Saturday, February 09, 2008

Archbishop Jumps Shark

The link above will send you to a recent speech by Rowan Wiliams, Archbishop of Canterbury and nominal head of what we used to call the Anglican Communion. (It needs a new name, now that the bishops refuse to commune with each other).

The speech, called "Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective," has been widely and often unfairly criticized in he past few days. The critics make it sound as though Williams is advocating a wholesale recognition of sharia, or Islamic law, among Muslims in Britain. In fact, he stops well short of this. His actual argument, if I have read it correctly, is that civil law ultimately depends upon theology to distinguish right from wrong; that therefore religious argument and conviction will always have a place in the making of laws; and that this role ought best to be overt and freely discussed, rather than closeted.

His case is erudite and nuanced. It will surely sound familiar to those Christians accustomed to discerning in the Decalogue a "natural law" established by God, which they claim can and should be mirrored by civil law. It is a serious argument, which deserves to be taken seriously.

And it is dead wrong.

A blog isn't the place to write the long essay that this task requires, especially when it is Saturday and one really must be writing sermons. Suffice it to say for now that Williams is hobbled by two things: his Englishness and his Anglicanism.

By which snotty remarks I mean to say, first, that as the leader of an established church, he is accustomed to the fact that, as he says in the speech,"church law is the law of the land." In Britain, of course, that fact is little more than an historical curiosity -- "why look, the Queen has to nominate their bishops, at least once the fix is really in." To Americans, however, the dangers of an established church are all too clear -- many of ancestors came here to escape them. Why, we even made Saint JFK promise on a stack if Bibles that he wouldn't be a lackey for the Pope. (About that stack of Bibles: we don't always get the secularism thing quite right. But if England is caesaropapist in law and secular in practice, we are just the reverse -- and our way is much better for everybody, not least because it offers a fundamental check on the power of those tyrants whom religious zeal, like any other zeal, will predictably produce.)

As for the limitation imposed by Williams' Anglicanism -- perhaps this is a bit harsh, but I can't help thinking that if he had been conditioned by the sharp distinction between iure divino and iure humano that is the essence of the Lutheran reformation, he wouldn't be making a muddle of the two in this speech.

No comments: