Canterbury Tales: The Archbishop of Controversy, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion

by Sheyi Oriade

It is perhaps not for nothing that the Church of England has aptly been described as the British Conservative Party at prayer. Much of its present day focus appears geared towards matters of political correctness, rather than spiritual conviction, thus reinforcing the view that it is an extension of the English political establishment. Its spiritual appeal is largely on the wane, a fact reflected by the reducing numbers that attend its services. Rather than being seen as the potent spiritual force it once was, it is now viewed as a shadow of its former self and a relic of the past. But what it lacks in spiritual potency, it more than makes up for in material wealth, with its vast portfolio of assets – sacred and secular – a hoard perhaps only surpassed by that of the Church of Rome.

How times have changed. At one point in time, the Church of England was at the cutting edge of all things spiritual, dispatching missionaries, establishing schools, and setting up hospitals, in far flung places of the earth. Today, the missionary function is largely being undertaken by the descendants of those early recipients of the gospel in foreign fields.

One of the reasons why the Church of England seems to have lost its religious fervour and spiritual direction has to do with its leadership. The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, is a highly controversial man too often mired in controversy. His capacity for provoking controversy is legendary and he appears to subsist on it in a way that others rely on air for their life breath. Not for the first time, nor I suspect the last, he has found himself caught in the eye of a storm entirely of his own making. But for him this is nothing new. For right from the announcement of his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury he demonstrated his propensity for generating controversy.

Just before he exchanged the Archbishopric of Wales for that of Canterbury, he took part in a ceremony in which he became an honorary inductee of the Welsh Society of Druids. Some readers may feel that by so doing he was merely engaging in his right to free assembly, and maybe he was. But if you fail to see the significance of his participation in that ceremony, consider for one moment, the following scenario: one in which Dr. Peter Akinola, the Anglican Primate of Nigeria, takes part in a ceremony in which he becomes an honorary inductee of the Nigerian Society of Babalawos. Now you get the picture. Imagine the uproar that would accompany such action!

From all indications, Dr. Williams is a man more at ease with matters of the head, than with matters of the heart – much unlike his predecessor, the evangelical Dr. Carey. In appearance and pronouncement, Dr. Williams comes across as an academic, rather than a cleric. In another life, I suppose, he would be your quintessential ‘nutty’ professor. He is a man of considerable intellectual prowess who dwells in the realm of ideas; and one for whom there appears to be no limits to the frontiers to which he is prepared to travel in his quest for knowledge. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly, if such intellectual curiosity is used to further the aims of the institution he leads.

Since taking up residence at Lambeth Palace Dr. Williams has gravitated from controversy to controversy. The early part of his tenure was consumed by disruptive disputes over the propriety of ordaining practicing homosexuals as clergymen and over the issue of elevating one of such to the rank of Bishop within the Anglican Communion. In these disputes he crossed swords principally with Dr. Akinola of the Nigerian Church, who opposed both moves. In Dr. Akinola, he discovered a resolute opponent, one who refused to cede any ground over issues, which to him, represented a battle for the preservation of the integrity of his faith. Both disputes threatened to fracture the Anglican Communion irreparably. And it was only after Dr. Williams came to the belated realisation that he was in danger of undoing the work of centuries that he beat a retreat from his inclusive stance, thereby, preserving the fragile unity of his movement.

Having conceded victory to Dr. Akinola and others on the ordination and elevation issues, Dr. Williams now appears to have set his sights on new battle fronts. For having fought and been forced to concede defeat on the other issues, he is now busy prosecuting other battles on other fronts about different issues, much to the dismay of many within his church.

Over the course of recent weeks, Dr. Williams has raised the blood pressure of his flock by straying full throttle into a perceived ‘no go’ area for the Church. He has been quoted in sections of the British media, as having advanced views that have been widely construed as being in favour of the introduction of aspects of Sharia law into England. If the ascribed views are to be believed, then they appear to be more befitting of the Caliph of Baghdad, rather than the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is doubtful whether his positional counterparts in the other monotheistic faiths would venture to make a case for the introduction of the Christian canon in their domains of influence.

To many observers within the Anglican Communion across the world, Dr. Williams has come to personify the image of an opponent of the faith, rather than a defender of it, as he ought to be, by virtue of the office he holds. And given his shaggy appearance, it is likely that these observers also feel that not only does he need a hair cut, he also needs his head examined. I am not entirely sure what it is about the Church of England that impels its custodians to adopt a seemingly indifferent attitude towards it. Not too long ago now, the Prince of Wales declared a desire to be the ‘defender of faiths,’ rather than the ‘defender of the faith,’ a view seen to be undermining of the Church of England’s position and a curious one coming from one in line to become the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Williams’ attributed Sharia comments drew wide spread condemnation from his flock and some of his brother Bishops; some of whom went as far as calling for his resignation. I must confess that it did appear to me to be very strange that the Archbishop of Canterbury would be seen or heard – directly or indirectly – to be championing the cause of another faith. Having read some of the condemnatory views against him in the media, my first instinct was to jump on the bandwagon and do likewise. But I was able to resist this temptation on remembering the wise counsel of another man of another faith in another place.

Many years ago at the height of the furore that greeted the publication of Salman Rushdie’s controversial and provocative book, the ‘Satanic Verses,’ Alhaji Lateef Jakande, the esteemed former governor of Lagos State and a committed Moslem, was asked to give his views on the controversial book. Along with many others, I fully expected his views to mirror those of others of his faith around the world condemning the author. But his response was as unexpected as it was profound; he said ‘no responsible person would comment or pass judgment on a book that he or she had not read.’

