The Archbishop & Sharia (2)

by Richard on February 8, 2008

Our friend Kim took part in a radio ‘debate’ with Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens today. For the next few days you’ll be able to here it here, if you have RealPlayer installed. (The segment begins about 5 minutes into the programme). Well done, Kim - you more than held your own with Hitchens who was obliged at one point to admit that he hadn’t actually read the Rowan Williams’ lecture that sparked this whole controversy.

That’s the most depressing thing about this whole business. Not that there’s a debate, which is always good. But there’s debate based on soundbites and context-less quotes. How can a senior journalist even think about going on a national radio show without having read what he’s supposed to be talking about? It beggars belief.

The gloom I feel about this deepened as I read Paul Vallely’s column in today’s Independent. Headed “Williams is snared in a trap of his own making”, Vallely appears to be arguing that we are no longer capable of having an informed and educated conversation in Britain:

News has little room for the subtleties of academic gavottes around delicate subjects. A canny religious leader – or at any rate his press office – ought to know that. … What sharia means, and most Islamic jurists agree, he tells us, is not a list of laws but a way of thinking that expresses the universal principles of Islam. Codifications of that law, by the Saudis, the Taliban or whoever, are inevitably reductive and therefore false. “An excessively narrow understanding of sharia, as simply codified rules,” he says in the full lecture on which the stories were based, “can have the effect of actually undermining the universal claims of the Koran.” … The trouble is that most people have not ploughed through all that, which is why the Tories called the Archbishop’s remarks “unhelpful”, the Liberal Democrats said all must abide by the rule of law and the Home Office minister Tony McNulty said: “To ask us to fundamentally change the rule of law and to adopt Sharia law, I think, is fundamentally wrong.”

To all of which the Archbishop may say “but you are objecting to something you think I said rather than what I actually did say”. He has a point. But, equally, in a world where perception becomes its own reality, it is important for the leader of the Church of England not to create such fecund opportunities for misunderstanding.

Now this is depressing. Vallely is writing for the newspaper which, in my opinion, sets the standard for print journalism in Britain. What he is urging is that public figures like the Archbishop shouldn’t pursue complex and nuanced issues because nobody in the media will bother to “plough through” the complexities to present them to the public.

Rowan Williams may or may not be right on the specifics of this issue. I simply don’t know enough about Sharia to have an opinion worth expressing.

But I do know that by refusing to give in to the sound bite culture, he is leading a counter-revolution which might yet restore some decency to the standard of public debate in Britain. And in that, I reckon, he’s doing us all a favour.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }


Methodist Preacher 02.08.08 at 11:18 pm

“I simply don’t know enough about Sharia to have an opinion worth expressing.”

You hit the nail on the head, so why express?


Bene D 02.09.08 at 12:57 am

David, can you be any more obtuse?

Why does group blogging illude you?

Put your claws away Hallam, you are theologically and intellectually overshadowed by Kim.
Get used to it, the rest of us have.
Taking another pot shot at Richard merely reinforces our perceptions on how juvenile you chose to be.


Richard 02.09.08 at 1:18 am

David, I don’t understand what you are saying. I’m inclined to believe that what Rowan Williams says about this is worth listening to, because he is someone I greatly respect. What I am certain of is that the media treatment of what he had to say on this would be laughable if it weren’t so appalling. I deeply regret the way that even newspapers like the Independent seem to have been incapable of presenting this story in a rational manner.


Kim 02.09.08 at 2:00 am

Hi David,

Richard did not “express” on Sharia, he expressed on our “sound bite culture” and the low “standard of public debate” in the UK. From your reply, all I can add is QED.


Bene D 02.09.08 at 4:24 am



Methodist Preacher 02.09.08 at 9:57 am

I know you don’t often visit my blog but I actually commended Richard’s post on Abdul the Bogeyman yesterday.

I think Christians need to be very careful how we write about this issue and I felt that this post from Richard was a knee jerk reaction to the media coverage.

The thing that has surprised me is how this issue has been taken up by the general public. The BBC have already reported that the furore came from the listening public almost immediately after the broadcast of the Archbishop’s own recorded comments (not his complete lecture) at lunchtime on Thursday.

For those of us who live in the big urban areas this is now a very real issue. Social cohesion is being battered by forces that we all find difficult to understand.

I have both read the Archbishops speech and seen it on the internet. Had he been a college lecturer I don’t think it would have mattered, could have even been an interesting contribution.

I honestly don’t think that his contribution as Archbishop has been helpful or welcome.


Paul Martin 02.09.08 at 12:44 pm

Just to say I thought Kim was ace!

Keep rocking, man!


Beth 02.09.08 at 1:21 pm

I read the full text of Dr. Williams’ lecture yesterday after being admonished by Kim. I’m a university lecturer, I’m used to reading this kind of stuff. It’s also a topic that I find interesting. Even so, I found my eyes blurring by the time I got to the end. (I also still have issues with what he said, but that’s another argument…)

What Dr. W has to realise is that he is a major public figure, and that if he says something contentious, such as that the adoption of parts of Sharia law is inevitable, people are going to take that out of context and react to what they think has been said. Many of those people will not be bothered to read the full context. The majority of the public simply don’t have the educational tools to read something like this lecture written by Dr. W, whose writing is scholarly and complex.

If you have a public role like the A B of C, you have to consider your audience. It seems to me that Dr. W is under the illusion that he can just speak to a rarified group of intellectuals - this is impossible when everything he says or writes is by default a public statement.


