The Anglican Archbishop Emerged Unscathed


The Archbishop of Canterbury is an ecumenical erudite. He deftly got himself out of a mess he started. Packaged by the tabloids, the initial hostility expected to be hurled at him during yesterday’s General Synod did not materialise. Rowan Williams managed to argue his way out insisting on flexibility for religious beliefs but without parallel law systems in the UK. With a dash of honesty, enlightenment and contrition, it was a miracle that he emerged relatively unscathed. That is impressive PR at work.

CAMBRIDGE, England — The archbishop of Canterbury received a strong show of support from the Church of England’s top clerics and laymen on Monday in response to demands for his resignation over his call for Britain to accept some aspects of Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Koran.

Appearing before the church’s governing body, the archbishop, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, received a standing ovation after delivering a speech that some had billed as crucial to his continuing as spiritual leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans.

The controversy over his remarks last week on Shariah came at a time when the archbishop was already embattled on another issue, homosexuality, that has pitted powerful figures in the American Episcopal church against Anglican conservatives elsewhere, particularly in Africa.

Speaking at the general synod, a previously scheduled event, the archbishop delivered a carefully worded restatement of his argument for a legal accommodation with elements of the Shariah system, especially on family matters. He also acknowledged that he might have expressed his ideas on the subject last week “clumsily” and with a “misleading choice of words.”

The 57-year-old archbishop, an Oxford-educated theologian, was both repentant and insistent. He said some of the attacks on him in Britain — including mocking tabloid headlines and cartoons that focused on the extreme applications of Shariah, like stoning to death and the amputation of hands, in some Muslim countries — had been “a very long way indeed from what was actually said” in his speech last week at the Royal Courts of Justice and in a BBC radio interview.

“But I must of course take responsibility for any unclarity either in 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,” he said.

But he added that as “a pastor of the Church of England” it was not inappropriate to raise points of concern to other religious communities, in this case Britain’s 2.5 million Muslims.

The issue, he said, was not one of creating “parallel jurisdictions” for Shariah and Britain’s secular legal system, but of whether “additional choices” could be opened to Muslims. He also said that he did not advocate issuing “blank checks” to Islamic courts that could negatively affect women’s rights and other delicate issues.

In his remarks last week, he likened allowing Muslims to take carefully defined issues to their own religious courts to the established practice among Orthodox Jews here of referring religious disputes to rabbinical courts.

Over the weekend, calls for the archbishop’s resignation came from some English bishops, on top of condemnation of his speech last week from all of Britain’s major political parties and from some Muslim leaders, who said he had risked stirring new antagonisms against Muslims.

But on Monday, he won support for remaining as archbishop from two influential figures who had joined in the criticism, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and George Carey, his predecessor as archbishop of Canterbury. Mr. Brown, through a spokesman, described Archbishop Williams as a “a man of great integrity.”

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