Is Rowan a Numpty?


You all know what this is about don’t you? Yesterday, our esteemed Archbishop caused a teensy bit of controversy by suggesting that in some parts of the country we may inevitably have to accept some accomodation with Sharia, especially where the vast majority of subjects of the monarch in an area are Muslim. Hmmmmm….. There’s been some debate about it and I don’t intend to go over old ground. Let me though make a number of comments.

  1. We already have the case in this country that the law of the Church of England is also the law of the land. For example, I automatically became a registrar of the crown ("God bless ya Maam") when I received my licence. This entitles me to marry someone in the church and then to sign the official register at the same time instead of the couple then having to trot off to the registry office.
    What say we allowed Imams (and Rabbis) to act as registrars? That would allow couples to have a religious wedding and not have to go off to a registry afterwards?
  2. We need to recognise that religious courts already exist in this country. You can go to a Sharia court or to a panel of Rabbis and get a decision on your complaint. In fact, it is already possible for both parties in a dispute to agree not to go to a court of the crown and instead go to a religious court for a civil dispute, accepting the will of that establishment. This is what Rowan is pointing towards, but it exists for all intents and purposes in the UK already. However, at the same time the Crown’s justice is always paramount in these cases and that is the legal principle that must be maintained.
  3. What really disappoints me in this whole affair is that Rowan failed to use a golden opportunity to address the leading members of the justice process in this country about the conflict that some Christians are increasingly finding between their conscience and the changing law in the country. This would have been a perfect moment to raise again the issue of Christian adoption agencies in the light of sexual orientation discrimination legislation, to discuss notions of blasphemy and religious hatred, but instead he concentrates on Islam, a religion that he’s not even employed to defend!! Yes, a careful reading of the essay reveals that the main point of William’s thesis is that the idea of a "universal doctrine of human right or dignity" needs to somehow recognise people’s varied understanding of what that doctrine is (which in a dangerous post-modern way rather destroys the whole notion of "universal" doesn’t it Rowan?). However, he could have done that within the framework of Christian ethics. The fact he chose not to is disturbing given his position.
    Perhaps though, ultimately the problem with this is that to do so he would have had to assert the Christian claim to a revelation of the "universal doctrine" and that would have led him into ethical (and social) areas he might not want to broach. He therefore chose to concentrate on Islam, but in doing so he lost the impetus of his thesis and landed himself in way too much hot water. In and out of season? Perhaps not for one scholar…

4 Comments on “Is Rowan a Numpty?

  1. I believe that your first point, on the solemnization of marriages, is redundant.

    As a nonconformist minister I did not “automatically become a registrar of the crown” (nor would I particularly wish to be – it’s a church-state thing y’know). However my church is registered for marriages and I am the “authorised person” who signs the official register here – so that couples I marry do not then have to “trot off to the registry office” afterwards.

    AFAIK the same regulatory framework applies to non-Christian places of worship as to us non-Anglican Christians: the premises can be registered for solemnization of marriages, and the minister/imam/rabbi (or, for that matter, a lay person) can be appointed the “authorised person”. It’s just not automatic, and the paperwork & some of the terminology is a bit different to what you have.

  2. To answer your headline question: No. Numpty doesn’t begin to describe Rowan. Blithering idiot would be a gentle pointer. Out of touch waste of space would be a further gentle pointer.
    I’m writing this sat here in the office at work. The reality is that for Everyday-Jo-Christian, stupid comments like these seriously set back our efforts to get on with telling people about Jesus. He dents our hard-won credibility. He emphasises the perception that Christians are out of touch with ‘ordinary’ people. And in saying nothing at all about Jesus, he provides no kind of platform for my witness to my friends and colleagues; worse still, by backing Muslims, he is taken to be suggesting that there’s little about Christianity worth talking about or standing up for.
    Does anyone remember Gerald Ratner? …

  3. Peter, I always appreciate your thoughtful reflections, but I don’t think you are understanding Rowan’s point correctly when you suggest that he is subverting the “revelation of the “universal doctrine”. His issue is not with Christiantity as a blessing to all the nations, but with a “false universal,” by which he refers to Kant’s notion of cosmopolitan man. O’Donovan agrees with Williams on this, and I think you may well agree once you think about it. You might read my article about the TEC/Hindu concelebration of the Eucharist for a detailed treatment of Rowan’s issue with this notion.

