I don’t think Rowan Williams should resign as Archbishop of Canterbury. He is certainly a thoughtful, intelligent man who is a far better Christian leader than many we could imagine. I don’t even think he should apologise, because why force someone to apologise for opening a debate? Having said all that, I do think people should feel justifiably angry with what he’s done.
Let’s start with what he actually meant: that civil Sharia law courts (notwithstanding the complexity about what ‘Sharia’ actually means) should receive some sort of official recognition within the British legal system. Naturally, this doesn’t mean a lot of the nonsense which has been talked about in the juvenile press. But it is still fundamentally and absolutely unacceptable. The law must apply to everyone, equally, end of. To the extent that people can unofficially and voluntarily agree to be bound by separate codes, as long as it doesn’t involve a breach of the law, this is already the case. If two Muslims who are divorcing wish to abide by Islamic custom, they already can. To suggest that this needs to be integrated into the national law is just utterly wrong. Not surprisingly, the majority of British Muslims agree.
The real problem, of course, is that through wilful misinterpretation Rowan Williams has now unleashed a tremendous backlash against Islam which will be felt hardest by the British Muslims he was attempting to help. That may not be his fault, but it’s breathtaking that he doesn’t even seem to have considered the possibility.
But the underlying cause of all this nonsense is that the Archbishop – for all his intelligence – is simply incapable of understanding what a secular state means in the 21st century. He doesn’t get that religion does not belong as an arm of government, or the legal system, or anything else that isn’t entirely a private, voluntary association, with no special favours from the law. I suggest the following remedy to help him learn: strip the Archbishop of his legacy role within the secular state, kick his bishops out from the Lords and put the Church of England on an equal footing with everyone else.