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Society Needs Religious Perspectives to Flourish - Archbishop

Thursday 23rd November 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has argued that a society can best flourish when debates about its nature and purpose - even in a strictly secular context - encompass 'larger commitments and visions' of the kind found in religious debates.

Speaking in a lecture delivered this evening (Thursday 23rd November 2006) at the pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in the Vatican, Dr Williams said that the changing shape of public debate tended to stress the secular nature of the task of the managing peoples' wants and desires. Political freedom, he said, had to involve more than this:

"A debate about - for example- the status of the embryo in relation to genetic research, or the legislation of assisted dying, or the legal support given to marriage will inevitably bring into play arguments that are not restricted to pragmatic assessments of individual or group benefit. While there can be no assumption that a government will or should assume that such arguments must be followed, there must equally be no assumption that these arguments may not be heard and weighed, that an issue has to be decided solely on arguments that can be owned by no particular group."

The roots of modern, Western secular notions of political liberty could be found in the Christian concept of the common life drawn from the New Testament:

"....(a) common life lived in the fullest possible accord with the nature and will of God - a life in which each member's flourishing depended closely and strictly on the flourishing of every other and in which every specific gift or advantage had to be understood as a gift offered to the common life. This is how the imagery of the Body of Christ works in St Paul's letters. There is no Christian identity in the New Testament that is not grounded in this matter; this is what the believer is initiated into by baptism. And this is a common life which exists quite independently of any conventional political security".

The claims of religion and state were not contentious, he argued, but where they coincided, the state's right to order and control could and should still be challenged:

" A 'liberal' politics that depended on the maintenance of one unchallengeable form of administration at all costs, as if no credible political life could survive its disappearance, would risk succumbing to illiberal methods to secure its survival. Whenever we hear - as we sometimes do - of the need to limit some historic legal freedom for the sake of countering general threats to our liberty, from crime of terror, we should recognise the reality of the moral dilemmas here; but also be alert to what happens to our concepts of liberty in this process."

The Church had its own experiences of this process:

"....even in the period when Anglicans were most absolute for the rights of the monarch , there was a clear recognition (expressed notably even by Archbishop Laud preaching to the Court of Charles I) that this could not mean that the State was preserved from falling into error or tyranny, or that the State had an unqualified right over consciences. When the State was in error or malfunction, there remained 'passive obedience' - that is, non-violent non-compliance, accepting the legal consequences."

This had important implications for dealing with faiths whose approach to concepts of law and community operated differently. The all-encompassing concept of the Islamic ummah - the community of believers - could lead to Muslims being regarded as being in competition with secular state ideals and objectives. This reasoning needed to be challenged, he said:

".... The distinction in modern democracies between the way Muslims belong and the way others belong is no means as stark as some ideologues might expect. Some Muslim scholars resident in the West, writers like Maleiha Malik or Tariq Ramadan, have discussed ways in which Muslim citizens can engage in good conscience with non-Muslim government and law. Some have observed that Islam recognises law that is compatible with Muslim principles as ipso facto Islamic law so that the Muslim can acknowledge, enjoy, and defend full citizenship in a non-Muslim society."

In some areas, he said, this could lead to non-Muslims facing isolation and raised serious questions and there was still work to do:

".... To what extent does the Muslim state, acknowledging in more or less explicit ways the sovereignty of Islamic law, employ a notion of citizenship that also allows for legitimate loyalties outside the community of Muslim believers? Historically, there have been impressive examples of something very like this recognition; but there have also been historic examples of severe civic burdens imposed on non-Muslims. Most disturbingly, there is the tension between the great Quranic insistence that 'there is no compulsion in religion' and the penalties associated with conversion and the pressures around mixed marriages in the practice of many Muslim states."

In all, he concluded, attempts to produce a religion-free zone in which neutral political discussions might take place left out crucial elements in those debates:

".... The sphere of public and political negotiation flourishes only in the context of larger commitments and visions, and that if this is forgotten or repressed by a supposedly neutral ideology of the public sphere, immense damage is done to the moral energy of a liberal society. For that ideal of liberal society, if it is to be any more than a charter for the carefully brokered competition of the individual, requires not a narrowing but a broadening of the of the moral sources from which the motivation for social action and political self-determination can be drawn."

The debate was ultimately about people, he said:

" The struggle for a right balance of secular processes and public religious debate is part of a wider struggle for a concept of the personal that is appropriately robust and able to withstand the pressures of a functionalist and reductionist climate. This is a larger matter than we can explore here; but without this dimension, the liberal ideal becomes deeply anti-humanist. And, like it or not, we need a theology to arrest this degeneration."

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