Partly because of that statement, and mainly because of his successful tenure as governor of Lagos State, Alhaji Jakande occupies an elevated place in my consciousness. Over the years since I first heard that statement, I have tried as much as possible to keep his counsel at the fore of my mind, as a compass, to guide me whenever I am in danger of prejudging a matter. So armed with this mindset, I decided to discover for myself what it was that Dr. Williams actually said, and the particular context in which it was said.

It transpires that Dr. Williams was invited to deliver the Foundation Lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. And he chose as his topic ‘Civil and Religious Law in England: A Religious Perspective. His choice of topic in itself was misleading considering the substance of the lecture. Large parts of which were devoted to an exposition on Sharia law, which is not part of the Civil or Religious Law of England.

Reading through the text of the lecture, it occurred to me that it was very much like the ‘peace of God which passes mans’ understanding.’ His discourse was erudite, compelling, and in parts bordering on the esoteric. As I progressed through the text, it also dawned on me that it was very unlikely that many of those condemning the Archbishop had actually read the text of his lecture.

The main focus of the lecture had to do with a consideration of certain communities in England, who while subject to laws of England also maintained allegiance to some other religious/legal code. He sought to know whether there was a case for the formal recognition of these other codes within the legal framework of England. The main purpose being that the provisions of these codes may be utilised in the resolution of certain matters within their particular purview. In the case of Moslems, for example, the utilisation of Sharia law could be used to determine marital matters, and aspects of financial dealings between them.

What is interesting about his poser(s) is the fact that he made it clear in his lecture that where the Church of England is concerned, its governing law is the law of England. So quite why he was advocating a different approach for others of another faith seems odd. Except of course, he believes that there is enormous commonality between the laws of England and Ecclesiastical law, thus rendering the separate application of Ecclesiastical law in dispute resolution in England superfluous. I imagine that there will be some in his Church who will disagree with this assumption; particularly, when one takes into account the fact that the pace of development of Civil Law has outstripped that of Ecclesiastical Law, for example, in the area of same sex unions.

But is there any merit at all to Dr. Williams’ argument, when one considers that it has been the practice of Courts in England to take into account certain peculiarities of other codes/culture as it deems appropriate when determining certain matters. For example (albeit a criminal law matter), I recall that some years ago, a Rastafarian was charged to Court on the grounds of his illegal use of cannabis. The High Court in reaching its verdict on the matter decided that the accused was not guilty as charged on the grounds that cannabis use within the Rastafarian movement was of a sacramental nature.

In the above instance, the High Court was prepared to look beyond the legal code of England to reach what it considered to be an equitable verdict. It was an eminently sensible approach to take, and one which should suffice in all cases, without the requirement for the formal recognition of other codes in the manner advocated by the Archbishop. If there is to be equality before the law in England, a ‘one size fits all’ approach must be maintained as far as possible, regardless of whatever other allegiances are held by particular communities to other legal/religious codes.

It is interesting to note that there was hardly anything in Dr. Williams’ lecture that suggested the inevitability of the onset of Sharia law in England. However, as a follow up to that lecture, a question was put to him as to whether he felt that the application of Sharia law in certain circumstances would help achieve social cohesion in England, to which he responded affirmatively. His response revealed in one breath, his characteristic forthrightness and an admission on his part of the limitations of his Church in fostering social cohesion in England. In answering as he did he walked into a ‘trap’ and exposed himself to questions about his continued suitability in his current role.

Having read the relevant material on the issue, I am not persuaded that the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion worldwide is best placed to advance such arguments on behalf of other religions. I recognise that he, like anyone else, has a right to freedom of expression. But in his case, such freedom must be carefully and properly balanced with the demands of his office and the expectations of his flock. He must recognise the considerable weight that his views and opinions carry.

It would be wrong for anyone to think of Dr. Williams as a frivolous man. He is not. He is a very bright man, who over the years has been right on a number of issues. He was right to apologise – in the face of opposition – for the ignoble role of his Church in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. He was right in his opposition to the Iraq war. He was right on the issue of gambling in England. But it is clear that his thinking on some other issues has evolved beyond that of the Church he leads. It seems also that he has become bored with the traditional responsibilities of his role. And maybe it is time for him to move on to other pursuits more rewarding of his intellectual talents.

Indeed, it may also be time for Downing Street to relinquish its role in appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury. The political establishment should be content in holding onto things that are rightfully Caesar’s and leaving matters of the spirit to God and the Church. As an aside, it is perhaps instructive to note that Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister of Britain, who appointed Dr. Williams to his current position, has switched.allegiance from the Church of England to the Church of Rome. I wonder whether he tired of Dr. Williams’ controversial approach.

As for the Church of England, it is time for it to reclaim its role as the spiritual force it once was. If it is to retain its credibility as the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion, it must busy itself with this quest. To do so, it will have to undergo a fair amount of spiritual introspection to determine the direction in which it wishes to travel. It cannot be all things to all men. Should it fail to do so, it will come to represent – no matter how wealthy it is – nothing more than a sepulchre of dead bones.

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1 comment

Bubbles March 6, 2008 - 2:08 pm

Good stuff! But I don’t see anything wrong with the Archbishop recognizing and seeking legal acknowledgement for certain practices inherent within certain sections of society of which he is a member of. He might as well have mentioned the Sikhs.

I’m just curious as to why the article cannot be taken on it’s own merit; as an academic piece. He didn’t deliver the talk in a Church during a sermon, did he? As Archbishop must he not express opinions about other things not related to Christianity and the Church?

The dichotomy of church and state will become obsolete as more and more people fall back on being governed by religious edicts – even Christians too. I see it as inevitable as people tire of the system which at some point will not be able to cater for the needs of some without it being regarded as prejudiced by others.



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