With the people and against God of orthodox religion - Some reflections on the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech 'Civil and Religious Law in England

This has been a difficult piece to prepare because the issues involved are both complicated and exceptionally subtle. Also, because we are living in an age when there is very poor understanding, not only about the nature of religion, but also about the kind of liberal secular democracies we are, there now exist significant opportunities for serious, in fact very serious misunderstandings to arise. The Archbishop of Canterbury's speech and radio interview this week has led to one such serious set of misunderstandings that may prove to have done some serious damage to the social, political and religious situation in this country.

I'm going to consider three elements of the furore to unfold this. The first is to note what he actually said in the major speech entitled Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective given at the Royal Courts of Justice on Thursday. The second is to note what most people - including myself I would add - interpreted him as saying on the World at One immediately preceding his speech. The third is a closer examination of the transcript of that same interview to better understand what he actually said in that interview.

So to what he actually said in his major speech. The Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture is a complicated academic piece (though perhaps unnecessarily complicated) and, if you have time I encourage you to go and read it. You will quickly realise as you go through the piece that its home is the seminar room or lecture hall where it is delivered to people conversant with the complex ideas of law, jurisprudence and theology or philosophy - Islamic, Christian and secular - and who can and are prepared to tease out some important subtleties. These subtleties then go on to inform further reflections, papers and meetings.

Now at this point I am not going to say whether I agree or disagree with the Archbishop of Canterbury's lecture - not because I'm some spineless liberal who's not prepared to make up their mind - but because to respond properly and honestly to a complex paper such as this requires a great deal more research and thinking on my part. That, my friends is, after all, the point of such a paper. As an occasional academic myself I value intensely the opportunity to present and experience difficult and controversial ideas in an environment that is prepared to think, deeply and carefully, and to do this on a basis of good knowledge and research and not mere prejudice.

On Friday I received a brief letter forwarded to me as one of Chaplains of the University of Cambridge. It was written by Professor John Bell who is Chair of the Council of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. In Professor Bells' opinion the Archbishop of Canterbury "is engaging with a long-standing body of mainstream legal and socio-political writing that has been reflecting on models of social pluralism in relation to religion. [. . .] The work has been in the public domain for over 10 years." He concludes by saying that he thinks that "the political reaction has more of a 'yuk' factor than a serious reflection on the issues." I am, at this stage, inclined to agree with Professor Bell BUT only on the matter of what this academic paper says.

To my second point which is what most people - including myself remember - heard the ABC or interpreted him as saying on the World at One interview that immediately preceded his speech.

Clearly something, or someone, persuaded the Archbishop of Canterbury that the broad subject of his speech needed to be made public at the same time he gave the full text and he chose to give the country his précis of it on the World at One. What he seems to have failed to realise was that the context was different and he was speaking to people who, in general, simply would not know the complex background out of which he was speaking. He also seems to have forgotten that this is a exceptionally sensitive time time - sensitive in general cultural, religious and political senses in age still struggling with, amongst other things, the continued fall out from the Rushdie affair, 9/11 and 7/7.

In this febrile atmosphere - and I can assure you that it is probably far worse than you imagine - to explain himself in the way he did was, well to put it charitably, extremely ill-advised.

So, there I am, there we all are, sitting down for a bowl of soup and sandwich, not entirely switched on and up to full intellectual speed and we hear that, right at the top of the interview that he feels the application of Shariah in certain circumstances is 'unavoidable' if we want to achieve social cohesion in this country and take seriously peoples' religion. He went on to say, amongst other things that the UK has to "face up to the fact" that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system; that Muslims should not have to choose between "the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty"; that "an approach to law which simply said - there's one law for everybody - I think that's a bit of a danger"; that he thinks it's "a bit of a danger" to argue "there's one law for everybody"; that "what we don't want [. . .], is I think, a stand-off, where the law squares up to people's religious consciences."

My jaw hit the floor. When the interview had finished I just sat there thinking what the hell has just happened. Remember I work in the multi-faith field both in chaplaincy and as a teacher. Since I'm teaching a Home Office funded course on Citizenship and Interfaith at the end of the month all I could see was anger and confusion this would and, it seems has, brought to the surface. Now, if my default modus operandi had been furious passion rather than silent reflective melancholia I'd have been writing phoning and blogging there and then. Hundreds of thousand did and the media has been filled with comment - nearly all of it fiercely critical.

But instead I just sat at my desk on Thursday and Friday, I have to say actually quite depressed - and I listened a couple more times to the interview, started to plough my way through the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech and, later, also the transcript of the interview. If you do that you begin to notice some other very important points about the Archbishop of Canterbury's underlying thinking.

The Archbishop's interview implies that it is a form of secular fundamentalism to insist on one secular civil law for one secular civil society. But this suggestion itself reveals an important truth - which the Archbishop of Canterbury doesn't seem to have acknowledged - namely that we don't actually need religion for us to be civil - civil, that is, in all of the senses of that word. To list them as they are found in Webster's Dictionary; relating to citizens of or relating to the state or its citizenry; being adequate in courtesy and politeness; of, relating to, or based on civil law; relating to private rights and to remedies sought by action or suit distinct from criminal proceedings established by law; of, relating to, or involving the general public, their activities, needs, or ways, or civic affairs as distinguished from special (as military or religious) affairs.

