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Is it over for the Imam of Canterbury?

Is it over for the Imam of Canterbury?

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue

Rumors have been circulating for some time that the Archbishop of Canterbury might resign following the Lambeth Conference.

Sources in the UK have told VirtueOnline that mounting pressure from nearly all quarters in the church make his job untenable since he has single-handedly offended almost every group in Anglican Christendom.

But will he? In his latest missive, the Imam of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, called for Islamic law to be recognized in Britain. He declared that Sharia and Parliamentary law should be given equal legal status so the people could choose which governs their lives.

This raised the prospect of Islamic courts in Britain with full legal powers to approve polygamous marriages, grant easy divorce for men and prevent finance firms from charging interest.

His comments sparked a furor of responses, mostly negative from media, religious and secular pundits and some Islamic leaders, with one Church of England bishop calling on him to resign.

The Prime Minister, early on, distanced himself from Dr. Williams's remarks. Gordon Brown's spokesman said, "Our general position is that Sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of Sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes.

"The Prime Minister believes British law should apply in this country, based on British values."

Dr. Williams's words opened a chasm over Islam between Church of England senior leaders, who are already trying to deal with an Anglican war over gay rights which broke out after Williams was appointed archbishop.

Within hours of the BBC interview being posted to their website, hundreds of commentators had written in to the site protesting, some calling for Williams' to resign.

The Bishop of Rochester, Pakistani-born Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, said this, "English law is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and, in particular, our notions of human freedoms derive from that tradition. In my view, it would be simply impossible to introduce a tradition, like Sharia into this corpus without fundamentally affecting its integrity."

Nazir-Ali is under police protection after receiving death threats for writing in January that Islamic extremism had turned some British communities into "'no-go' areas" and that there are ongoing attempts to "impose an Islamic character on certain areas."

Damien Thompson, editor of the Catholic Herald newspaper and a blogger at the Daily Telegraph, wrote that the Archbishop's comments were the "most monumentally stupid thing I have ever heard an Archbishop of Canterbury say. In fact, it's more than stupid, it's disgusting.

"The idea that 'one law for everyone' is 'a bit of a danger', as Williams argues, goes against every tradition of English law and culture that the Primate of All England is supposed to uphold." Thompson wrote that if he had been quoted accurately, the Archbishop of Canterbury "is lending his support to the establishment of a non-Christian theocracy in Britain."

"Has the Archbishop gone bonkers?" asked Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent for the Times. Gledhill said that "commentators of every variety," have been "stunned into blunt expression by the Archbishop of Canterbury's uncharacteristically clear comments on Sharia in Britain." Williams, she wrote, "wants women, children, all of us in fact, to have to kow-tow to some of the strictest, harshest and most draconian laws dreamed up by any religious system, ever, anywhere in the world."

"There might not be no-go areas for non-Muslims in Britain...But this is certainly the way to go about creating them." Thompson pointed out that Williams' credibility "is in tatters" in his struggle with the Anglican leadership in Africa over acceptance of active homosexual ministers that has threatened to destroy the Communion. "Anglicans in parts of Nigeria live under what is, in effect, totalitarian Sharia.

"What will the Archbishop of Canterbury's fatuous remarks about Sharia do to his authority as head of the Anglican Communion? Pretty well finish it off, I should think," Thompson concludes.

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said Dr Williams's comments gave "succour to extremists".

"He needs to understand that his words carry enormous weight," he said in a Channel 4 interview.

"What he seems to be talking about is a situation in which people are treated differently under the law according to their religion. People cannot be treated differently. Everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law. I don't doubt the archbishop's desire to accommodate diversity, but we cannot do so at the expense of our common values."

He described Dr Williams as "muddled" and "dangerous".

Williams' comments were condemned by Downing Street, the Tories and the chairman of the Government's Equalities and Human Rights Commission. They were described as a "recipe for chaos" by Culture Secretary Andy Burnham.

And on the continent a German Bishop protested Williams' comments saying a country needs a single legal system for everyone. " Bishop Wolfgang Huber, head of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany said integration can't be achieved through a dual legal system "Hoping to achieve integration through a dual legal system is a mistaken idea," Huber told Deutsche Welle in an exclusive interview. "You have to ask the question as to what extent cultural characteristics have a legitimate place in a legal system. But you have to push for one country to have one system."

A senior Church of England clergyman called for the resignation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, over his remarks supporting Sharia in England.

The call, from a long-standing member of the Church's governing body, the General Synod, demonstrates the strength of the backlash Dr. Williams faces from within his own Church - as well as from political and other faith leaders.

