The Archbishop is a Harsh Mistress

Poor old Rowan. In an interview and speech characterised, in a very real sense, by his habitual turgid sesquipedalianism, someone managed to find the statement that Sharia law “is unavoidable” in the UK. If you think my ability to provoke religious flamewars is impressive, you should see the BBC’s Have Your Say forums (or, you know, don’t), or the Graun‘s Comment is Free, right now.

Unexpectedly, the same bunch who voted in favour of the religious hatred legislation a few years ago suddenly found something wonderful, and opined that they weren’t sure public beheadings were such a good idea (though I’m not sure that position is a vote winner: Daily Mail readers would probably be in favour, as long as it wasn’t the Muslims doing the chopping).

All of which is beside the point, really, because ++Rowan (that’s “1 more than your current Rowan”, geeks) wasn’t advocating any of that stuff. After struggling through all 8 pages of his grey prose, I can tell you that Rowan’s a sci-fi libertarian of the sort you sometimes get in Ken Macleod’s books, or maybe Heinlein’s, or Neal Stephenson‘s. What he wants is for people to be able to voluntarily affiliate with a court system for the resolution of some disputes. In an attempt to preserve his right-on lefty image, Rowan claims he’s a little nervous about the unpleasant whiff of the free market about this, but I think we all know he’s secretly itching to set up ++Rowan’s Greater Anglican Communion franchulates all over the world (er, hang on a minute…), strap on a katana and set out on his motorbike for a showdown with Dawkins.

What’s less clear is what he wants for Muslims which isn’t already available. In an article about Jewish courts in the UK, the BBC says that “English law states that any third party can be agreed by two sides to arbitrate in a dispute”. Does anyone know whether there’s anything stopping Muslim courts doing something similar to the Jewish ones?

15 Comments on "The Archbishop is a Harsh Mistress"

  1. I was a bit alarmed by his comments about one law for everybody. To be fair let me quote a bit more than the BBC did:

    I think at the moment there’s a great deal of confusion about this; a lot of what’s been written whether it was about the Catholic church adoptions agencies last year, sometimes what’s written about Jewish or Muslim communities; a lot of what’s written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody; now that principle that there’s one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that, so an approach to law which simply said, ‘There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts’. I think that’s a bit of a danger.

    I wonder what he means by the law needing to take account of people having other loyalties? The Catholic church adoption agencies is a good example, does he think we should allow people to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality because their religion says they should?

    He could mean that when people break the law we ought to take in to account issues like whether they’ve done so because their religion says the should. I’d be more amenable to doing that than writing the law to allow people to do bad things because their religion says certain groups of people ought to be treated badly.

    Actually… he means the former. How very disappointing.

    Although I have a lot of respect for Rowan Williams, I’m disappointed that his liberal stance on things like homosexuality became quite a bit less liberal after he became archbishop.


    1. I find it hugely frustrating that most people don’t seem to have actually read what he said, and many media interpretations of what he said are so far from accurate that the media may as well not bother. Grrrrr. Did people calm down once you’d explained?


  2. I was under the impression that this was already done (on a local level) in several Muslim-heavy populations in the UK. I’m sure I’ve seen articles about it on… the BBC.


  3. Williams seems to me to be pointing out that it’s important to raise the question of whether, in a modern society, one in which different groups have loyalties and commitments, the Enlightenment values which underpin our secular framework of law are capable of doing more than merely establishing a space in which it is possible to affirm a commitment to human dignity as such, or whether they are capable of sustaining a widespread moral framework beyond the communitarian boundaries of practice and tradition, which is to say, in a very real sense —

    Seriously, I have to say that although I have read the whole speech twice through, I’m not sure I can figure out what he’s trying to say. There are so many layers of soothing mush on top of the argument that I seem to fall asleep before I reach the end of sentence.

    But I think he is basically arguing that a secular, egalitarian framework of law makes it hard for religions to create, support and enforce subcultural norms. (And he thinks this is a failing in secular law.) He is careful to phrase this in terms of one’s freedom to live under religious law of one’s own choosing but he talks about the benefits of this in terms of “cultural loyalty” and “communal religious discipline”. He claims in particular that secular law confronts religious people with an “ultimatum” of “either your culture or your rights” through “the assumption, in rather misleading shorthand, that if a right or liberty is granted there is a corresponding duty upon every individual to ‘activate’ this whenever called upon.”

    This seems like a really pernicious way of characterizing the dilemma facing a religious person in a secular society. It’s not their rights that conflict with their culture, but their privileges. Someone whose conscience tells them that they must not dispense mifepristone cannot work as a pharmacist in our society. (Well, in fact they probably can though some kind of typically British fudge. But let’s accept this for the sake of the argument.) But characterizing that in terms of a right seems straightforwardly wrong to me. A conscientious objector certainly has the right to object, but not the right to serve as a soldier while so objecting. But this seems to be what Williams is defending when he writes:

    one of the most frequently noted problems in the law in this area is the reluctance of a dominant rights-based philosophy to acknowledge the liberty of conscientious opting-out from collaboration in procedures or practices that are in tension with the demands of particular religious groups

    So I think that Williams is defending freedom of religious conscience even when it conflicts with other kinds of freedom, for example pharmacists refusing to dispense mifepristone, doctors refusing to give their patients information on how to get an abortion, and so on.

    The thing about trying to actually think about this in terms of practical examples is that Williams’ soothing platitudes seem so very much more reasonable than my rather shrill disagreement with them. Score one to the archbishop.


