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Last Updated: Monday, 11 February 2008, 17:24 GMT
Archbishop's speech to General Synod
The Archbishop of Canterbury has defended his decision to address the subject of Sharia law in the UK. This is what Dr Rowan Williams told the Church of England's ruling body, the General Synod, on the issue.

Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Rowan Williams addressed the General Synod in Westminster

The prevailing attitude...was one of heavy disagreement with a number of things which the [speaker] had not said'.

Ronald Knox's description of discussion at a student society in the 1930s has a certain familiarity after the last few days.

But given that public comment and criticism has been cast in such highly-coloured terms, I've thought it right to say a few words to Synod this afternoon about what was and wasn't said last week and what the questions were which I had hoped might benefit from some airing.

Some of what has been heard is a very long way indeed from what was actually said in the Royal Courts of Justice last Thursday.

But I must of course take responsibility for any unclarity in either that text or in the radio interview, and for any misleading choice of words that has helped to cause distress or misunderstanding among the public at large and especially among my fellow Christians.

It's Lent, and one of the great penitential phrases of the Psalms will be in all our minds: 'Who can tell how oft he offendeth? Cleanse thou me from my secret faults'.

I'm deeply grateful to many of you for the support as well as the challenges I've received this weekend, and for your willingness to treat all this as a serious issue that deserves attention.

But I believe quite strongly that it is not inappropriate for a pastor of the Church of England to address issues around the perceived concerns of other religious communities and to try and bring them into better public focus.

'Human dignity'

I hope anyway that you'll bear with me now if I pick up a couple of points which I think have been distorted in the discussion.

The lecture was written as an opening contribution to a series on Islam and English Law mounted by the Temple Church and London University.

We are not talking about parallel jurisdictions, and I tried to make clear that there could be no 'blank cheques' in this regard
Dr Rowan Williams

As such, it posed the question to the legal establishment of whether attempts to accommodate aspects of Islamic law would create an area where the law of the land doesn't run.

This, I said, would certainly be the case if any practice under Islamic law had the effect of removing from any individual the rights they were entitled to enjoy as a citizen of the UK, and I concluded that nothing should be recognised which had that effect.

We are not talking about parallel jurisdictions, and I tried to make clear that there could be no 'blank cheques' in this regard, in particular as regards some of the sensitive questions about the status and liberties of women.

The law of the land still guarantees for all the basic components of human dignity.

'Honest discussion'

So the question remains of whether certain additional choices could and should be made available under the law of the United Kingdom for resolving disputes and regulating transactions.

It would be analogous to what is already possible in terms of the legal recognition of certain kinds of financial transactions under Islamic regulation (including special provision around mortgage arrangements).

And it would create a helpful interaction between the courts and the practice of Muslim legal scholars in this country.

If - and please note that word - this were thought to be a useful direction in which to move, there would be plenty of work still to be done, with the greatest care, on what would and would not be possible and appropriate areas for such co-operation.

I noted, for example, that traditional Muslim attitudes to 'apostasy' posed a very serious question (recognised by many Muslim scholars today) and that honest discussion of this was imperative.

'Secular assumptions'

I have had a fair amount of recent first-hand contact with Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries which has left me with no illusions about the sufferings they can and do face, even when there is a national legal framework that fully recognises their liberties.

But I noted that many Muslim majority countries do distinguish clearly between the rights of citizens overall and the duties accepted by some citizens of obedience to Islamic law.

It is this that encourages me to think that there may be ways of engaging with the world of Islamic law on something other than an all-or-nothing basis.

There is no dispute about our common allegiance to the law of the land
Dr Rowan Williams

I hoped also, though, to raise a wider question about the relation between faith and law.

We have taken it for granted that the law protects the consciences of religious believers, and all that I said last week needs to be read in that context (I mentioned the conscience clauses about abortion in the medical professions).

So, while there is no dispute about our common allegiance to the law of the land, that law still recognises that religious communities form the consciences of believers and has not pressed for universal compliance with aspects of civil law where conscientious matters are in question.

However, there are signs that this cannot necessarily be taken quite so easily for granted as the assumptions of our society become more secular.

I think we ought to keep an eye on this trend, and if we do we shall have to do more thinking about the models of society and law we work with.

It's an area where Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together.

'Coherent voice'

Well, much more could be said, but I wanted simply to offer a bit more of a framework for thinking about this controversy.

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.

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