What would Becket Do?

Rowan Williams is not a bad man. He is certainly not a stupid man. He is an Oxford scholar and one in a long train of academic bishops who are as comfortable at High Table in Balliol or in lecture halls on the High Street as they are intoning the tropes of Elizabethan liturgy in clouds of incense at Canterbury.

Why then has the good bishop failed to be fitted for a new mitre, since the one he is wearing has clearly cut off circulation to his brain?

In an address from Lambeth Palace on February 7th, Williams delivered a lecture entitled “Islam in English Law: Civil and Religious Law in England.” I cannot imagine that anybody confronted with the choice between reading the BBC summary of an interview based on the lecture, and the lecture itself, would choose the latter. My own reason for slogging through 8 single-spaced pages of badly reasoned mud has to do with a piece I am doing on another of his pet projects–increasing the number of “faith schools”—schools tied to a religious tradition—throughout the UK. But slog I did, and I have come away feeling that I know the bishop better and like him less.

Williams belongs to a generation of starry-eyed ecumenists whose early theology was shaped by the hope of reconciliation with a liberated and embracing Post Vatican II Catholicism. Had he studied church history instead of theology, he would have known that the cycles of such movements are decidedly against Catholicism ever becoming open to real rapprochement. The ordination of women in the Anglican communion in the 1970’s, the elevation of women to Episcopal office in the 1990’s, followed quickly by the ordination of gays and lesbians, and gay bishops—well, the pinking of Anglicanism in general—made the last two decades a great period of ecumenical retreat for Roman Catholics, and the 1990’s an era of retrenchment, a hunkering down on the Tiber expressed in the reaffirmation of the male priesthood, the broadening of the use of the Tridentine Mass, and a new tolerance of old dogmatics in the person of Benedict XVI.

As the Anglican tradition opened its doors ever wider, virtually enshrining political rectitude as a new article of faith, Rome shut the door in its face. After all, it had its own sexual issues to deal with, and the huge cleanup operation occasioned by 35 years of doctrinal drift–and, in the last five years of his life, a senescent pope unable to deal with the complexities the Curia laid before him. (When the jury comes in on John Paul II, it seems his biggest achievement will be that he was good at making cardinals and saints, and thus will become one himself.)

Anglicanism became the True Church of the Postmodern Era, committed along with other declining Protestant denominations to multiculturalism as a mantra, to interfaith dialogue as a position, to liturgical experimentation and religious inclusivism as a cause. As Anglican numbers dropped (out of 26 million Anglicans in the UK, 1.7 M describe themselves as churchgoers) so did the Church’s influence worldwide: the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA is a woman, Katherine Schori, and a disproportionate number, without prejudice to interpretation, of women priests are lesbians. In fact one would be forgiven for thinking that the greatest theological controversy of the twenty first century has to do not with the things of God but with whether same-sex marriages are ordained by Holy Writ. The English Church is threatened with schism from an area of the world—Africa—it once regarded as its religious dominion because of ongoing controversies about sexuality and apostolic succession. Threatened with such irrelevance and loss of prestige, the Church might have decided to go away quietly.

Instead, Archbishop Williams feels he has something to say:

“The Muslim communities in this country,” he said in his lecture, “seek the freedom to live under sharia law.”

Well, why not. They are now 3% of the British population (about 1.6 M), 40% of whom live in London (14.3 in Birmingham). That means, allowing only for sliders and drifters who think of themselves as secular, they outnumber the Anglican churchgoers by a healthy fraction. There are about 4.5 million Roman Catholics in the UK (half of whom are professed churchgoers), many of them in the past ten years part of an influx from “Catholic Europe,” mainly Poland. There are roughly 267,000 Jews (about 0.5% of the population).

All of which is beside the point since according to ReligiousTolerance.Org, only 14.4% of British Christians identify with a denomination. What the Bish is doing ecclesiastically is not different from what bonnie Prince Charles did a few years ago when he, presumably earnestly, suggested that the monarch should be known as the “Defender of Faith,” rather than “Defender of the Faith” in recognition that Britain was truly a multicultural society. The former Archbishop, Lord Carey, encouraged him in this fatuous notion by saying that the next coronation “should be an interfaith event,” in recognition of the “very significant changes” in British society. Only problem is, the major shift has not been very positive for the Christian population, so the appeal (naturally) is to those recalcitrant groups who, unlike the Anglicans, aren’t very happy about giving up their religious law and melting into British society.

The Archbishop’s appeal strikes me as terribly political. A terrible thing to say about I man I have already called smart and good. It is dishonest in its view that all religions belong to a genus of a sort that can be labeled universally good. In his lecture, he carelessly drags Islam into a stream of tradition out of which English civil law grew. Okay—fine—let’s recall that when Hobbes composed The Leviathan (1651) he was as concerned about the laws of ecclesiastical polity in the kingdom as Hooker had been in New England (1636). There is no doubt that both of these thinkers had a profound, almost simultaneous influence on what we now call constitutionalism. And there is no doubt among serious historians that constitutionalism—by Locke, by Jefferson—leads to the neutralizing tradition in government that we call secularism. That means get religion out of politics, because religion has never been a constructive force for political good.

Rowan Williams runs the risk of missing the great lesson of western history, by missing the lesson his own political-national tradition has bequeathed to the world. He loads us down with the preposterous idea that we need to respect communities within communities. “[Danger arises] when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.” What danger? What secular government in the British style demands is – according to Hamilton – that the majority cede their prejudices and national and religious preferences to a secular authority so that government can function equitably. (And he begins this deposition with a memorable phrase: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary…”).

Dr Williams talks about “overlapping identities.” He writes “The rule of law is thus not the establishing of priority for the universal abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity as such independent of membership in any specific community or tradition, so that when specific communities or traditions are in danger of claiming finality for their own boundaries of practice and undertaking, they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity.”

Oh, dear Bishop. That’s too much. “Space accessible to everyone”? Where is that in Saudi Arabia. In northern Nigeria, in Sudan, in the southern reaches of Beirut, or the ethnic borders of Iraq?

“Human dignity?” Sure, cliterodectomy, stoning, suicide bombings, beheadings of the innocent, and turning retarded women into human bombs. “Claiming finality?” well—Christianity used to do that; Judaism did it before Christianity.

But Islam as I read it is unique in not having undergone the tests and challenges and disaffirming events to which Muslims as Muslims seem immune. After all, the messiah did not come for the Jews; and Jesus did not come again (at least not on time) to the Christians. But Muhammad, the prophet without anything new to say, or anything to prophesy, created no opportunity for the disconfirmation of his teaching. What he produced was totally absorptive, like those weird tentacles of Christian tradition that see the hand of God in every act that proves them wrong. In general, Judaism and Christianity had to learn to exist and co-exist in history, in society—and in that laboratory western politics and even secularism (and the see of Canterbury, so vital to the separation of royal and religious power) was born. The Archbishop of such a see should know and teach that. Or he should resign for not knowing it.

Islam contributed nothing to that process. Islam, given the state of its critique of the west, will continue to oppose secularism as its natural enemy.

This debate should not be about “creating space” where the tolerant should be expected to give way to traditions of intolerance.

And “Finality?” It’s an interesting word. But its most obvious application is in the Islamic doctrine that Muhammad is the final prophet. That the Qur’an is the final revelation. That no other tradition holds a candle to the straight, narrow, and suffocating truth that Islam claims to possess. I can think of no religious tradition that has less use for diversity, and more regard for “finality.”

If the Anglican Communion needs to appeal to the burgeoning growth of intolerance in the United Kingdom as a means of survival, of legitimacy, what, dear Bishop, does that mean for your own tradition?

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