The senior Synod member, who insisted on remaining anonymous, told The Times, "A lot of people will now have lost confidence in him. I am just so shocked, and cannot believe a man of his intelligence could be so gullible. I can only assume that all the Muslims he meets are senior leaders of the community who tell him what a wonderful book the Koran is."

The Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, an ardent supporter of Williams, who has been fiercely critical of Muslim extremists, said last year that "the imposition of Sharia law in Britain as a Muslim society - that will never happen".

Even Muslim groups responded cautiously to Williams's proposals. A spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said, "We will need to look carefully at the archbishop's lecture."

Its director, Mohammed Shafiq said, "Sharia law for civil matters is something which has been introduced in some western countries with much success; I believe that Muslims would take huge comfort from the Government allowing civil matters being resolved according to their faith."

He added, "We are however disappointed that the Archbishop of Canterbury was silent when Bishop Nazir-Ali was promoting intolerance and lying about no-go areas for Christians in the UK by Muslim extremists."

In his lecture, 57-year-old Dr. Williams said that "we have to think a little harder about the role and rule of law in a plural society of overlapping identities".

The group most offended by Williams' remarks is African Anglicans from the Global South.

One bishop, who has faced death threats not once, but twice, is the Archbishop of Jos in Northern Nigeria, The Most Rev. Ben Kwashi. He told the BBC, "Our people are in shock that an Anglican Archbishop is calling for Sharia law. Rowan Williams has damaged his international reputation. If the Christians are the ones asking for Sharia Law, now that will be used against us who are saying that we do not think Sharia law will help the cause of freedom and the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ in Northern Nigeria. So if he, the primate of England, is the one asking for it, now what he has done is to arm those who will now have more arguments against us who are saying 'We don't need Sharia law."'"

Kwashi went on to say, "We have experienced it. We know it and in the last nine years full blown Sharia law has been introduced in at least 11 states in Northern Nigeria, and what the church are [sic] experiencing in these states is, to say the least, unbearable."

When asked by the BBC how surprised he was that a Christian Archbishop should have suggested, in some circumstances, that Sharia might be an appropriate part of the legal system in a country like Britain, Kwashi replied, "I am shocked. I am disappointed. I am in total disbelief. Because my hope is that when he, Archbishop of Canterbury, comes to , for example, and he comes to visit us, we will take him to our leaders, some of whom are Muslims and some of whom are Christians, and he can then speak on our behalf where we are not having a fair share. Can we now look up to him as a man who can speak on our behalf? You all know about the cutting of hands in Zamfara State. You remember the case of the woman in Kaduna State who was going to be stoned to death. All of those kinds of things are what we now are saying that we must examine carefully the implementation of Sharia and we are putting our discussions across with our own Muslim friends around here."

Said Kwashi, "If you ask for the first step of Sharia law, you are going to get to the last of it. By 1960 when Nigeria got Independence, it began as penal code. Once it came to this generation, they upgraded it to full blown Sharia. So it is only a matter of time when you begin from somewhere that you get to the real thing."

So the question is who and where were Williams' advisors when he wrote this speech? Did he talk to his close personal friend, Geoffrey Cameron, over at the Anglican Communion Office? Did he share it with anyone in Lambeth Palace? If not, why not?

Is he deliberately trying to undermine the Global South?

Observers have told VOL that there is now bitter enmity between him and Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola. This was evident at Dar es Salaam where one bishop told VOL that "Akinola was shamefully treated by Williams."

What of the rumors that Williams knows exactly what he is doing and that he is trying to marginalize the African Archbishops by forming new alliances with Archbishop Ian Ernest, Primate for the Indian Ocean, along with Archbishop John Chew of Southeast Asia and the new archbishop of Southern Africa while capitalizing on the chaos of Central Africa to isolate the CAPA bishops.

Now you know why trust between Williams and the Global South has evaporated and GAFCON is a reality and orthodox bishops will not go to Lambeth. The waters are getting clearer by the day.

There can be little doubt now that Williams' credibility in Africa is destroyed. He will never be able to hold his head up in on that continent, again. Furthermore, one doubts he has any credibility in the Southern Cone or Sydney, Australia. The Common Cause Partnership will morph into a new province under moderator and Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, whether Williams likes it or not. They simply won't give a fignooten whether he recognizes the province or not, VOL has been told.

It is game, set and match for the Imam of Canterbury. All trust is gone. The Archbishop must resign and, at the very least, the Bishop of Rochester, the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, should be considered to take his place. No one else is fit to run the Anglican Communion, and unlike the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, he has not compromised himself with the theatrics and institutional gamesmanship for which Sentamu is known.

If the Anglican Communion is to survive, and that is doubtful, this is the moment for change.


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