Monday, 11 February 2008

Diabolically Clever

By and large, we have little to fear from nutters. They are too obviously deranged, too unrepresentative of human rationality, for their nuttiness to present much genuine danger to society. It is those who speak in quiet, reasonable terms, those who appear to say nothing in particular and say it obscurely, who are difficult to disagree with without seeming uncouth, who we should worry about. One such, I am increasingly coming to believe, is Dr Rowan Williams.

With his usual clarity, Rowan Williams has today restated most of the points he made about the desirablity of some sort of "accommodation" with Sharia law. This time, he will probably get away with it, if only because of a growing perception that the attacks on him were over the top and distasteful. But does his new statement add anything to the explosive debate that he, accidentally-on-purpose, detonated last week?

Well, yes and no. The new speech, delivered to the General Synod, is slightly less opaque than his now-notorious lecture to the lawyers. If nothing else, it gives us a slightly better insight into where he is coming from. One thing he was clear about was that he sees it as part of his duty to speak up on behalf of religion generally, rather than for Christianity or, indeed, merely the Church of England:

As I implied earlier, part of both the burden and the privilege of being the Church we are in the nation we're in is that we are often looked to for some coherent voice on behalf of all the faith communities living here. And that is a considerable privilege, and I hope we can use it well - however clumsily it may have been deployed in this instance. If we can attempt to speak for the liberties and consciences of others in this country as well as our own, we shall I believe be doing something we as a Church are called to do in Christ's name, witnessing to his Lordship and not compromising it.

Now this all sounds very benign and well-meaning and, indeed, "inclusive". It is also, more subtly, an attempt to preserve a role for the established church in a secular society. If the state can no longer privilege Anglicanism, on the basis of unfairness to minorities, Williams seems to be asking, then how can it continue to give privileged status to the Archbishop of Canterbury? His answer, subtle or Machiavellian according to taste, is that the role of the archbishop, and of other bishops, should be expanded. Instead of speaking for Christians, he will speak for "faith". Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others can shelter in the capacious folds of his archiescopal cope, confident that he will defend their interests against the common enemy, the secularists. It is in many ways analagous to Prince Charles's notorious desire to be "defender of faith", rather than Defender of the Faith, when or if he becomes king.

There's a two-edgedness about this claim that is frankly chilling. He is not seeking merely to preserve market share for his own church which, no longer representing the majority of the population, can hardly justify it. Rather, he is attempting to use the fears and particularities of minority faith communities to extend the empire of religion itself. To demand special treatment for Anglicans sounds anachronistic, but by co-opting Muslims (and perhaps others) such an aim might still be achieved.

Indeed, it has already been achieved. A few years ago, Anglican and Roman Catholic church schools were peripheral to the education debate. They were generally primary schools. They were successful and over-subscribed, but were not expanding: the emphasis was on improving the standards of all schools, and the church schools were largely an historical relic which persisted by default.

Now, though, they are expanding. Former comprehensives have been taken over by church authorities and re-invented as "faith schools". Children who might have expected to attend their local school are being turned away because they have not been baptised, or because their parents are unable to convince the religiously appointed (and religiously accountable) teachers and governors that they are sufficiently rigorous in church attendance. For the quality of a child's education, and their life-chances thereafter, to be dependent on the religiosity of their parents, and for this blatant discrimination to be sanctioned by the state, is little short of scandalous. For it to be occurring in an increasingly secular society, where most people are indifferent to religion, is almost incomprehensible.

How is this being allowed to happen? The answer, of course, lies in the Christian churches' adept manipulation of multi-faith sensibilities. All the heat has been concentrated on the relatively small number of state-funded Islamic schools that have been proposed. These are, as has often been pointed out, a truly terrible idea. They are sectarian and divisive. They will perpetuate inward-looking (and, we now learn, inbred) communities and promote cultural apartheid. They will make all the girls wear hijabs, thus further institutionalising the pernicious sexual separatism that characterises many recent revisions of Islam. They represent the reverse of what we should as a society be encouraging. But, if Christians are allowed their schools, not to allow the Muslims seems (or is made to seem) blatantly unfair.

By attempting to preserve their monopoly, the churches ran the risk of losing what they had. But by accepting the spread of other kinds of "faith schools" the C of E and the Catholics have been able to pull off an astonishing coup. So we have see the bizarre spectacle of religious schools proliferating in an irreligious society.

The other notable example of this tactic, so far less successful, can be seen in Williams's response to the recent debate on the blasphemy laws. For a law to protect only Christianity is rightly seen as anomalous and unfair. The response of the courts has been to narrow the offence of blasphemous libel almost out of existence. The decision of the High Court in the recent case brought by Stephen Green ("Christian Voice") against the BBC's broadcast of Jerry Springer the Opera was the latest and most devastating example of this tendency. The law was left so lacerated as to be effectively a dead letter. Rowan Williams, though, is trying to use the government's "consultation" exercise to keep the law on life support, or even to bring it back stronger and meaner.

A couple of weeks ago, in his almost ignored James Callaghan Memorial Lecture entitled "Religious Hatred and Religious Offence", the archbishop argued that the law should do more to protect religious sensitivities. He first of all outlined his disagreement with the notion of free speech:

The creation of avoidable resentment, never mind avoidable suffering, does not seem like a positive good for any social unit; and the assertion of an unlimited freedom to create such resentment does little to recommend 'liberal' values and tends rather to strengthen the suspicion that they are a poor basis for social morality and cohesion.

He then claimed that the business of the law in policing speech was to set out the "acceptable" terms of debate:

Rather than assuming that it is only a few designated kinds of extreme behaviour that are unacceptable and that everything else is fair game, the legal provision should keep before our eyes the general risks of debasing public controversy by thoughtless and (even if unintentionally) cruel styles of speaking and acting

You shouldn't attack minorities, he seemed to be saying (though as usual with Williams, it's never entirely clear), so you shouldn't criticise the deeply-felt religious beliefs of those minorities. There should be a law against it. But hey (don't you know it) we Christians are a minority too, aren't we. But a minority with a historically privileged, even powerful, position. So if we use that power to protect other minorities, we can preserve all our ancient privileges. Which we deserve to keep, because we're now an oppressed minority, so if we lost them it would be discrimination.

A subtle thinker, that Dr Williams.


Iknight said...

What do you expect? The man's 'Dr' Rowan Williams, after all. He's not going to argue in the language of a tabloid headline.

Is his argument going to be taken seriously or have any effect? I must confess my ignorance of how much influence the Archbiship actually wields.

Anonymous said...

A good analysis, at least as good as those I've read on the CIF and the Times (or is this damning with faint praise?)

Valdemar said...

I was under the impression that Christianity and Islam (but not Hinduism, Sikhism or Judaism) are proseltysing faiths i.e. they seek to enlarge their numbers by converting the rest of us. Doesn't this imply that they are engaged in some kind of debate, and therefore putting their views up for scrutiny? If they want the rest of us to stop mocking/criticising etc, they should stop trying to convert people in the UK and abroad. It's that simple.