So I repeat, his words show that we simply don't need religion (in any of its forms) to be civil. However, that does not mean at the same time that if one does have a religion one cannot also be civil. I'm a kind of Christian - though God knows it's an increasingly odd kind - but I trust I am also civil. I know Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists who are also civil. I know atheists and humanists who are civil. In order for me to be able to say this with conviction - and I do say it with conviction - there has to be between us a sense that there exists an "overlapping consensus" capable of being rationally supported by a plurality of "reasonable comprehensive doctrines." For those of you who know don't this kind of language it is taken straight from the most significant liberal political philosopher of the twentieth and early twenty-first century, John Rawls.

Liberal secular democracies - and in fact a church such as this one - are underpinned by this kind of philosophy. Why? Well, it seems clear that the kind of liberal secular democratic societies we have (or can happily envision) inevitably allow for the development within themselves of a variety of doctrines and views which can be expressed in a variety of what are called "reasonable comprehensive doctrines." What our liberal societies have consistently sought to develop is an "overlapping consensus" in which there is a real and substantive reasonable agreement on a political and civil conception of justice that can be found to be reasonable to supporters of any "reasonable comprehensive doctrine".

What is vitally important to realise is that in what consists this "overlapping consensus" is not in itself dependent upon having a religious belief of any kind. It cannot - because the "overlapping consensus" requires a humanist's or atheist's "reasonable comprehensive doctrine" to overlap in significant ways with, say that of a Muslim or a Christian.

When we look calmly at the Archbishop's words in the interview he reveals that he thinks this is the case too. Remember at one point he stressed that, "nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well."

Here we can see that he believes there already exists a shared set of moral criteria - in other words an overlapping consensus - amongst people who are in their "right minds" (his description remember not mine). This shared moral criteria is, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury to be brought to bear on Shariah Law in order to decide what parts of it could, or could not, be accepted by other reasonably comprehensive doctrines - such as one held by, say, an atheist. Consequently any aspect of Shariah law that could be made part of the "overlapping consensus" would adopted by all "reasonable comprehensive doctrines" because it was felt to be an expression of some already shared criteria that has been accepted as reasonable.

So, hiding in the Archbishop of Canterbury's words, is something orthodox religion finds very disturbing indeed. It is an admission that we don't need God, nor any religious beliefs at all, to develop a just and civil society. We may believe in God and have religious beliefs but they are in no sense necessary for the creation of a just and civil society.

Now everything would be fine and dandy if this overlapping consensus were not beginning to break down. But it is and, for all kinds of complex reasons, many of the comprehensive beliefs in the world today are far from reasonable; I include here beliefs developing within our own country including certain secular positions.

Only now do I dare to move, in any shape or form, to Shariah Law itself. The kind of Islamic faith that the Archbishop of Canterbury is clearly thinking about in his speech is one that, like him, has realised (or at least tacitly admitted) that you don't need God, nor any religious beliefs at all, to develop a just and civil society. It is an Islam which, like his own Christianity, is "reasonable." Such an Islam does exist and its understanding of Shariah Law would certainly, in fact already does in certain cases, belong to a secular society's "overlapping consensus." But orthodox Islam, like orthodox Christianity, cannot accept the idea that we don't need God or religion in order to govern our lives in a truly moral and civil way.

The well thought-of and liberal Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr said the following about Shari'ah:

In the Islamic perspective, Divine Law is to be implemented to regulate society and the actions of its members rather than society and the actions of its members rather than society dictating what laws should be. The injunctions of Divine Law are permanent, but the principles can also be applied to new circumstances as they arise. But the basic thesis is one of trying to make the human order conform to the Divine norm, not vice-versa (The Heart of Islam, Harper Collins, San Francisco 2002 pp. 117-118).

Now, which ever way you spin this, it is at this point that the same problem always emerges and it is connected to the fact that Western secular law is understood as consisting in (and again these are Nasr's words):

. . . ever-changing regulations devised and designed by society to be made and discarded as circumstances dictate. And with the rise of parliamentary democracy, these laws came to be made and abrogated by the representatives of the people (ibid p. 116).

Nasr goes on to observe:

Within the context of such a background, it is easy to see why the understanding of the Islamic, and more generally the Semitic, concept of law, which is associated with the Will of God and is meant to determine society rather than be determined by it, poses such a problem for modern Westerners (ibid p. 116).

A problem indeed and it is this fact, my friends, that lies at the heart of all this mess and potential nightmare. Do we as democratic reasonable people devise and dictate the law of this land or does God - which really means those internally appointed representatives who thinkthey and their tradition alone knows perfectly what God wishes for humankind?

As I conclude it is important for you to to know that although as your minister I believe in God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength it is in a God who is also Nature, as my friend Victor Nuovo said, this is a God who is:

. . . impersonal and inexhaustibly productive; it is being itself generating itself in an infinite variety of ways. The natural world is everywhere an expression of intelligence, which is a divine attribute, and rational beings, like you and I, when nature’s gift of curiosity awakens in us, discover in nature manifold wonders that cause us to regard it as something properly to be called divine.

Consequently, in the end if I have to choose and, alas, if the overlapping consensus fails then I may well have to choose, I assure you I will be standing with the people and firmly against God of orthodox religion.