Islamic Law and the Anglican Communion:
Is there a Common Vision?
by Andrew Goddard
The heart of Archbishop Rowan’s now infamous lecture on Islam and the law is a vision of how to enable order, cohesion and belonging in a single political society which seeks to embrace multiple religious and other communities under the rule of law. An interesting question that has gone unexplored is what his account tells us about what used to be his major headache until last Thursday lunchtime – the Anglican Communion. Here we could turn the scenario on its head. What we have is a single religious community. It has no overarching unitary law and encompasses a diversity of churches from multiple political societies (from Lagos to San Francisco). Each of these is autonomous in the sense that they have their own secular and canon law.
The problems addressed in the lecture – of pluralism, legal monopoly, identity, multiple belongings, supplementary jurisdictions, freedom of conscience especially for minorities etc – are also at play in the Communion. There the focus of controversy is diverse responses to homosexuality, other concerns about the limits of Anglican diversity, and the proposed formation of an Anglican covenant. There the Archbishop is not seen as the spokesperson of a religious minority within a more powerful body but as the focus of unity and the longest-standing Instrument of Communion.
What light might his comments on “Civil and Religious Law in England” shed on how he sees his role in the communion? On the conflict in the American church (where we are perhaps seeing the outworking of an ecclesiastical form of the secular legal monopoly critiqued in the lecture)? On the purpose of the proposed Anglican covenant?
First, one of his central themes is the danger of a social and legal monopoly resulting in the imposition of a certain way of life:
"The danger arises not only when there is an assumption on the religious side that membership of the community (belonging to the umma or the Church or whatever) is the only significant category, so that participation in other kinds of socio-political arrangement is a kind of betrayal. It also occurs when secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity."
This is perhaps one reason why more conservative Anglicans have found him so frustrating and ‘lacking in leadership’. His understanding of the authority of Lambeth resolutions is not one that leads to enforcing – in a manner akin to legal sanction in the state – this on those (eg gay partnered Christians and their supporters) who conscientiously dissent. It also explains why he is probably increasingly frustrated with the legal actions of TEC’s authorities against those they see as dissidents. He would surely rather they sought some form of accommodation and even – to take a phrase from his lecture – provided ‘supplementary jurisdiction’ for them.
Second, his discussion of sharia stresses that although in Islam there is a revealed will it needs interpretation and application and submission to it requires consent. This obviously has parallels with the question of how – in different cultures – one understands and applies biblical revelation concerning human sexuality. It also correlates the common recent response of the Instruments. They have sought to ask the American church to consent voluntary to its appeals and, where necessary (eg ACC Nottingham) to withdraw themselves. They have not sought to enforce some form of expulsion. Similarly, within TEC he has consistently argued (parallel to his line of argument re sharia) that minority viewpoints in the dominant polity need to be respected. In addition, their own account of their actions must be taken seriously, the actions interpreted and judged in the minority’s own terms rather than by the dominant legal authorities within TEC.
Third, he appears happy to live within – and see the development of - a communion with what he describes in the lecture as ‘interactive pluralism’. His hope here is again probably that there may arise 'transformative accommodation': “a scheme in which individuals retain the liberty to choose the jurisdiction under which they will seek to resolve certain carefully specified matters, so that 'power-holders are forced to compete for the loyalty of their shared constituents'”. One can surely see certain parallels here with the whole question of ‘two integrities’ within the Church of England (where one recalls another infamous comment by the Archbishop about it being possible the church may change its mind on this issue) and suggestions as to how to respond to women bishops (where again he surprised many early in his archiepiscopacy by showing more sympathy for the idea of a third province than many expected).
Fourth, the problem this vision raises is that of clarifying the limits of diversity (the equivalent of those parts of sharia that cannot be countenanced by the wider community). There is also the issue of what constitutes a community’s (or Communion’s) unity and ensures some basic fundamental protections for all. Here, rather than a simple monopoly of authority, Archbishop Rowan gives an account of the importance of the rule of law and the fundamental role of law. At one point he states:
"But this means that we have to think a little harder about the role and rule of law in a plural society of overlapping identities. Perhaps it helps to see the universalist vision of law as guaranteeing equal accountability and access primarily in a negative rather than a positive sense – that is, to see it as a mechanism whereby any human participant in a society is protected against the loss of certain elementary liberties of self-determination and guaranteed the freedom to demand reasons for any actions on the part of others for actions and policies that infringe self-determination."
Here, surely, there are echoes of the proposed Anglican covenant. It is not - despite the hopes of some and the fears of others – to be the imposition of one particular vision of our common life on all. That would be to bring into the common life of the Communion exactly the pattern of legal and social ordering that he is attacking when it appears in a secular, liberal state. It is rather to provide a structure and framework to regulate and limit the plural economy of life together. Its task is to enable diversity and development within the different forms of an overarching Anglican identity while undertaking the “monitoring of such affiliations to prevent the creation of mutually isolated communities”. Such isolation would run the risk of the theological and ecclesiological equivalent of a situation where “human liberties are seen in incompatible ways and individual persons are subjected to restraints or injustices for which there is no public redress”.
One of the sentences that most struck me in the lecture was 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. "
Could this perhaps be seen as articulating part of his vision for the proposed Anglican covenant?
Can we rework (and break down!) the sentence in the following terms?
"The role of the covenant is thus not the enshrining of priority for the universal/abstract dimension of the Anglican Communion. It is the establishing of a space accessible to everyone in which it is possible to affirm and defend a commitment to Anglicanism as such. This commitment is independent of membership in any specific province or theological tradition. The result will be that when specific provinces 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 Anglican diversity. The only way of doing this is to acknowledge the category of 'Anglican identity as such'. There has to be 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 the Communion."
The challenge in the Communion is the opposite of that in secular Britain. Not a tradition of a unitary, monopolistic law where cohesion is threatened because the centre struggles to accommodate diversity. Rather we have a diversity which is now so great that the minimal universal structures of law and authority look incapable of holding things together. It should be no surprise if there is a correlation between the vision for life together to which the Archbishop is calling British society and that which – working from the opposite extreme – he is seeking to encourage among the worldwide Anglican communion. Nor should it be a surprise if those provinces and pressure groups he finds most difficult within the Communion are those – whether theologically conservative or liberal - whose internal church structures and/or political agendas are marked by the quest for a monopoly. This alternative monopolistic vision may be expressed in terms of their handling of internal dissidents or the role that they wish him to play within the Communion as Archbishop of Canterbury. What last Thursday’s lecture again made clear is that this is the last thing we can expect of him. It is what his lecture so roundly condemns in the secular state and it is, in theological terms, a pattern that he probably considers a form of idolatry.
The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is editor of Anvil, and a member of the Fulcrum leadership team