Page last updated at 18:06 GMT, Monday, 9 March 2009

Faith Diary: Banking on Sharia

The BBC's religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott reflects on the latest news from the world of religion and beliefs. This week - the growing popularity of Islamic finance, bishop spotting, and how to go about de-baptising yourself.

Twenty pound note
Could Sharia-compliant banking be the answer to UK money woes?

Among the ruined reputations of the financial world, there is one banking system that has emerged claiming the moral high ground.

Islamic finance - which rules out the payment of interest - largely avoided the risky investments and trading of debt that prompted the credit crunch.

Banks offering Sharia-compliant accounts and selling Islamic mortgages say they are reaping the benefits.

Institutions such as the Islamic Bank of Britain say they were attracting more customers and business - by no means all of them Muslim - even before the credit crunch.

Encouraged by their new reputation, a group of such institutions are taking their show on the road this week - first stop Leicester - offering a range of services.

They include, for the first time, Sharia-compliant car insurance - which works by insurers paying their "premiums" into a shared pot, out of which claims are taken.

Some people wondered whether Vatican officials had ever heard of Google

Whatever is left at the end of the year is shared out among the contributors.

It's Islamic, says the company, because it avoids the element of gambling inherent in ordinary insurance.

Its advocates insist that Sharia-compliant funds could go some way to rescuing UK plc from its own credit crunch.

The argument goes like this. There are hundreds of billions of dollars - much of it income from oil - dammed up in the Middle East. Much of it is available to borrowers, but only in Sharia-compliant loans. We have a dearth of credit, so should issue Sharia-compliant bonds.

No interest can be paid on the loan, but rent can be paid. The government could, for example, back the bonds with assets such as civil service buildings.

Fly in the ointment

It would pay rent on the buildings and then "buy" them back at the end of the agreement.

There is a fly in this soothing ointment however - there's disagreement about the means of deciding what is and is not truly Sharia among the array of Islamic financial products on offer.

Normally, the definition is set by committees of Muslim scholars, some of whom train and specialise in this lucrative work.

The trouble is that they are often paid by the very financial institutions seeking approval for their products.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales
Could "Cardinal Cormac" be headed for the House of Lords?

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor is about to become the first Archbishop of Westminster to escape with his life.

The cardinal, whose successor seems likely to be named by the Vatican any day now, will be the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales not to die in office since it was reorganised 150 years ago.

He will also hand on the leadership of the Church - cardinal archbishops of Westminster traditionally "reign", and Archbishop's House is equipped with a throne room - with Catholics more fully accepted into the "Establishment" than ever before.

When "Cardinal Cormac", as he is widely known, preached to the Queen at Sandringham a few years ago, he must have reflected on how far the Church had come in the past 50 years.

When the Queen was enthroned, it was sufficiently unthinkable for a Catholic prelate to be allowed into the Abbey that a canopy had to be set up outside to accommodate the archbishop representing the Pope.

Now it's rumoured that Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor might even join the 26 Anglican bishops and archbishops in the House of Lords.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor will leave with one major goal still outstanding

The idea was reportedly discussed between the Pope and Gordon Brown at the Vatican.

If the Pope agrees - and he has been opposed to clergy playing a role in government - Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor would be the first Roman Catholic archbishop to become a peer since the Reformation.

Along with leadership of the Westminster diocese - one of the most important in the Catholic world - comes eventual elevation to the status of cardinal. However, the new archbishop seems likely to have to wait.

At only just 77, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor will be qualified to vote in papal elections for three full years before he's disqualified at the age of 80, which probably means his successor will remain plain "Archbishop" for a while longer.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor will leave with one major goal still outstanding.

The Act of Settlement, which prevents the heir to the throne marrying a Catholic, remains in force, although the cardinal has called for its repeal throughout his "reign" at Westminster.


There has been rather more confusion surrounding the status of another British bishop - Richard Williamson.

Bishop Richard Williamson
Is the bishop a Catholic?

He is the man who was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church after he was consecrated as a bishop into the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X.

There was huge embarrassment after the Pope cancelled the excommunication, unaware of Richard Williamson's controversial views about the scale of the murders of Jews in German concentration camps during World War II.

Some people wondered whether Vatican officials had ever heard of Google. The bishop's views weren't exactly secret.

Technically a bishop

The Vatican said Bishop Williamson must recant, or forget any role as a functioning bishop in the Church.

The statement was less robust than it seemed. The bishop was never going to be offered such a job anyway, unless he recanted the views that had led to his excommunication in the first place.

However, cancelling his excommunication had made Richard Williamson once again a Catholic. Also, the Church views him as "validly" ordained - so he is technically a bishop.

Doesn't that make him a Catholic Bishop? No, says the Church. His ordination although "valid" was "illicit" - against Church rules, so although he's a bishop and a Catholic, he's not a Catholic Bishop.

A Russian-Orthodox priest (L) baptises a Christian pilgrim
Can what is done be undone?

John Hunt is moving in the opposite direction from Bishop Williamson, but in the Church of England.

He was baptised as an infant, but now wants a similarly public act cancelling his membership of a religion he has entirely rejected.

Mr Hunt approached the church in south London where the ceremony took place and asked to have his name removed from the baptismal roll.

The local diocese - Southwark - told him he couldn't amend what had become a historical document, but he was given some intriguing advice.

The diocese says Mr Hunt's best bet was to place an advertisement in the London Gazette, described as one of the "official journals of record" of the British government.

De-baptism certificate

What the Gazette lacks in circulation it makes up for in age - claiming an ancestry back to the "Oxford Gazette" first published in 1665 - and it seems as fitting a place as any to rewrite a piece of history.

Aware that "de-baptism" will require at least an element of ritual if it's to catch on, the National Secular Society has reminded reluctant Christians of its "de-baptism certificate".

This document might not have any standing in law, but it looks sufficiently official to have been downloaded 63,000 times since it was published in 2007.

The society suggests framing it for display in porches, lean-tos or loos, claiming that since baptism is a fantasy, even such a modest "outward sign of inner rationality" ought to be sufficient to undo it.

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