WHAT a palaver! The Archbishop of Canterbury’s exploration of civil and religious law in England – and for England read Wales – illustrates the depths we fathom as we head into an uncertain future.
“What a Burkha” said the Sun, as ever willing to ditch soppy stuff like subtlety for a great one-liner. Rowan Williams doesn’t do one-liners. He’s an academic and a philosopher, not Jack the Lad. Neither is he very worldly – he’s never been a parish priest.
The initial responses from the Prime Minister’s spokesman and the other two British parties seemed inspired by relief that something other than the ruthless exploitation of public money by MPs – £400 a month tax-free, no questions asked, just for “groceries” – had emerged to hog the headlines. They also illustrated how British politicians shuffle along behind the Red Top agenda.
In fact the rather dense 6,322 words that Rowan Williams delivered in his lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice were careful and scholarly, as you’d expect. What he wanted to do, he said, was “to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state”. The tabloids don’t do teasing out. Their style is brute force and the slap round the face.
But the Archbishop has raised an issue that’s not going to go away – and neither is it anything new. Catholics, Quakers and other nonconformists have suffered historically because of the conflict of religion and state.
In fact the Archbishop’s criticism of the view that “there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts” is very modern – and easily understood by Welsh language campaigners and peace activists.
Anyway, religious law is already practised – and endorsed – in Britain. Apart from Church of England courts, there is the Jewish Beth Din, which adjudicates on divorce settlements, contract disputes between traders and tenancy agreements. The Beth Din can’t force anyone to appear in court, but once both parties agree to settle a dispute there, they are bound in English law to abide by the decision.
A sharia council also operates and people – mostly women seeking divorce – go there voluntarily to settle issues. In fact, everyone in England (and Wales) can choose a third party to settle a dispute as long as both sides agree and the law of the land is respected.
Rowan Williams might have gone too far to talk of “delegating” some legal functions to religious courts, implying crazy clerics could overrule the law of the land. But his point about respecting the rights of other cultures and faiths to settle matters according to their own beliefs – within the law of the land – is relevant in our multicultural, multi-faith society. Only a berk would be unable to see that.