Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sharia Law

Some time ago I concluded that our churches are, with inevitability, led by holy fools and indeed repented considerably of my early enthusiasm for the embedding of the Church within the State.

The present Archbishop of Canterbury would seem to fall admirably within this category and it is not a matter of shame - for much of the church's wisdom is indeed foolishness to the ordinary person going about his daily business. Indeed Archbishop Williams may well deserve the epithet afforded to the pious king James 1, who was called, perhaps not to his face, the Wisest Fool in Christendom.

His latest remarks, delivered to the nation at large by means of radio waves, would seem designed to outrage decent and moderate opinion as well as those such as Archbishop Cranmer, who hark back to earlier years of absolutism. I have read Cramner's comments with interest; for Cranmer objects little to the contents of Archbishop Williams' statement but objects instead to his "naivety" and to the medium through which he chose to share profound thoughts with the nation.

For myself, it has been a source of wonder and optimism that so many thousands of citizens of the former Empire should be settled in this country. That the Muslim religion should become so prominent in this nation is, I admit, a matter of some personal consternation to me; but it is also a matter of considerable interest to one who spent a lifetime wrestling within myself with these matters, especially in the wake of the defection of my friends Newman and Manning to the authority of Rome.

The principle at which I arrived is that citizens should not be governed by external authority but rather that they should be entitled to consult their conscience before God in their relations with the state; and that the state itself should continue to pay respect and heed to the traditions of the national church whilst embedding a practical and liberal view of man's conscience in its laws.

Now the learned Archbishop Williams appears to believe there are occasions when the state may need to acknowledge the existence of the Muslim code of law, known as Sharia. It is certainly a matter to be acknowledged that Sharia is not an external authority in that there is no Imam or Ayatollah to whom all Muslims defer in matters of interpretation. Yet its reputation in this country is fearsome in that it is associated with courts that decree barbaric punishments, such as the severance of limbs or the stoning of errant women.

When the Archbishop's comments are studied in detail, the suggestion that he might be proposing the incorporation of Sharia law into British law seems to melt away, in spite of his use of the word "unavoidable". It would almost seem that it is the one word that is so inflammatory and possibly misleading; for the Archbishop acknowledges that Sharia law already exists in this country within the mosques, just as ecclesiastical law exists within the church. Muslim communities are entitled to conduct themselves according to the bounds of their belief inasmuch as those bounds do not conflict with the laws of the land. Marriage and divorce are cited; but it is possible to conduct marriages, even polygamous marriages, that do not have the backing of a legal marriage certificate.

Indeed there has been discussion of polygamy in the media recently. Just as the law has come to accommodate partnerships of the same sex, it may be thought necessary to accommodate polygamous relationships so that matters of inheritance etc may be properly resolved. To do so would not be to incorporate Sharia Law; for there are other cultures which also practice polygamy.

The Archbishop refers to matters in which those of religious faith may be allowed conscientious objection. And this is now, I believe, a well-trodden path following the catastrophe of 1914; once the state introduced widespread compulsion into military service, it also established tribunals to investigate whether claims of conscience were genuine.

It must be conceded that the Archbishop has not expressed himself well. He is a Wise and Holy Fool, not a politician, and he has ventured into an area that taxes liberals most of all. For a liberal state must allow religion to be practised freely and yet must define the boundaries within which religion is practised; it must ensure there is not coercion in the practice of religion and yet it must frame its own laws so that it does not coerce the religious.

As I frequently observed to her Majesty, these are matters that have proved hard enough in the relations of the state and the Christian religion, even though our faith is founded on the principle that the duty of punishment lies not with the pious but with the State, and beyond that with Almighty God.

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