political theology, Rowan Williams

Beginning an Honest Reading of Williams on His “Sharia” Speech… I Think

Last February, Rowan Williams gave a speech, “Civil and Religious Law in England: a Religious Perspective“, in London to a number of lawyers. It caused quite a stir. Anyways, here is a little piece on it from a paper I’m writing. Hopefully this will give people a better way to understand it. And hopefully I got it right. Let me know what you think:

The speech begins with a problem that Williams calls “a growing challenge” and to which the speech is aimed: to address an ongoing change in the make-up of English society: “the presence of communities which, while no less ‘law-abiding’ than the rest of the population, relate to something other than the British legal system alone.” Such groups that likewise exist in America are similarly not violent, aggressive anarchists, nor are they groups that in and of themselves exist on the margins of society because of an aggressively illegal nature. In fact, the reality is that such communities can maintain a massive constituency and exist in the heart of a town or city. Indeed, people pass by houses of faith or worship without a second thought, and certainly without a thought that they may be violently accosted by members of the congregation. Nevertheless, while churches, ummas, and other communities of worship are called by their own faith to seek the common good (although not always the status quo), in the face of the law, there is no category for truly making sense of and interacting with faith groups as a social body. Williams states the problem thus:

So much of our thinking in the modern world, dominated by European assumptions about universal rights, rests, surely, on the basis that the law is the law; that everyone stands before the public tribunal on exactly equal terms, so that recognition of corporate identities or, more seriously, of supplementary jurisdictions is simply incoherent if we want to preserve the great political and social advances of Western legality.

Clearly some people of faith do understand this to be problem. Some have even noted that such an idea participates in the relational fragmentation of the church, particularly in America under a rugged individualism. However, why is this really a problem for others? With the growth of a visible pluralism in today’s society, so grows the awareness of other social communities that already form identity and mediate relationships. With such a truth in mind, Williams contends that there needs to be “a recognition that our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging – even if one of those sets is regarded as relation to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level of reality, as established by a ‘covenant’ between the divine and human.” There are broad swaths of people who gather their identity on a fundamental level from other sources than citizenship. Such a movement (which arguably has always been the case, just unacknowledged, rejected, or “invisible” to the nation-state during the modern era) exerts tremendous strain on the system of law, courts, and jurisdiction as pluralism becomes more evident in the face of a “secular government [that] assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.” The result is that not only are the courts stretched in directions for which they are ill prepared, as are citizens of the state, but the law itself also begins to warp like planks of wood left exposed to the elements – useless.

Useless? Perhaps a little polemical, but the state certainly fails to make true its claim of usefulness as it rejects or ignores religious jurisdiction. It is this deficiency that Williams has sought to address in his speech, by first noting Sharia in the likes of a case study, then raising the common good, next revealing when law communicates poorly, followed by the bulk of the speech mentioning and answering three objections to recognizing and protecting “corporate religious identity and secure their freedom to fulfil [sic] religious duties”, and near the end, putting forth Ayelet Shachar’s notion of “transformative accommodation.”


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