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Last Updated: Friday, 8 February 2008, 16:07 GMT
Martha Kearney's week
By Martha Kearney
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World at One

Rowan Williams
The archbishop's comments caused quite a stir
I wonder when the Archbishop of Canterbury sat down in his study at Lambeth Palace to pen sentences like this:

"The rule of law is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of social existence but the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to human dignity as such, independent of membership in any specific human community or tradition, so that when specific communities or traditions are in danger of claiming finality for their own boundaries of practice and understanding, they are reminded that they have to come to terms with the actuality of human diversity - and that the only way of doing this is to acknowledge the category of 'human dignity as such' - a non-negotiable assumption that each agent (with his or her historical and social affiliations) could be expected to have a voice in the shaping of some common project for the well-being and order of a human group."

...did he quite realise what kind of reaction he would provoke?

Angry response

Take this email we received on Thursday from Alison Sutherland: "An elderly female UK citizen's prayer: Please God, if there is a God, keep all those foolish clerics out of our law courts.

"And while you are at it, please get them out of our Parliament, soon. Especially the male ones. And especially the male ones with silly voices."

That was one of the more polite messages in response to our exclusive interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams on Thursday.

How I laughed until I checked the program schedule to find this wasn't a Rory Bremner sketch
WATO listener David Oliver

I have never seen such an angry response by email and text to an item broadcast on The World At One.

Anyone who thinks that the Radio 4 audience consists solely of polite tea drinkers from the home counties should take a look at our text messages which are littered with four letter words to describe the Archbishop of Canterbury.

One email I can reproduce came from David Oliver: "How I laughed until I checked the program schedule to find this wasn't a Rory Bremner sketch.

"If anyone needed proof that the Church of England can be equally mad today as it was when people were burned for heresy: here it is."

In context

Some though critical were more understanding like David Monk: "Archbishop Williams has a Christian message of inclusivity and social interaction at heart but including a minority in this way will lead to alienation and resentment by the non Muslim majority."

So how did the archbishop end up attracting such criticism including from Downing Street?

Let me give you some background. One of our reporters, Christopher Landau, is a specialist on religious affairs and studied theology at Cambridge.

One aide said: "He's not afraid of controversy." That's just as well given the outrage

He was contacted by Lambeth Palace about the lecture which was due to be given at the 400th anniversary of the Temple law buildings.

Dr Williams' staff were keen that his lecture on the relation between English and Islamic law should be put in context so they suggested that Christopher carry out an in-depth interview for The World at One which of course we were keen to run.

One aide said: "He's not afraid of controversy". That's just as well given the outrage which ensued but was there a touch of naivety in the affair?

'Seems unavoidable'

Sometimes politicians will make a controversial speech and then use a broadcast interview to row back ("No, of course this wasn't an attack on Gordon Brown", they will protest).

The archbishop was actually more forthright in his interview than the lecture. This was what he said when asked whether the arrival of Sharia law was inevitable in this country: "It seems unavoidable and indeed as a matter of fact certain provisions of Sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law.

A discourse about diverse interpretations of Sharia law which wouldn't cause a stir in an audience of theology students is seen in a very different context when delivered by the head of the Church of England

"So it's not as if we're bringing in an alien and rival system. We already have in this country a number of situations in which the law - the internal law of religious communities - is recognised by the law of the land as justifying conscientious objections in certain circumstances.

"So I think we need to look at this with a clear eye and not imagine either that we know exactly what we mean by Sharia and just associate it with what we read about Saudi Arabia, or whatever."

Dr Williams' background is academic (he was a theology professor at Oxford) but a discourse about diverse interpretations of Sharia law which wouldn't cause a stir in an audience of theology students is seen in a very different context when delivered by a public figure, the head of the Church of England.

Overheated politicians

Indeed many Anglicans regard this is a betrayal of Christian values.

There has been a debate in this country for some time about the limits of multiculturalism; arguments too about the assertion of religious values in an essentially secular society.

Whatever else the Archbishop of Canterbury may have done, his speech has stirred those discussions in homes across the land.

One last word on our own fierce discussion last week (between Tony McNulty and David Ruffley) and your thoughts on how to shut up overheated politicians.

Karen Mutch from Exeter had this suggestion: "Martha - just lean towards the non-speaker and put your index fingers over their lips in a shhh position. They'll be so flabbergasted they'll be made instantly speechless (I know I have tried it)."

So if you hear muffled grunts next week from one of my guests, you'll know what's happening.

Outside the ferocious world of news I have been having a more civilised time - interviewing Peter Carey at the South Bank in London (I did enjoy the new novel His Illegal Self), seeing a new revival of Pinter's The Homecoming and going to Tate Britain for the Peter Doig retrospective.

You can seen an extended interview with him and look at some of his beautiful paintings on the Newsnight Review website.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Smug clerics preach that exclusion and harm should befall those that don't bend, bow or cower to their glib promises given from behind their woolly countenances. Their smugness can happily ignore science, logic, law and history for the selectively chosen stuff of legend. And then the BBC, which would not exist or broadcast without science, logic, law and history gives them airtime and web-space. Madness.
alan b, Portsmouth

The Archbishop should be referred to the plain English society for the abomination quoted at the start of the article. I have read and re-read it and can make no sense of it at all. No wonder his 'thoughts' have been so widely rounded upon.
Peter Thompson, Rugby, UK

How ignorant people are and how quick they are to make mountains out of molehills. All Williams was suggesting was more appropriate methods to settle marital and financial disputes - not murder cases! We need to accept that elements of Sharia are part of British values now. To those scaremongers I say 'wake up and smell the coffee - the Empire is no more'.
Greg Parker, Salt Lake City, USA

The Queen, as head of the Church of England, would be well advised to sack her archbishop.
Coding, Cambridge

Shame on this your so called archbishop. Britain is supposed to be a Christian nation but see how the devil is manipulating the so called symbol of the church of England. He needs deliverance.
osare O. osare, Rome, Italy

He's right, and misunderstood.
Simon, Southport

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