The Archbishop made no proposals for sharia in either the lecture or the interview, and certainly did not call for its introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law.
In other words, the reporting of this lecture was untruthful. Lambeth does understatement, I do understatement. Do you really need me to say ‘They lied’?
So what did he really say?
In his lecture, the Archbishop sought carefully to explore the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in the presence of an increasingly plural (including religiously plural) society and to see how such a unitary system might be able to accommodate religious claims. Behind this is the underlying principle that Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds (for instance in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions), if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences. In doing so the Archbishop was not suggesting the introduction of parallel legal jurisdictions, but exploring ways in which reasonable accommodation might be made within existing arrangements for religious conscience.
The media is hostile here in the UK, to the Christian faith, but also simply to ideas. The Archbishop was invited by jurists to give a lecture, in the High Court, to the relationship of law and communities. The press headline was ‘Archbishop says Sharia ‘inevitable”. This is what you can expect from our press. They consider the Church easy meat, as indeed it is as long as we have no basic ecclesiology. It would be a pity if Christians around the world were unable to read our headlines of our media without any critical hermeneutic. When see the media stoning a Christian, you conclude that he must have done something wrong? Did you learn nothing from Regensburg?
My Archbishop said that more formal recognition of the range of jurisdictions is ‘unavoidable’. There is a range of jurisdictions, so for example, two participants to a dispute are sometimes able to choose which tribunal they wish their (civil) case to be examined under. This is takes place now, has always taken place and is very basic to English common law. The only strange thing is that governments have been in denial about this in recent decades. This is part of a decay of civil society that is consequent on understanding our relationships to each other only in terms of rights (and never responsibilities) and understanding governments as service-providers and ourselves as consumers of their products. The result of this is that we believe that governments are to do everything and we are to do nothing: over the long term this makes for totalitarianism – and it is no less totalitarian because we are complicit in it.
The Archbishop believes it is ‘unavoidable’ that this denial, of civil society, by governments and people, should come to an end. He is right that it should come to an end, and I hope he is right that its end is ‘unavoidable’. But if this sort of intelligent, and Christian, contribution to the public square is so vehemently jeered off by the media (BBC is no different from the Murdoch press in this) a smaller, stupider public square in which no one dare say anything intelligent (never mind anything Christian) is the only ‘unavoidable’ thing here. Like any Christian, an Archbishop can take a lot of flack from opponents of the Church, and it is his priestly calling to do so. But when you, a member of the Church, stand in judgment on him and so leave him to face this fury on his own – who will be there for you, when you are the one picked on?