    Rowan is showing great moral courage here in challenging a fundamental premise of our English common law systems (ours in the U.S. is of course similar to yours in the U.K.). For he notes that Enlightenment based legal systems presuppose this concept of universal man and postulates equality, thereby denying real difference. I show the problems with this in my essay mentioned above.

    We ought to be wary in considering universalistic moral claims, especially when they are offered as solutions to geopolitical problems of space and the common life of peoples. Political action demands a social identity; this fact generates theological problems for the notion of a cosmopolitan community. For, as Oliver O’Donovan observes, “God allows only neighbourly identities, not universal ones, as we are taught by the story of the Tower of Babel. The precondition for a world-identity and world-government would be that the Martians had arrived.” O’Donovan warns Christians not to put much stock in universal moral claims, “for the universal claim of every human being upon every other is, after all, more of a critical principle than a substantial one, and to love everybody in the world equally is to love nobody very much.”

    And this is what is behind Williams concerns with laws or theologies based on concepts of “universal man” because that is unbiblical and thus not true about what Christ has revealed. He believes that such false teachings underwrite racism and anti-Semitism. As I said in my own treatment of this lecture:

    In the Augustinian view, the Church does not bring the blessings of God’s peace to the nations by teaching that harmony is possible through ’sameness.’ Rather, the Church is that which sees itself as that which generates authentic humanity by generating relationships that are united (”one”) and whole (”catholic”) in the richness of their diversity. Sounds like the essence of Anglicanism to me.

  4. What I sensed from reading both Williams’ lecture and the media responses was that he doesn’t display any serious interest in theological arguments for church establishment, which goes back to doctrines of Christian kingship and their link to a theological understanding of law.
    He does not make an argument from the Christian legal tradition, which is one that someone who is versed in the work of Oliver O’Donovan might make. Here is how O’Donovan makes the distinction between a Christian understanding of law and shariah. In an interview conducted by Rupert Shortt, O’Donovan agrees with the Anglican priest and sociologist of religion David Martin who says that ‘some version of Christian sharia is unthinkable’ because the Christian gospel itself does not permit such a possibility. He disagrees with Martin that the only alternative seems to be that a legal system cannot i.e. should not be based on Christianity in a pluralist, multicultural world.
    ‘The excluded middle, it seems to me, is a form of legality that reflects the Christian refusal to absolutise written statute.’
    O’Donovan then asks the reader to consider ‘the attitude towards the death penalty in the west’, a very relevant example given that our topic here is sharia law. He points out that Christians were uneasy about the death penalty as far back as the 4th century A.D., and that this uneasy never fully went away in western Christendom, because it was part of ‘an ongoing theo-political quest: an attempt to find a point where the dynamic requirements of earthly justice could be qualified by a turn towards mercy in response to the mercy of God. Remember Measure for Measure and the Merchant of Venice.’
    [from Rupert Shortt (ed.), God’s Advocates: Christian Thinkers in Conversation. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2205: 260.]

    Now my question is, where is the theological potential for an Islamic Jesus, an Islamic Oliver O’Donovan and an Islamic William Shakespeare who can reform sharia law ? So far, nobody has found any such figures or the kind of principles and assumptions which they apply in law and humanistic thought.

    While we’re thinking about the role of law, sharia or not, in enforcing social cohesion, let’s not forget that liberal Anglicans supported the secularist legal reforms of the 1960s, the Abortion Act, the Sexual Offences Act, the Divorce Reform Act, etc. etc. It rather looks as if they and their far-left supporters are too cowardly to take a look at their own mistake in not having framed those reforms within the tradition of Christian legal reasoning, but are now hiding their anger and shame at social collapse and family breakdown behind their appeasement of Islam.

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