PamBG 02.09.08 at 2:10 pm

Serious question, Beth: Do you therefore think that Rowan Williams should decline invitations to give scholarly lectures to scholarly groups until he ceases to be Archbishop?

I’ve heard a number of people saying what you are saying and it seems to me that this position accepts that it is right and good in the status quo that journalists can spin to their hearts’ content and that the onus of responsibility is on the person engaging in being thoughtful.

It seems to me that this position says that we will sacrifice complex thought and ‘no easy answers’ on the throne of Spin. That the press are not wrong to spin but rather that it is the Archbishop who is wrong for delivering a non-nuanced message that readers of tabloid rags cannot understand.

What about ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’? That might not be the standard of the press, but it should be the Christian standard against which to judge the ethics.


tortoise 02.09.08 at 3:07 pm

The trouble is, by and large what’s being spun is not anything from the substantive lecture but rather Rowan’s remarks in his radio interview (which, it is claimed, Lambeth Palace requested).

So I don’t think it’s a matter of declining lecture invitations - if he’d just stuck to the lecture, I don’t think we’d be seeing anything like the furore we’ve got now. As has been rightly observed, the hacks wouldn’t have found much they could follow, far less dredge for soundbites.

Nor, I concede, is it realistic or desirable for an AB of C to refuse to participate in broadcast interviews. But if it’s not his strong point (and the media silliness over his recent remarks on the Magi was surely enough to constitute a shot across the bows), then maybe he should be a little more wary of seeking out such interviews.

At least until the other side of Lambeth. I mean really Rowan, didn’t you have enough on your plate already?


Methodist Preacher 02.09.08 at 4:06 pm

I suspect that I am one of the few Methodist bloggers who has had the opportunity of dealing with the outcome of Sharia law, admittedly in a fairly rarified role. My conclusions about the Archbishops speech are now posted on my blog as are my understanding of Sharia law. All welcome, evn you Bene D.


PamBG 02.09.08 at 5:51 pm

I suspect that I am one of the few Methodist bloggers who has had the opportunity of dealing with the outcome of Sharia law

I think you make some good points about the dangers of Sharia law in Britain and those points are worth discussion. The perspective of someone who has had to deal with sharia law is valuable in the discussion of that question.

However the Archbishop, of course, was NOT promoting the use of sharia law in the UK and your post implies that he was promoting it. It’s the mixing of untruth with truth that is so disturbing.


Bene D 02.09.08 at 7:39 pm

Beth, I tried to read the lecture three times.
I see no shame in acknowledging I could not.

I am not his audience, and the public outcry does not have to make the rest of us his audience by default.

I found his BBC interview to be quite muddled and while I agree with Richard media has to accept responsibility, the interviewer did his best.

Does Joe Average have the time and inclination to sit down and figure out what +++Williams was not saying to people responsible for forming their law?

Lambeth is well aware the Archbishop is not understood by most of the public, as tortoise points out.
Lambeth is well aware of political enemies who will use whatever they have to.
Lambeth is well aware helping the public understand is quite important for the church, for those of faith and for the good of all.

+++ Williams is an academic few can comprehend, one in a world wide political/religious office and he is going to get it coming or going.

After five years I’m not understanding why he is shocked.
His lecture skills are said to be world class, his media skills are not.

He has numerous religious and political enemies because he is on the Canterbury throne.

His academic lectures are scheduled well ahead of time.
I’m not understanding why Lambeth media people aren’t getting his back.

Benedict XVI learned two years ago, would anyone question he continues to indulgence of his academic whim well out of the public realm?


Richard 02.09.08 at 8:19 pm

I hate to disagree with you, BD, but I think the point here isn’t so much that Rowan lacks ‘media skills’ so much as he’s refusing to play to the media’s rules. He’s suffering for it in the short term, but we could all benefit in the long run.


Beth 02.09.08 at 9:38 pm

Pam, I’m not accepting that it’s right for the media to behave the way they do, but accepting that it’s the reality of what happens. God forbid we should want to get rid of complex thought, but it must be recognised that there is only a certain percentage of the population with the resources to engage with it. I’m not saying that Dr. W shouldn’t present challenging ideas - I believe that he should. But he needs to speak the right language.

The media have a responsibility for their part in this crazy furore, but so does the A B of C, who seems incapable or unwilling to present his ideas in a format which the majority of his ‘parishioners’ (i.e. the entire country!) can understand. Surely this is a duty that any priest holds?


PamBG 02.09.08 at 10:13 pm

The media have a responsibility for their part in this crazy furore, but so does the A B of C, who seems incapable or unwilling to present his ideas in a format which the majority of his ‘parishioners’ (i.e. the entire country!) can understand. Surely this is a duty that any priest holds?

Well, to me that says that it’s his duty to refuse to speak at academic gatherings because someone is certain to misunderstand it.

I do understand you’re being pragmatic, but it seems to me that this just lets the media totally off the hook. Why do they have no responsibility to use reporters who understand theology and can report the ABC’s words in a way that people understand?


Bene D 02.09.08 at 10:20 pm

No need to apologize for disagreeing Richard, I do see what you are trying to say, and I’m not unsympathetic to your passion and concern.

The public may benefit in the long run, (a very big ‘may’ given how the public consumes media) in the short run this has become the biggest story I’ve seen come out of Lambeth in years.
1800+ and counting worldwide.

He refuses to play to the media’s rules.

What do you see as long term benefits?

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