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.


  1. Problem is what do you mean here by ‘mainstream religion’; the law recognises anglican marriage rites as de facto by virtue of it being the established church, special legal provisions pertain to jewish marriages, all faith schools and most traditional faith organisations are recognised under recognised under under the religious head of charity (ie get tax benefits etc) which was not entirely dropped in the most recent charity law reform, and the numerous examples of special privileges (sometimes statutory ones) accorded to religious faiths, though overall the balance sheet (legal and financial) massively favours the established church.

    The questions that we as liberals need to ask ourselves is firstly whether we treat all religions equally under civil law or whether some (ie the established one) are more equal than others, regardless of the nation’s socio-religious demographics? The debate could be more helpfully framed by looking at the whole issue of ‘religious privilege’ in civil law in terms of whether one addresses this issue through a strategy of ‘levelling up’ or ‘levelling down’. There is a problem though about defining religion – and whether the discourse should instead really be using the language of the human rights act about ‘religion and belief.’ There are many in the humanist community who argue that humanism – although founded on an athesistic premise – is a positive set of ethical beliefs about the human community and should therefore be treated as an equivalent lifestance to belonging to a religious tradition (and humanist organise all sorts of quasi-religious/rites of passage ceremonies like baby-namings, marriages and funerals and have at times tried to organise chapliancy type counselling services – eg in hospitals etc)

    The other point is that whether atheists like it or not, many of the assumptions and categories of the english civil law tradition have been historically shaped by western christian ideas – Williams rather clumsy attempts to juxtapose current intellectual debates in both theology and secular jurisprudence is far from outrageous. Should the archbishop really be chastised for saying that there’s a balance issue here? If so I fear we don’t live in a very liberal country – just a rather ‘cosy’ one of unchallengeable ‘established wisdom’ from an elite that can itself be tainted at times by human imperfection.

  2. We shouldn’t be considering religion in law formally at all. That is not the same thing as accepting that, broadly speaking, individuals should be free to pursue whatever religion or lifestyle they choose so long as it doesn’t harm others.

    The problem is, as soon as you start giving religion itself a special place, you get into all sorts of problems regarding definition. Why exclude Scientology but include Buddhism for example? What we consistently end up with is arbitrary wish lists of “good” religions cooked up between the established religions themselves.

    Ultimately, we will have to agree to disagree about whether Williams is wading in here in the spirit of genuine open inquiry. He has too much past form and has shown no willingness to go back and, for example, accept that if we are to open up our concept of marriage for the benefit of Muslims we ought to revisit it for others as well (e.g. gay men). The charge of exceptionalism is a valid one, which no one appears to be fundamentally disputing.

    As for civil law being rooted in Christianity, no one (with the possible exception of Laurence Boyce) disputes that. But we can respect our parents without feeling any moral obligation to ape them. And the reason why our legal tradition evolved out of Christianity is that Christianity itself was a poor vessel and open to abuse.

  3. Ok – I totally respect the levelling down strategy and agree to a large extent. But James you are still left with the challenge of how to positively protect the rights of people who do wish to practice their faith (whether inherited or adopted), and how promote diversity, community cohesion or whatever other noun people attach to the ‘civil society’ agenda which is all part of the liberal credo – if for example we abolished charitable status – few religious organisations would survive in the form they are now in – some churches, private schools, even mosques might have to close (even if ‘educational’ they may not pass charity law’s public benefit test). The principle of non-discrimination doesn’t work very well here either – religious practice is by definition discriminatory (ie whether religious organisations should be able to discriminate in employment practice on religious grounds). And then all the religious expression issues such as waearing the hajib come up…..

  4. Who said anything about abolishing charitable status? And since when was it contingent on being a religious organisation anyway? And what’s all this stuff about about stopping people from expressing their religion about? I’ve never said they can’t – quite the opposite.

    I really don’t understand why the liberal concept of me respecting your cultural space so long as you respect mine is regarded as so inimical to religious life except in the context of religions dealing with religions.

    This is the problem – as soon as an atheist makes the modest suggestion that they should have equal status in society to religious people, they get branded as wanted to ban people from doing things and believing in, to paraphrase, “sterile positivism”. It’s a total straw man which Williams set up in his speech and you clearly buy into.

    The only thing we “sterile positivists” want to preserve is civil liberties and equality under the law. If a religious practice undermines those, it almost certainly isn’t worth preserving any way.

  5. Religious organisations are charitable under special provisions of charity law (re ‘advancement of religion head’ – check with charity commission if unasure), if this were one of the ‘legal privileges’ accorded to religions to be abolished as ‘we shouldn’t be considering religion in law formally at all’ – then it is likely than some religious organisations would cease to be charitable as they would not necessarily pass the other legal tests for charitable purposes. Disestablishment would also have very adverse consequences for CofE organisation – especially if the state’s legal endowment of the church which covers clergy pensions had to be repaid – or dolled out to other religions as Frank Field once argued.

    I’m not arguing whether scrapping religious privilege is a good bad thing (am inclined to believe that it is necessary but would have to very carefully managed), simply that we need to be aware of the consequences and the dangers that people from faith communities might feel they are being persecuted, and that religious minorities need to at least feel that their rights are being protected by the legal framework. So whilst I’m sure you’re not saying that restrictions on religious minorities might be needed, however key politicians such as Jack Straw (re the hajib debate) are, using the arguement that these people are not respecting the liberal, secular norms.

    Different cultural spaces – whether secular or religious, from ethnic traditions to new age orthodoxies (re permission to hold mucky solstace festivals in green field sites) can drive conflicts – sometimes these can be quite irresolvable without far greater engagement with peoples’ legitimate grievances and cultural aspirations – surely the sad experience of Northern Ireland has taught us something, that we can’t simply be complacent about these issues?

  6. I take your point about religion being listed under charities law, but it’s a pretty narrow point. I can’t see why we can’t extend the scope of charities law in any case – as is currently being debated. My point was merely that when deciding on things like marriage law, we should take the interests of individuals into account (many of whom will be religious and many of who will not) not the interests of religion itself.

    On your point about complacency – of course I agree. But if anyone is being complacent, it is Williams. You simply cannot say things like “What we don’t want … is I think, a stand-off, where the law squares up to people’s religious consciences,” and then claim as he has done that anyone critical of him has simply misunderstood what he said. You will always come up against stand-offs in this way, and rightly so.

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