Of course Rowan Williams wants sharia law

The controversy caused by Rowan Williams support for aspects of sharia law to be introduced in England rumbles on. But why are people surprised by his views when it is just what you would expect him to say? You can read about it in a piece I’ve written for Comment is Free today.

Imagine that you are sitting in Lambeth Palace as Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the established church in England. It may not seem an enviable position (even without the fracas of recent days).

Although your church is nominally the national church, most people don’t even get married (pdf) in it any more, hardly anyone comes to your services, most people don’t believe in the doctrines that your church promotes, they’re not religious and a lot of them don’t even believe in god(s) at all.

Still, it’s not all bad. You and 25 bishops of your church sit as of right in the nation’s parliament, something no other religious group can claim; your church controls a third of all the state schools in the country at almost no expense to itself and the government actually wants you to take on the provision of more public services at no cost but with potentially positive consequences for your claim to national significance.

But it must nag at you that there is a bit of a mismatch between the power and privilege your organisation holds and the public support it has; you may find it hard to justify the position of a national church when it doesn’t any longer represent the nation. With an eye to the future, you really do need to find another way to shore up your church’s position. (The alternative – the creation of a society where no one religion is privileged but all citizens, whatever their beliefs, are treated with impartiality by a state that favours no one religion or non-religious philosophy and is neutral between all of them – is presumably too horrible to contemplate.)

So, if the Catholic church wants exemption from laws to protect gay people from discrimination, you give them your support and even when you have to accept the case for abolishing the legal protection you own religion has from “blasphemy”, you can still salvage something by raising the spectre of offence caused to other religions (as the archbishop says, “The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear”). And if you want to protect the special status of the church and Christianity in law, then you speak up for the rights of those of other religions to have their religious law recognised (to quote the archbishop again, “Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds (for instance in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions), if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences”). Replacing “Church of England” with “faith” makes any defence of special treatment seem a whole lot more reasonable.

Judging by the outraged reaction of so many at Rowan Williams’ comments on sharia law, there was considerable surprise that he said what he said. In fact, nothing could be less surprising. Of course Williams wishes to argue for the extension of at least some of the privileges enjoyed by his own church to other religions. Such an argument, coupled with the sustained critique (some might say assault) on secularism and other Enlightenment values by a number of bishops in the Church of England, is the best defence the church today has for its own privileged position.

What would have been genuinely surprising would be for an archbishop to come out in favour of universal human rights and state neutrality in its dealings with each citizen, whatever their religious or non-religious convictions; for an end to the archaic privileges of the seats in the Lords, the schools, the state-funded public services, the legally enforceable protection from insult. For as long as we allow the anachronism of an established church, however, we can pretty much guarantee that no Archbishop of Canterbury will ever do so.