The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is the head of the Church of England and as such, is still – amazingly – considered to be a person of some eminence. Unfortunately, he does not lend weight to that institution. Although the Anglican Church is far less powerful than it used to be – and for good reasons, such as the removal of 19th century electoral discrimination against Jews, Catholics and dissenters – it is still regarded with affection by many of us, even atheists, agnostics or lukewarm Christians. It has given us great thinkers; its liturgy and music are among the great adornments of western civilisation. Alas, Dr Williams is not a great thinker, although he is no doubt a kindly man.
Dr Williams believes that aspects of sharia law - which aspects he does not explictly say – should be allowed to form part of the law of this country. He does not explain what tests should be used to decide what bits of sharia law are acceptable and what are not. For example, in some of the most conservative muslim lands, the death penalty is used for offences far less serious than murder, such as adultery. We are not told what the Archbishop thinks about this; or whether he thinks things such as arranged marriage, etc, are acceptable. But he needs to be clear about what he thinks is acceptable, otherwise, all we can assume is that the fellow is mouthing vacuous platitudes, nothing more.
I do not believe you can operate a polycentric legal order in Britain, at least not in ways that would allow one legal code to allow coerced marriages, sitting alongside the English Common law. How, for example, could one avoid westernised Muslims wanting to be treated under the ordinary law of the land and not to be ruled over by their co-religionists? Without the active support of the State, I suspect, and hope, that many Muslims, particularly women, will revolt and choose to live under the Common Law tradition of this country. I hope so.
Dr Williams means well; a lot of such people do. But frankly, he gives lapsed Christians such as yours truly plenty of reason for wanting the Church to be shorn of its state privileges.
Of course, if people can freely choose to live under a sharia code, and consent in advance to submit to its controls, then I can hardly object to that. An interesting area at the moment is sharia finance; a problem, however, is that a lot of what is called Islamic finance is re-inventing of the wheel: if it is immoral to charge for lending money because money is not considered a legitimate asset in its own right (which is mistaken, as money accumulated by saving has involved sacrificing consumption) it seems odd that sharia does tolerate things like commodities speculation, such as certain forms of derivative contracts. But at least investors can shop around; arguably, some western investors might want to own sharia investments that avoid banks as a way to avoid the impact of the credit crunch. That is an example of capitalism at its best: allowing people of all faiths or none to do business with one another. Voltaire noticed this when he observed the London Stock Exchange in action in the 18th Century. But allowing sharia law to operate in matters such as marriage, divorce or punishment of supposed wrongdoings, in ways that are at clear variance to the prevailing legal code of a country like Britain, is an entirely different matter.
I hope the Archbishop speaks more clearly in the future.
(Update: one commenter complains about my description of Dr Williams as “the head” of the Church; of course, that, strictly speaking, is the role of the Monarch, by law. In practice, however, the Queen, unlike centuries past, is unlikely to have any real authority over this character, although it would be fascinating to know what she thinks of him in private.