different contexts. It’s an evocative image, and one which our global culture is in love with (from The 300 and the Seven Samurai through to Dad’s Army), but I would suggest in a world where everyone is both David and Goliath it isn’t a particularly useful foundation for law.

Ultimately, any such narrative is intensely political. Eurosceptics like to emphasise about how they are plucky Brits standing up against the immensely powerful monolithic Brussels. Nationalists, be they English, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish or Russian, flatter themselves that They have Us under their yoke. And of course it has now become a Christian tradition, each December, for people of faith to claim their celebration of Christmas is under attack from sinister secular forces.

The latter point is particularly relevant because of course Charles Sentamu, who is fond of denouncing the evils of ‘aggressive secularism‘, is the Ying to Rowan Williams’ Yang. Sentamu’s allegations are explicitly intended to limit atheist’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life – not only are his allegations about Winterval et al without foundation and highly inflammatory but he is lecturing people what they can or can’t have on their Christmas cards. Where does this fit in Williams’ picture of things? Ostensibly nowhere – the irreligious are not to have any of the rights he insists the religious should have. And if we are to believe the rest of his speech, the Church is no longer a powerful entity, at least compared to the aggressive secularist hegemony (which in reality has as much substance to it as the Elders of Zion). To not even begin to grapple with this issue, in a six thousand word essay, when his second-in-command is going around making such blood libels willy-nilly, is sinister indeed.

Williams mentions the Behtzi case, but laughably tries to have it every which way:

In the case of the bitter controversy in the Sikh community over the play Behzti in 2004, it was clear that many deeply intelligent members of the Sikh community in Britain were torn between the belief that the play would cement in the minds of audiences largely ignorant of the Sikh religion a distorting and negative set of images and the gloomy conviction that violent protest against the play would have exactly the same effect (c.f. Nash, pp. 34-6): very much a no-win situation. Once again, there is the disconnection between the firm claim of an artistic establishment that protest against oppressive systems is justifiable, even imperative (and Behzti had identified a real and too-often buried concern among Sikh women), and the counter-claim that this kind of representation of a religious culture in front of what was likely to be a fairly religiously illiterate audience would be experienced as a straightforward flexing of the muscles by a hostile, alien and resourceful power.

Or, to put it another way: Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was making valid criticisms but the hoi polloi is too stupid and ignorant to fully appreciate her argument. Therefore, on balance, her play should not have been performed.

This gets to the heart of it. Far from approving of an ‘argumentative democracy’ Williams wants to insulate the public from any argument it may not be able to fully appreciate the nuances of. The Ivory Tower of academia can have these debates but the rest of us must have it doled out in strictly vetted, bite-sized chunks. Given the events of the past 48 hours, I do hope the irony isn’t lost on anyone here. Given the enormous backlash that Williams’ speech has caused, and given his call a week earlier for people to exercise restraint, could he not be accused himself of knowingly “damaging believers’ freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society” and thus be restrained in order to “avoid the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded”? Or should such restraints only apply to anyone who happens to disagree with him? In reseaching his article I am reminded that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 would have made it an offence to stir up religious hatred if you were “reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up” if Williams’ had had his way: in a parallel universe his counterpart is currently sitting in a police cell.

Ultimately, we can’t agree who is powerful or weak any more than we can agree what is a valid criticism or not. In a global, information rich society, ideas about the powerful versus the weak are losing resonance in any case. The self-assured righteousness which religion imbues in its adherents and all too often descends into violence must be regarded as a powerful thing in itself – it doesn’t need the power of the state it had in medieval times to still cause oppression.

Does Rowan Williams have any more idea of what he’s going on about than I do?

It isn’t every day that a single line blog post elicits quite so many responses – clearly Rowan Williams has touched on a raw nerve.

I’ve listened to his WATO interview and I’ve skimmed through his speech (pdf). I’m still struggling to get my head around what exactly he’s going on about.

On the one hand, much of what he’s saying seems to be what we have already. Civil law is a fairly flexible beast and contains within it the scope for individuals dealing with it however they might like. Where there are restrictions to that, there is certainly a scope for reviewing it. Personally I’m delighted that we have regulated for Islamic mortgages for example – extending choice is a fundamental good thing.

There is no particular conflict between religion and a secular society in this narrow context, but what applies to religions must also apply to the rest of us. You cannot simultaneously say what Williams appears to be saying here on the one hand while taking a moral position on what the UK law on marriage, civil partnership or adoption should be. So long as people of faith are not being required to get married to people of the same sex, it should be none of their business at all what anyone else gets up to. The claim that same sex partnerships “undermine the institution of marriage” should, under Williams’ argument here, be utterly irrelevant.

Sadly though it appears that he must have it both ways, appearing to not only argue for exceptionalism, but refuting the value of the enlightenment project itself. He seems only interested in religious people having this flexibility and appears to attack the notion that it should be a universal right on the grounds that that would be a “legal monopoly” – the right is reserved only to people with their own quasi-legal (religious) framework. Any attempt to talk about universalism in the context of a single rule of law for all is denounced as positivism.

Yet he seems to lack the courage of his own convictions, waffling on about apostacy to the point of absurdity and essentially accepting that you couldn’t have sharia apply here. He seems to want Muslims to have the flexibility to pick and choose between sharia and the country’s legal system; my reading of that is that they wouldn’t be bound by either.

What I find completely baffling is this strange switching between on the one hand rejecting out of hand of us having a set of universal legal principles on the basis that it can get in the way of what he regards as the “good” aspects of sharia while on the other hand wanting to avoid a situation where all the “bad” caricature of sharia – stoning, limb removal, denial of basic rights to women – can be wafted away. How can we judge what’s good or bad without a set of universal principles? The conflict, some would say straw man, he subsequently creates he then declares can only apparently be resolved through theology. Oh, how convenient!

For the most part though, I’m just confused, which you can probably tell. I think its going to take me quite some time before I’ve got my head properly around what he’s talking about at all.

As I’ve said before I think there is some capacity in a liberal, secular society for allowing individuals to resolve private issues between them using whatever process they feel appropriate. But that only reinforces the need for a set of fundamental rights that everyone is entitled to in order to prevent abuse. Putting all this emphasis on an essential withdrawal from the public sphere also renders the Church of England’s current constitutional position untenable: we cannot have Bishops sitting in our legislature setting our laws while simultaneously demanding their right to pick and choose them whenever it suits.

UPDATE: I can’t really improve on Andrew Brown:

Dr Williams, characteristically, is interested in the arguments over what sharia law actually says. The rest of the country is more interested in whether and how it might be enforced. Only if Islamic law can be reduced to a game played between consenting adults can it be acceptably enforced in this country; and that’s not, I think, how it is understood by its practitioners.

The sad moral decline of Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams, like so many other public figures over the past couple of months, sought to co-opt William Wilberforce in a speech yesterday. In an act of stupendous logical contortion, he uses Wilberforce, an elected politician (albeit in an era of rotten boroughs) as a tool for his argument against reforming the House of Lords:

“It is important in our current debates about the Upper House of Parliament we take seriously the role of such a House in offering channels of independent moral comment”

I wouldn’t dream of claiming that Wilberforce was a secularist, but it has to be pointed out that it wasn’t the Bishops in the Lords that lead the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. And they aren’t providing moral leadership in the House of Lords today – indeed, they barely deign to show up at all. There may well be a decline of moral leadership in modern politics today, but that is helped, not hindered, by a church which desperately clings to unelected and unaccountable power and evangelises about the desirability for us to adopt an Anglican version of the caliphate. In Iran, the state (similarly lead by old men with improbable beards) religion offers bucketloads of moral guidance. Williams has yet to offer a clear reason why we should want to adopt this as our model for governance.

In truth however, I pity Rowan Williams. He seems a shadow of his former self. He has tried to mediate in the civil war going on inside the Anglican church and in striving to retain unity has ended up siding with the swivel-eyed loons who want to plunge it into medievalism.

Three years ago, I blogged about his favourable review of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The possibility of him writing something so conciliatory now is inconceivable. The reason for this appears to be, in part, that he is constantly looking over his shoulder at John Sentamu. More media-savvy, instinctively populist and less burdened with the constraints of nuance (as well as uncannily resembling Graham Norton), Sentamu has managed to turn his role as Archbishop of York into something that looks rather a lot like Prince of Wales. He’s been running a campaign for the top job almost since he got promoted, and Williams must surely be all too aware of this. Capitalising on Williams’ fear about a schism, Sentamu has been frogmarching him onto his own, somewhat demented and very dangerous territory.

The political truism “Only Nixon could go to China” sadly also works in reverse. A liberal, Williams has presided over a period of sustained de-secularism for the Church of England. We were better off with Carey at the helm. While homophobic and morally conservative, Carey was constrained by the more liberal elements in the Church to not step out of line.

If the Church of England wants to pursue a strategy of moralistic activism, it is crucial that it does so separate from the state. It can’t have it both ways. The fact that it seeks to have it so suggests an insecurity.

Equally, if it does seek to pontificate about morality, it needs to look inward. Morality, for the Church, is increasingly being define in narrow evangelical and Catholic terms: fundamentally, it’s about sex first, everything else second. Incite protests about gay rights, and make the occasional squeak about poverty to keep the lefties happy.

I find it deeply ironic that the Government is introducing something which it calls Islamic Finance at the same time that Christians are calling for more adherence to the Bible. Islamic Finance would be better termed Semitic Finance. It’s based on the Bible’s explicit ban on usury. I happen to think the Bible has a good point on this one. Yet have you heard a single Church leader point this out? In the run up to Easter, how many times did you hear a leader of the Church of England – one of the largest corporations in the UK – recount the story about Jesus throwing the money lenders out of the temple?

When did you last hear a Christian go on about Jubilee? 2000 I suspect. Yet Jubilee is supposed to happen every 7 years, not every 2,000. And it is supposed to apply to everyone, not just distant, convenient Africans. Next time you hear politicians from the Church of England pontificate about their importance as moral agents in society, ask them why they interpret this to mean getting into a lather about homosexuality, but not economic policy.