    1. Williams’s points reminded me a bit of the fuss about the Bishop of Carlisle a little while ago. Whether or not he said that God was punishing the country for gay marriage and gay adoption, he did mean to say that the government has taken it upon itself to enforce its morality on Christians in a way that makes it like the Beast in Revelation. His assertion that the government will force Christians to agree with it again assumes that Christians have a right to do the jobs where discrimination is now forbidden without following the rules. There are also echoes of academics who’ve pointed out that liberal tolerance effectively assumes that liberal priorities are the right ones.

      I don’t think you sound shrill. I don’t think Williams has thought about the practical outcomes of his ideas, he’s just throwing them out there to provoke discussion. Which they have done, in spades, although possibly not in the way he wanted.


    2. He claims in particular that secular law confronts religious people with an “ultimatum” of “either your culture or your rights” through “the assumption, in rather misleading shorthand, that if a right or liberty is granted there is a corresponding duty upon every individual to ‘activate’ this whenever called upon.”

      Interesting and thought-provoking stuff, Gareth, thank you.

      ‘your culture ory our rights’ idea is one he is essentially quoting from “The Jewish legal theorist Ayelet Shachar, in a highly original and significant monograph on Multicultural Jurisdictions: Cultural Differences and Women’s Rights (2001) …”.

      Plenty more to chew on, especially in your distinction between rights and privileges.

      I don’t think he is actually advocating that Christian pharmacists should be allowed to not dispense drugs; it’s more subtle, by far, than that.

      Whether or not the Christian model of liberation is predated by Hammurabi is sth I have to go read about a great deal more.


      1. I don’t think he is actually advocating that Christian pharmacists should be allowed to not dispense drugs; it’s more subtle, by far, than that.

        Yes, agreed. I’m definitely reading something into his speech beyond his very careful words. But my method for trying to understand him is to consider the practical results that would follow from the principles he sets out. For example, he writes this:

        If the law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour – for protest against certain unforeseen professional requirements, for instance, which would compromise religious discipline or belief – it fails in a significant way to communicate with someone involved in the legal process (or indeed to receive their communication), and so, on at least one kind of legal theory (expounded recently, for example, by R.A. Duff), fails in one of its purposes.

        He doesn’t say what these “unforeseen professional requirements” are which might “compromise religious discipline”. So I have to try to imagine what he might be referring to, hence my examples with the pharmacist and doctor.

        If you have better ideas for how to interpret this, I’d love to hear them!


        1. Oh, I don’t think we have any real disagreement in lots of ways (although I do apologise for not closing the italics tag anyway)…

          I can’t imagine what “unforeseen” professional requirements might arise which might compromise religious discipline, either, frankly, because anybody not actually asleep during their – say, medical ethics and the law course – would know what they were expected to do. I think scruples about dispensing drugs or whathaveyou ought to fall into the category of specious scruples, to which he adverts, at some length.

          He explicitly says that canon law is essentially superceded by and contained within the body of English civil and criminal law. I don’t think he has an agenda for canon law to leave that framework, at all.

          But how the law of the land should ‘take account’ of the religious or other scruples of professionals is quite interesting
          given that all sorts of people with deeply-held beliefs are arguing for changes in the law: for example, humanists are keen on disestablishment, right-to-die people are keen to establish such a right, people in favour of organ donation opt-outs want that law changed from the present opt-in state of affairs. All of them have scruples, deeply-felt moral beliefs; it isn’t just Islam (although shari’ah is based on such a systematic belief that it verges on a kind of totalitarianism) or Christianity (which in its extreme forms also gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies).

          He has constructed a very interesting set of issues, which include how in changing circumstances the law and the state obtain the consent of the governed, assuming such consent is required, and assuming that it must be acquired democratically. The fact that violent totalitarian repression continues to break out all over the globe, hither and yon, makes his kind of dialogue terribly important. He’s talking about basic ground rules, and that’s very, very hard.


  4. Geoff Pullum on Language Log:

    Dr Williams is a gentle, learned, brilliant, scholarly man, and a bit of a public relations doofus. I hate to say it, but the calls for his resignation are not unjustified. He should be the holder of an endowed Professorship of Theology and Law at some top-ranking university. He should not be a prominent church administrator, and certainly not the Archbishop of Canterbury. Someone duller, more political, less original, and less intelligent must be found for that job.

    I agree with GDR, unsurprisingly. (But if he sounds shrill, which I’m not sure he does, ++Rowan sounds correspondingly woolly and turgid. I’m not sure that’s “score one for the archbishop”.)


    1. I don’t understand why the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot be interesting, deeply political, highly original and terribly bright. It’s hardly the Church of England’s fault that the media have wrongly characterised what he actually said or that the general public fail to engage with thoughtful arguments.

      Geoff Pullum seems to be assuming the Archbishop’s role is mainly administrative, and that an administrative role should be performed by some non-entity. I’d disagree that the A-bishop’s role is mainly administrative. I fail to see why administrators need to be dull people.

      I want leaders who are gentle, learned and brilliant. I really don’t want to encourage authoritarian, unthinking, heavy handed church leaders. Besides which, if somebody authoritarian etc. was elected, people would call for resignation due to accurately undesrtanding a stupid archbishop and disagreeing with him due to the platitudinous nature of his outpourings! Any appointment is a lose-lose situation.


      1. I don’t think Pullum is in fact saying that the Abp’s role is mainly administrative, though I can see how the gobbet I quoted could give that impression.

        I quoted Pullum because I was amused by what he said, rather than because I think it’s right. I don’t think ++Rowan should resign, for instance. And I don’t see any reason why the ABoC shouldn’t be original and intelligent. (Though there probably is some correlation between those qualities and a tendency to think aloud and say things that can be twisted by reporters and become an embarrassment.)


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